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  • The difference between mainstream and specialty roasters

     
     

    Many people and articles, as well as the Coffee Guide, attempt to differentiate between what they call the Mainstream and the Specialty coffee industry. But it is not entirely clear where the one stops and the other begins so to speak. For example, if the Swiss multi-national roaster Nestlé is considered to be mainstream, what then is its single-serve R&G pod-making subsidiary Nespresso? Alternatively, if size or turnover are the criteria, where then to place Starbucks?

    What is clear however is that large or mainstream roasters are moving into the specialty market, for example by offering organic coffees or by establishing their own specialty operation, sometimes under a different name. Such moves reflect the growing importance of the specialty segment but somewhat blurs the distinction between the two. It is therefore better perhaps to ask what causes different retail products to be classified as mainstream or specialty…

    'Mainstream' simply reflects the fact that an estimated 85 to 90% of all coffee roasted is of fair average quality, mass-produced and marketed. Such coffees are available in quantity and are usually presented as blends, often through supermarkets etc. Roasters who are predominantly active in this market segment are therefore known as 'mainstream roasters'. Their buying capacity is huge and there is strong concentration in this market with Nestlé currently the world's leading roaster.

    'Specialty' usually refers to individually presented coffees, often but not always of somewhat limited availability. With the exception of the Starbucks Company in the US the turnover of most specialty roasters is relatively limited but, in recent years the number of small roasters worldwide has shown strong growth. However, the term specialty increasingly also refers to coffees that are different, for example in the way they are presented. This is part of the specialty attraction although it is fair to say that for the average latte one does not require top grade coffee. A simple blend will do.

    To complicate matters further there is also no denying that the output of some of the larger European and Scandinavian roasters has always included top quality coffees, often far superior to the average specialty coffee one encounters. Yet such roasters are usually classified as mainstream because of their size and the conventional marketing methods most employ. Their products are not perceived as being 'different'… On the other hand, other retail products elsewhere may be classified as specialty even though they may be based on average quality or mainstream type coffee… *

    Therefore, one should probably classify individual roasters by the products they market, rather than by the type of coffee they may be buying.

    The Nespresso Company combines technical innovation (special home brewing equipment) with high quality coffees. It stands alone from the Nestlé Group and, it and its products should definitely be classified as being part of the specialty segment.

    The Starbucks Company in a way does the same: it relies on innovative retail and presentation methods that have set it apart from other roasters/retailers. This includes the constant promotion of high quality origin coffee but, it is increasingly also selling blends. However the company firmly belongs to the specialty segment because it is marketing specialty type coffees.

    The Swedish roaster Gevalia is a different example. The company ranks amongst the major specialty sellers (mostly by mail order) in the US, yet is owned by the multi-national mainstream roaster Kraft Foods.

    * Indeed, the specialty market itself is divisible in three sub-segments: Exemplary coffees, usually presented as single origin or single source; High quality coffees that may include blends; Average quality coffee that is presented 'differently', for example lattes.

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