Can Vietnamese coffee draw Americans away from Starbucks?

Starbucks is crossing swords with Vietnam’s top coffee company, Trung Nguyen. Starbucks opened its first store in Ho Chi Minh City on Feb. 1 to capitalize on the rapidly expanding Asian coffee market. Meanwhile, its aggressive would-be competitor Trung Nguyen has an eye on Seattle, New York and Boston, according to Bloomberg.

Fueled by a rise in Vietnam’s coffee fortunes, Trung Nguyen wants to surpass the world’s largest coffeehouse brand. It’s a lofty goal, but don’t write them off just yet. Vietnamese coffee could be filling a new coffee niche in the U.S. before you know it.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) shared several interesting aspects of the Vietnamese coffee “takeover” in an April 17 article. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee exporter, and its farmers grow the robusta variety of coffee rather than the arabica beans most U.S. coffee drinkers prefer. Vietnamese coffee is typically brewed slowly in individual cups and mixed with sugar, sweetened milk and ice, according to a Wall Street Journal article.

Vietnamese coffee farmers have leveraged technology — like irrigation methods or checking current coffee prices on their phones before bringing their beans to the market — and their production has skyrocketed, according to AFP:

Vietnamese coffee farmers have changed the global market: if you had a cup this morning, there is a high chance you consumed at least some Vietnamese beans with companies such as Nestle and Britain’s Costa Coffee among major buyers.

In 20 years, Vietnam went from contributing less than 0.1 percent of world production in 1980 to some 13 percent in 2000.

The article then turns to the owner of the coffee chain Trung Nguyen, a man named Le Nguyen Vu whose personality comes through in every quote. Trung Nguyen has 55 stores in Vietnam and exports its coffee to 60 countries. Vu strikes a confident tone in an article in Bloomberg:

“U.S. customers should be able to enjoy cups of authentic coffee,” said Vu, a farmer’s son who founded the company in 1996 and is its sole owner. “Their level of coffee appreciation is probably not high yet, but we’ll work on that.”

Actually, I know several people in the U.S. whose “coffee appreciation” is quite high. Maybe Vu means simply that American consumers haven’t yet developed a taste for robusta coffee? Or maybe he’s just sure of his own success:

“Starbucks no longer has the personality it had when it first started,” Vu said. “That regime will soon end. We are trying to be the one who replaces them.”

And is Vu worried about the U.S. coffee giant’s expansion into his country? Not really, based on this quote from an interview with Vietweek:

With their huge revenues and expansion plans, Starbucks could cause worry among many firms about the competition. This is a challenge, but we should have a strong spirit to compete. It could much be stronger than Vietnamese firms in terms of finance and experience, but it does not mean we don’t have any way to overcome it. We, with just two small workshops, competed well with famous coffee producer Nestle nine years ago.

Interesting fact: One variety of Trung Nguyen coffee is meant to imitate the flavor of beans taken from a kind of rodent (civet) feces, according to the Bloomberg article. That’s one area, at least, where they have an edge on Starbucks.

Video by AFP. 

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Caffeine’s for the bees

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Caffeine improves the memory of bees who visit coffee plants, according to research published recently in Science (published March 7). Researchers found that caffeinated nectar makes honeybees remember odors better, and caffeine was linked to the neurons associated with the bees’ long-term memory. Science blog post on the research suggests there’s still a lot we don’t know about bees and caffeine:

Now, [researchers] want to see if bees go out of their way to feed on caffeinated nectar, perhaps even ignoring predators to do so—behavior that, if observed, could shed light on the neurological processes behind addiction.

Before this research, people had believed that plants produce caffeine as a kind of defense mechanism against predators, according to The Hindu:

Note that the raw bean or leaf is bitter to taste, and the animal would shy away, leaving the plant alone to grow and flourish.

So, some animals despise the taste of the caffeine in plants’ leaves and beans, but honeybees like the caffeine and might even become addicted. Fascinating, no?

