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Single-Cup Brewing Delivers A Full Cup Of Flavor

By Margaret Swallow

Suddenly, there is a new beverage on the horizon - coffee. Well, maybe not the cup of joe from the corner diner or the tall latte from the coffee house down the street. Coffee has reinvented itself through an innovation called single-cup brewing - specifically, baristas brewing fresh ground coffee one cup at a time.

Those of you that have been in the audience for any of my presentations at various coffee events over the years know that one of my favorite sayings is that coffee is the ultimate hand-crafted product. It starts with the hand that picks the ripe, red coffee cherry and ends with the hand holding the cup of coffee. The latest technology for commercial single-cup brewing allows the hands of the barista to enhance the coffee in a manner that has not been available with previous systems.

In April, at the Symposium for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), Hy Bunn summed up this groundswell perfectly. “Now, single-cup brewing can produce a full cup of coffee - a beverage that is full of the body and flavor unique to each variety, origin and type of coffee,” he said.

Single-cup brewing methods and systems were everywhere at the SCAA Expo which followed the Symposium. According to SCAA executive director, Ric Rhinehart, offerings at the Expo ranged from those for the mass market side, like the Keurig brewer and the Starbucks VIA product, to more artisanal or handmade approaches like drip bars and siphons.

Rhinehart attributes this interest in the single-cup experience to the natural culmination of the quest for specialty quality coffee. “Unlike the traditional communal pot experience that has been predominate in the U.S. coffee market, these single-cup brewing systems allow for a cup made expressly for an individual at the moment that he or she will consume the beverage. This is a powerful realization of the concept of specialty coffee,” he observes.

And it’s not just single-cup brewing that has captured the public fancy - it’s brewing single-origin coffee a cup at a time, according to Sebastian Simsch, owner and operator of Seattle Coffee Works, a thriving coffee shop located in the coffee Mecca of Seattle. “Blends are out, single-origins are in. And the more expressive a single-origin coffee is the more customers come back for it,” Simsch says.

What Is Single-Cup Brewing?
Basically, there are four ways to produce a single serving of fresh ground coffee in a retail environment:

  • Automatic systems
  • Siphon brewers
  • Pour over brewers
  • French presses
While all these systems incorporate the four elements required for coffee brewing: grind size, time, temperature and turbulence, there are significant variances in the role that the barista can play in adjusting the process to deliver a beverage that fully optimizes the coffee being used.

Automatic systems like the trifecta give the barista complete control over all the elements and a clear brewing chamber allows customers to see their coffee being brewed. Coffee shop owners can highlight quality in the cup and focus on single-origin coffees brewed to order for their customers. In addition serving single-cup allows the owner to vertically price coffees.

Mick Wheeler, executive director of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) attended the SCAA show in Anaheim in April and came away with some strong impressions. “One of the interesting trends highlighted in the Symposium was the very definite move by a number of leading coffee bars back to filter coffee. Recent developments in single-serve brewing are certainly spearheading this latest move. But it is also the theater that can be created using the more traditional single-cup pourover filters that has played a part in the decision of a number of the leading lights in the U.S. coffee bar and café scene to aggressively push filter coffees,” Wheeler observes.

Increased Awareness Of Origin Influences Individual Preferences
Consumer demand is at an all-time high for quality in the cup and this demand goes hand-in-hand with a preference for a beverage that is “made for me.” There is also an increased awareness of coffee-growing countries and the availability of high-quality single-origin coffee as contributing to this trend.

Offering an alternative to customers is a great way to showcase single-origin coffee, according to Simsch and Seattle Coffee Works responded by developing what it calls a Slow Bar. “Once our customers found out that we have various methods of non-espresso single-cup brewing available, they came back specifically for that. They were curious about the aromas and flavors of different single-origin coffees; blends are no longer on the cutting edge,” he says. “At the Slow Bar, we give the single-origin/single-cup space and attention, and it works. Our best and most devoted customers often linger for a long time at our Slow Bar,” Simsch adds.

The Slow Bar features of a variety of single-cup brewing methods: Hario, Vacuum Pot, Chemex, French Press, Aeropress, Melitta filter, Eva Solo, the Cold Brew dripper (ceramic filter) and the BUNN trifecta. “It’s almost become like an alcohol-serving bar, just without the alcohol. We’re able to charge between $3 and $4.50 for single-cup servings. We’ve done away with sizes for single-cup servings but categorically just serve 16-oz servings which customers can split into two 8-oz cups or drink all by themselves,” Simsch says.

In Europe, Wheeler is seeing a similar trend. “On the retail side I believe the reduction in waste and ability to offer a bespoke service to consumers will be the main reasons why cafes, bars and restaurants will adopt and embrace single-serve brewing and its associated technology,” he says.

“There is a very nascent trend towards single-serve filter brew coffee in the out-of-home market in Europe and while I am sure it will develop, I strongly suspect that its development in Europe will be patchy, with some markets strongly embracing the trend, especially those markets where filter coffee already holds a dominant share, while others will only do so more slowly,” Wheeler observes. He is not sure what the upcoming SCAE/Caffé Culture show in London will hold, but he is sure that there will be interesting developments.

Impact At Origin
“I think (single-cup brewing) represents a major opportunity for producers of better quality coffee to showcase the origin and to build up loyalty to their coffee and its profile,” Wheeler says.

The almost 70 coffees rated by coffee guru Ken Davids for the Best Selling Single-origins of 2009 were among the finest he has tasted. “These were by and large exceptional coffees. If we take this month’s cupping as a kind of survey of quality of basic single-origin offerings of small to medium-sized American specialty roasting companies, then that segment is doing extremely well by its consumers. 36 coffees, or over half of the seventy submitted, rated 90 or better (on a scale of 100),” Davids says.

“Producers and roasters rarely think as much about blends as they do about each and every single-origin, each and every microlot,” says Simsch. You can see this at retail as the new coffee is displayed and emphasized at the shops. It works to everyone’s benefit. “The producers are much more motivated to produce better quality coffee when they know the product of their hard work will be appreciated in a single-cup single-origin serving,” Simsch adds.

Consumers Want A Quality Experience
Single-cup brewing of origin coffees by a talented barista can deliver the quality coffee experience that consumers desire. It can also provide retailers with an opportunity to educate their customers. According to Simsch, the introduction of new single-origin coffees keeps up the newness of the store. “We can introduce new single-origin coffees in a special way by calling them ‘New Arrivals’ and keep the interest in our business up. This also motivates everyone who works on the retail-side - it’s never ‘the same old,’ there is always a new coffee to be discovered,” he explains.

Rhinehart sees the single-cup trend as the natural evolution of an industry that has worked for over 25 years to highlight the unique value of a cup of coffee. “I am optimistic that this is the next step in further connecting the producers and consumers of coffee in a meaningful way,” he adds.

Tea & Coffee - June, 2010
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