The subject of ‘strength’ with regard to coffee has surfaced again – and it has done so at both ends of the spectrum, at exactly the same time. In the UK, the Cafédirect organisation has spoken of now putting its ‘strength’ classification on all its retail packs, while in the USA, the dramatically-named Death Wish Coffee Company has come out with what it calls ‘the strongest coffee in the world’.
The word ‘strength’, when applied to coffee, has caused much friction and argument, and several champion baristas have expressed terse opinions criticising those in the trade who use it wrongly.
It is a term believed to be widely misused in retail, although it is a term which the supermarkets demand to see on retail pack. Yet, it is alleged that not all retail ‘strength’ classifications mean the same thing, or are defined by the same scale. Most supermarket coffees are rated at between ‘three’ and ‘five’, but Nespresso actually refers to a ‘strength’ of ‘ten’ for one of its coffees.
There actually is a definition of coffee ‘strength’. It relates to the matter of ‘total dissolved solids’, and the relationship between the dissolved coffee solids and the amount of water used. However, it is widely alleged that many consumers and general caterers have used ‘strength’ as a term to mean high or low roasting, and that some have used it in relation to ‘bitterness’. By contrast, many of the craft and artisan roasters avoid the term completely.
“The retail strength rating is more historical than mandatory,” remarks Alan Miller of Union Hand-Roasted, who do business with the supermarkets. “It is something that has become the norm and unfortunately, in our view, something which consumers are very aware of and use as a comparator. So, not having the strength rating on pack exposes you to loss of sales from consumer confusion, and lack of confidence. As the retail pack entails only one criterion of strength, it is extremely difficult to get this right to make it relevant for all consumers. Strength could be judged on acidity by some, body by others… we have pretty much tried to stick along the lines of body and roast ratings to equate to ‘strength’ on the retail packs.
“The nature of the multiple retail environment unfortunately dictates design and messaging to an extreme, to distil down to easy-to-grasp and understand cues and messaging so the consumer can make decisions quickly… if possibly not either ‘correctly’ or effectively.”
Cafédirect has now announced that it will be launching its new Full Roast coffee in supermarkets, with a ‘strength 4’ rating.
“As coffee culture continues to boom across the UK, sophisticated palates are favouring fuller-flavoured coffees, with demand shifting from ‘strength 3’ to ‘strength 4’,” says the brand. “With the market flooded with ‘strength 3’ coffees, fuller-strength coffees are showing the most growth, with ‘four’ showing over three times the growth of ‘three’.
“The high Arabica content of our new ‘strength 4’ provides an easy–drinking velvety smoothness rounded off by a Robusta kick. We are excited about adding a new strength to our popular roast and ground range.”
This has of course prompted the question – what does Cafédirect actually mean by ‘strength’? Two answers came back – one, pointed out that Cafédirect does a lot of sales through the supermarkets, and therefore has to follow the conventions of the ‘strength guides’ which the retail trade has instituted to help consumers identify the kind of coffee they believe are best suited to their tastes.
The other answer said: “Cafédirect has always put the strength on their roast-and-ground beans but, from this year, they are also putting this on their freeze-dried range, to reflect growing consumer expertise about coffee roasting, as a lot of people who buy roast-and-ground will look for the equivalent strength in freeze dried and this makes it easier for the consumer.”
Whatever definition has been used for Cafédirect’s ‘strength 4’, it is unlikely that it will be promoted in the same way as a coffee recently launched in America. This is Death Wish Coffee, which appears to use the word ‘strength’ in terms of caffeine content, and claims to ‘use coffee beans with close to 200 times the amount of caffeine as a typical coffee-shop coffee, roasted to medium-dark for a strong, robust flavour, and then ground to the proper level for extreme potency’.
Why did they create such a thing?
“After owning and running a successful coffee company for the past five years in up-state New York, a problem surfaced,” writes the company. “All of the premium dark-roast coffee on the market was not as caffeinated as the lighter roasts. Customers would come in and say, ‘give me a cup of your strongest coffee’, and we would reply, ‘our strongest-tasting coffee is not our most caffeinated coffee’ – and a puzzled look would usually follow.”
The company was then formed to produce a coffee that could be dark-roasted, have a bold and flavourful taste, have a high caffeine content, be grown organically, fairly traded, and shade-grown. Having found it, they created the slogan ‘the responsible coffee company with an irresponsible product’.
The company does not give away any details of their coffee, but from what they say, it would appear that a high robusta content is involved. They merely say: “this is not your regular morning coffee, this is not your store-bought coffee. You will not find this coffee at your local diner or at your cissy Starbucks. Death Wish Coffee is the most highly-caffeinated premium dark-roast organic coffee in the world. This is Extreme coffee, not for the weak.”
In America, the coffee sells for $20 per pound, or $3 for a 2 ounce sample. They do not at present ship outside the USA.