Kierkegaard drank coffee all wrong

Kierkegaard

Mason Currey wrote about artists’ coffee habits and obsessions yesterday in the latest of his “Daily Rituals” series on Slate.com. Here’s an excerpt:

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard “had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee,” according to the biographer Joakim Garff. “Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.” Then he gulped the whole thing down in one go.

I don’t think I could take that much sugar, but I guess it worked for Kierkegaard. Also in the same Slate post, check out Balzac’s effusive description of coffee in the artistic process:

Coffee glides into one’s stomach and sets all of one’s mental processes in motion. One’s ideas advance in column of route like battalions of the Grande Armée…. Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live. [Read more]

What’s the link between coffee and creativity? Lots of famous artists and leaders — including Beethoven, L. Frank Baum, Paul Erdös — loved their caffeine. Sure, it might be just a coincidence. But are you willing to take the chance?

Caribou blues

Customers who stopped in at their local Caribou Coffee this morning might have gotten an unexpected surprise: The doors were locked and the lights were off.

The company closed 80 stores over the weekend and will convert 88 stores to its sister brand Peet’s Coffee & Tea in the next year and a half.

Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee is the nation’s second-largest coffee chain. Now, it will have only 468 Caribou locations in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina and Denver. There won’t be any more Caribou Coffee in the Chicago area, which was the company’s second-largest market, and the company is also leaving Michigan and leaving its almost two dozen stores in Washington, D.C., among other places.

The move is linked to a strategy by the German company Joh. A. Benckiser, which bought and privatized Caribou Coffee last year, then bought Peet’s Coffee & Tea in a separate deal. Last Friday (April 12), Benckiser announced plans to buy the European coffee brand D.E. Master Blenders 1753, according to The New York Times:

The deal is one of the largest takeovers so far this year in Europe, and is the latest coffee acquisition for Benckiser, an investment vehicle for the wealthy Reimann family of Germany, which also owns well-known brands like Jimmy Choo shoes and Sally Hansen nail polish.

But the biggest lesson to come out of the move isn’t the business strategy involved in re-focusing a brand after a major acquisition. It’s simpler than that: Don’t leave  your customers in the dark when you’re taking away their favorite shop.

The news came without warning and without much explanation, and it came through employees before it came from the company itself. In a report on the closings on April 8, Chicago’s WGN said simply, “A spokesperson wouldn’t return our phone calls or emails.”

President and CEO Mike Tattersfield did release a brief statement on April 8, as reported by the Detroit Free Press:

“Over the past few months, we at Caribou have revisited our business strategy, including closely evaluating our performance by market to make decisions that best position us for long-term growth.”

Since the company didn’t publish a list of the affected locations, reporters had to deduce which local stores were closing by contacting employees at each store. WGN interviewed an employee who said Caribou only gave him nine days’ notice before the store was to close.

Meanwhile, whoever handles the company’s Twitter and Facebook is now responding individually to customers groaning about the store closings. Shortly after Caribou released a vague press release about the closings, Carol Tice criticized the brand’s social media strategy on Forbes.com, saying that they should have posted more about why the decision was necessary. What we’re seeing now seems to be an improvement, even if some customers are still confused. Maybe the company hired a new PR specialist?

People are highly emotional about their coffee — especially, perhaps, because the company’s conversational, upbeat brand strategy makes for loyal customers and employees. As Mary Schmich said in the Chicago Tribune:

Caribou customers have been in mourning, as if for a pet or a friend, grief that has been met with some mutters of, “It’s only coffee.”

Caribou Coffee napkin photo by Anjum, Flickr Creative Commons.

‘It will no longer seem unpleasant’: The art of coffee tasting

Update 4/20: I’ve changed this post after commenter Greg pointed out the distinction between coffee cupping and coffee tasting. I had not realized that the terms were used in different ways, and I appreciated the comment. – April

It’s strange, isn’t it, that we have to force ourselves to tolerate coffee? If you’re like me, you had to ease gently into your first cups with lots of added cream, sugar and flavorings, maybe because you wanted to feel grown up, maybe late at night, maybe driven by looming deadines and heavy eyelids, maybe just hoping that millions of coffee lovers couldn’t be wrong.

