• The United States specialty market

    The United States Specialty market has seen strong development over the past ten years or so, which has helped to arrest the fall in United States consumption. Much of this has been driven by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA - www.scaa.org). Part of the industry now appears to be moving from past insistence on straight quality and exclusivity towards more manipulated products (flavourings, for example) in which the quality of the underlying coffee sometimes takes second place.

    Increasing sales of espresso-type drinks also mean growing demand for low-acid coffees such as Brazils and robustas at the expense of traditional specialty mild arabicas. Note here also that espresso drinks generate higher profit margins than do traditional cups of coffee. And furthermore, on the roaster/retailer side – coffee bars and shops ranging in size from international chains at one extreme to firms with just a few stores at the other – the trend has been to follow the example of the Starbucks operation. Not only to get bigger, mostly through merger or acquisition, but also to ‘commoditize’ and simplify business. This can mean eliminating or reducing the number of ‘straight’ origin coffees that are carried, and as a result increasing dependence on blends because higher sales mean larger and more centralized buying requirements. This makes it increasingly cumbersome to deal with many small suppliers. So-called signature blends are often used in the branding strategy of larger companies. At the same time, mainstream roasters have been upgrading their image by offering ‘quality’ coffees but many have very different perceptions of what this means. Some of the large United States mega-discount stores have installed 30-pound capacity computerized coffee roasters and are selling freshly roasted ‘specialty’ coffee at much lower prices than the traditional specialty stores. The quality may not always be there, but the coffee is fresh. Some such chains have also started importing roasted beans direct from some producing countries in partnership with roasters at origin. Major restaurant chains as McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts are now offering specialty coffees and this line appears to be enjoying good sales growth. Given this strong industry growth and the accompanying proliferation of specialty coffee products, the SCAA is in the process of establishing a standard for Certified Specialty coffee. The aim is to provide producers, exporters, importers, roasters and retailers of specialty coffee with the means to have the quality and authenticity of their product independently certified. The programme builds on the existing SCAA Green Coffee Classification System and Grading Chart; see www.scaa.org and www.coffeeinstitute.org.
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