We’re not the first to feel that way: Sylvestre Dufour described coffee like this in 1685: “For the taste, in drinking thereof once or twice, one may easily accustom oneself to it, and it will no longer seem unpleasant…” People drank coffee for its caffeine and medicinal benefits, not for its taste. (For more, read Stuart McCook’s excellent post “When did people start to like the taste of coffee?”)

But for those who grow to like — and even love — the taste of coffee, there are realms of flavors to explore in slow, thoughtful sips. It’s serious stuff — as you would know if you’ve read a coffee flavor profile lately. Have you tasted blackberry or cedar in your coffee? Some people can.

Blogger Timothy J. Castle posted an article he wrote in 1996 about the taste of coffee:

Tasting a cup of coffee is a way of downloading months worth of history in a few seconds; what is lacking in completeness or accuracy of detail is made up for in the sheer volume of information imparted. It is essential, though, that the skill and experience be there to decode the information presented.

Coffee professionals “decode the information” of coffee through a process called coffee cupping. Sunday’s Wall Street Journal featured an article about the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship at the Specialty Coffee Association of America conference:

Two dozen contenders slurped, contemplated and spit through eight three-cup sets of coffee, trying to pick the cup that was different from the other two in each set. Some cups are so similar they come from the same region but from a different farm.

According to one blogger, coffee cupping began as a way for coffee companies to find defects in the beans they were buying, but it has grown to require fine-tuned tasting skills — not just an enjoyment for the taste of coffee, but an ability to discern between tastes, aromas and textures in a meaningful way.

Coffee tasting photo by Coffee Circle, Flickr Creative Commons.

Happy 75th birthday, Nescafe instant coffee

File this under “fascinating things I never stopped to think about”: Who came up with the idea for instant coffee?

Nestle didn’t invent instant coffee — British and American inventors had that covered starting in the 18th century — but Nestle apparently made it better. They’re celebrating the 75th birthday of their instant coffee product, Nescafe, this month, and you can read its history in an article in The Guardian Nigeria:

Following the Wall Street Crash and the collapse of coffee prices, the bank had a lot of coffee sitting unsold in warehouses in Brazil.

Nestlé was asked whether these stocks could be turned into a ‘soluble coffee cube’ to be sold to consumers.

Nestle hired a chemist to figure out how to make an instant coffee powder that would maintain the coffee aroma — and it was first sold on April Fool’s Day 1938 in Switzerland. (Read the whole story here.)

Not long after that, instant coffee became a staple for soldiers in World War II, and the U.S. military bought one million pounds of Nescafe in a year.

Nescafe image by Mark Hillary, Flickr Creative Commons.

The cult of Starbucks and why a good barista matters

By bfishadow on Flickr, Creative Commons use

What’s the biggest indicator of a specialty coffee shop’s success? Not the location. Not the ratio of couches to stools. Not the kind of soft-rock-alt-folk-jazz coming from the overhead speakers. Not even how good the coffee is.

It’s the baristas, according to a J.D. Power and Associates study cited today at Roast Magazine’s Daily Coffee News blog:

The report measures overall customer satisfaction with specialty coffee retailers by examining five key factors in order of importance. They are: staff (34%), merchandise (23%), cost (18%), facility (14%) and sales/promotions (11%).

The study gave Starbucks’ staff top marks, ahead of Caribou and Seattle’s Best and tied only with Dutch Bros. Coffee, which won the overall “best specialty coffee retailer” award.

Having friendly and knowledgeable baristas promotes attachment to the coffee shop brand — you feel at home. That also probably determines the degree to which customers are willing to fork over time and money for their coffee experience:

The report finds that customers spend an average of $7.31 per visit to a specialty coffee retailer. The average amount of time customers spend in the checkout line is 6.3 minutes.

This all relates to a March 2013  article on the Huffington Post examining why Starbucks continues to be so successful, despite its reputation as “the McDonald’s of the coffee industry” and large numbers of people (myself included) who dislike the taste of Starbucks coffee. The key is brand loyalty — that is, everything surrounding the coffee itself:

“The enduring brand loyalty is about the core offerings, which is not just coffee,” Raghubir explained. “It is the experience of going to Starbucks.”

Interestingly, this “Starbucks experience” can also cut the other way as independent coffee shops try to differentiate themselves from the green giant. In a Slate post titled “How Do You Compete With Starbucks in the Coffee Industry?” cafe owner Peter Baskerville offers this advice for independent coffee shops:

It’s OK to be familiar with your customers: Chains like Starbucks can’t risk their brand value by allowing service standards to be determined by their transient university student staff, so they create and enforce strict codes and processes for “serving” customers, which I think is inappropriate for the high-repeating clientele. Long-term independent cafe owners are not so constrained and can leverage the opportunity that multiple visits creates, to become familiar with their customers.

This seems to be the trend: Starbucks has mastered the art of repeatable routines, but independent cafe baristas still have a lot of opportunity to build customers’ loyalty to their “brand.” Starbucks baristas — at least according to the J.D. Power survey — tend to be knowledgeable and fast because they’ve had training drilled into them over and over. This is why you can walk up to a Starbucks and know exactly what you’re in for. Starbucks is comforting, predictable and unsurprising.

Independent coffee shops have different opportunities. They, too, can have friendly and knowledgeable baristas who are trained with Starbucks-like drilling and memorization. They might not have Starbucks-level brand recognition, but the people behind the counter are more important than the range of menu options or anything else. Bonus: They also know the community better, they have more flexibility — and they don’t all play the same Norah Jones albums over and over and over. Then again, J.D. Power and Associates didn’t ask their survey respondents about that.

Related: 

Just like the latte art competitions I mentioned a few days ago, did you know that there are national barista competitions?

Read what a Starbucks barista learned from the job. 

Pay it forward, coffee edition

You’ve probably heard of people who go through a fast-food drive through and pay for the meal of the person in line behind them.

Something similar is now happening with coffee: People are paying for future coffee customers’ drinks in an act of goodwill that originated in Italy and is catching on around the world. When you buy a cup of coffee, you pay the barista for an extra “suspended coffee” or two, which will be given to people who are homeless or otherwise cannot afford the luxury of a cup of coffee.

The movement has reached Bulgaria, Canada, Britain and Australia so far, and I won’t be surprised if it comes to the U.S. soon. The movement has become an email forward and even has its own page on Snopes.com, so you know it’s hit the big-time.

In the latest iteration of the trend, Starbucks has embraced “the spirit” of the idea in Britain — whenever you pay Starbucks for a “suspended coffee,” the coffee giant will donate the equivalent in cash to a British charity that works with homeless people.

To me, Starbucks’ version just isn’t the same: It doesn’t feel quite as organic or spontaneous. It doesn’t allow you the pleasure of knowing that someone else will actually receive your extra coffee in the same physical coffee shop location. But still, it’s nice to see the gesture catching on. It’s also a testament to the strength of people’s emotional attachment to coffee — we prefer even our anonymous giving to be caffeinated.

Photo of person with coffee by Dmitry Barksy, Flickr Creative Commons.

Video of the week: The ‘Willy Wonka’ of latte art

Mike Breach is a barista who goes way beyond hearts and leaves when he turns latte foam into art.

Watch this video and see how Breach makes faces, cityscapes and other images in the fragile space on top of a latte:

For more, check out Mike Breach’s Tumblr, Baristart.

Related: Did you know that there are latte art competitions?

Coffee farms in Texas? And other perils of climate change

Experts are sounding the death knell for our beloved coffee bean, and they’re blaming climate change. You can read some of the predictions in a March 27 article called “Buzzkill? How Climate Change Could Eventually End Coffee,” by Jason Koebler at US News and World Report. Basically, Koebler’s article makes a case that coffee is in imminent danger for three reasons:

1. Arabica coffee plants can only grow in a certain temperature range. Countries that are major coffee exporters now might no longer be able to sustain the delicate crop because of higher temperatures. When that happens, coffee farms will be pushed north:

Within a couple decades, researchers fear, coffee might have to be grown in the Northern Hemisphere, putting countries that rely on the crop in an economically tight spot. “By 2050, Nicaragua will hardly be a coffee producer anymore,” says Tim Schilling, executive director of the World Coffee Research Center. “It’s possible that instead of sourcing coffee from Guatemala, you’ll be doing it from Texas or the south of France.”

A new boom in coffee farming might be great for Texas or France — but at what cost? The economic decimation of Guatemala and other coffee-producing nations?

2. High temperatures and high rainfall are perfect conditions for a deadly fungus that causes coffee leaf rust. This fungus has the potential to wipe out Arabica coffee trees. In February, Guatemala declared a state of emergency because the disease is decimating their top export, and other countries, including Mexico, are also feeling the pain. Koebler links the rise of coffee rust to climate change:

For decades, developing countries grew coffee and shipped it off to the developed world. The climate in coffee producing countries such as Costa Rica, Colombia, Ethiopia and Vietnam was relatively stable, and coffee hauls were generally predictable. That has changed recently as rust has spread and more variable temperatures have reduced coffee hauls.

In response to this assertion, one of the commenters at U.S. News and World Report posted the Internet-comment version of an eyeroll: “Frankly your assertion that this fungus spreads because of global warming without a shred of supporting evidence is unscientific,” he wrote. That might be a fair argument since the coffee rust fungus dates to Kenya in the 1860s, and other articles about coffee rust don’t even mention climate change as a mitigating factor. But it seems certain that coffee rust thrives in higher temperatures.

3. Coffee hasn’t been researched as much as other crops, and farmers don’t necessarily have access to strategies for protecting coffee plants. 

Coffee is an under-researched area of agriculture, according to Koebler’s article:

Gaitan concurs: “Unfortunately for other countries, there’s not a lot of research on coffee. … For those facing the future without good scientific support, it’s going to be hard.”

Fungicides cost a lot, and although scientists have begun to engineer hybrid coffee plants that resist the coffee rust fungus, it’s not a cure-all. Some farmers don’t trust these new fungus-resistant varieties, fearing that the coffee won’t taste as good. Plus, how do you convince a farmer to spend years replacing coffee plants that he or she depends on to make a living?

Koebler writes that a solution would also require a wide-reaching effort to bring solutions to each individual farmer:

Creating a rust-resistant plant is one thing; getting it to Colombia’s half million farmers—whose average farm is just 4 acres—and convincing them to use it is another.

An article in the Guardian poses a similar problem when discussing coffee rust in Mexico:

For three days in February, 150 experts from Mexico and Central America gathered in the town of Tapachula to exchange know-how and advice. But “how are we to train thousands of small coffee-growers who are widely dispersed, and can’t afford to buy fertilisers or replace their old bushes?” Trampe asks.

There are organizations working on these problems — Koebler cites the World Coffee Research Center, which is funded by coffee companies in the U.S. Among other examples, a French research organization called CIRAD is also researching coffee rust and training coffee producers about potential solutions.

Let’s take a step back. This U.S. News and World Report article is one of many to raise the alarm about one product to try to get sympathetic readers to care about the broader climate change issues at stake. That’s a decent strategy, and it might work.

But even if climate change were not a factor, coffee farmers would still be facing the scourges of coffee rust, lack of access to crop research, lack of access to fertilizers and fungicides, and a host of other issues. These are solvable problems. Maybe it’s time that a coffee-loving world began to focus on coffee research and development and better environmental practices — not to save the world from climate change, not even because we selfishly want to save our morning Starbucks, but because we ought to care about the very real challenges facing people on the coffee farms we so often ignore.

Leaf rust image from rooracer on Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivs license.