The May 2012 issue of Specialty Coffee Retailer magazine included an article on the topic of effectively implementing a single origin coffee program (or single source, as they call it) in retail coffee shops. The full article is included here, as are my notes from the interview with its writer.

Building a Single Origin Coffee Program

SCR: Appreciating single origin coffee is one of the things that separates true coffee savants from wannabes. How has single origin coffee impacted today’s specialty coffee retail market?

AH: I’d like to preface this entire interview by saying the real issue here is not one of whether or not to serve your coffees as single origins, but rather, if, when and how to begin serving coffees of increasing sophistication. Single origin coffee and single serve brewing is merely the result of the development and maturation of a higher tier of quality within the broad range of coffees that we define as specialty. In short: coffees are driving the change to single origin serving, not the hipster elite.

The concept of single origin coffee is a good one: offer one good coffee with distinct taste characteristics and accompanying information that describes its source (the farm, land, people, climate, cultivar, processing, etc.) in as much detail as possible. In this model, the single origin coffee roaster and/or retailer takes on a role of increased value: more sommelier or educator than coffee drinking establishment that matches the tastes and interests of its consumers to what coffees are fresh and seasonal. Higher value means increased consumer satisfaction and loyalty, as well as increased earnings for the business and its suppliers. In theory, everyone wins.

Blends have historically been used for two reasons: financial control and flavor consistency (at large volumes). Skillful roastmasters can manipulate blend components to accommodate origin availability, price differential fluctuations and seasonal flavor changes in order to maintain a consistent product at the lowest reasonable price. Highs and lows from individual coffee lots are generally flattened for a homogenizing effect so that no batch strays far from the originally intended profile. Since extremes (good, as well as bad) are not desirable, there’s generally no reason to purchase those upper tier coffees for a blend.

To illustrate my point, would you take 3 rare vintage wines and pour them together into a punchbowl for a party? Probably not. That’s what’s happening in coffee: we have more and better individual lots available that are not only good enough to stand alone, but would be a shame to combine with others.

In espresso, the lines between S.O. and blend are not as clearly drawn as with drip coffees: under the flavor magnifying glass that is our espresso machine, it is extremely difficult to find one coffee with all of the characteristics necessary to pull a good shot — even among those taking the top honors at cupping competitions.

Maintaining a successful single origin coffee program, however, is not without its challenges. The coffees must be good, they must be fresh and they must be roasted and brewed correctly (often with unique parameters to accentuate the best characteristics in each coffee) in order to shine: using a moderate or low-grade specialty coffee as a single origin offering will not help your business. Furthermore, it is important to be aware of your client√®le’s tastes, as some of the more extreme flavor profiles exhibited by pure coffee of one origin may be too foreign for some customer palates. Remember that not everyone will enjoy the intense acidity prized in some top auction coffees — some of your customers may just find these profiles to be unpleasantly sour.

SCR: What are educated consumers looking for in single origin coffee?

AH: Educated consumers that I have encountered are looking for guidance: help interpreting and communicating the complex tastes and sensations that they experience from good coffees. Most consumers are not educated and have no interest in becoming educated, but can be subtly guided to better quality coffees.

SCR: How do coffeehouses bridge the gap between blended coffees and SS? How do they make SS coffee ‘approachable’ in terms of informing customers what they’re all about?

AH: Keep it simple, keep it real. Display relevant and useful information factually and avoid industry terminology or esoteric flavor descriptors.

Where is it from? Who produces it? Why do you (the retailer) like it? What does it taste like? Use actual photos from your origin source wherever possible — pictures tell your story much better than words. Celebrate the arrival of a new crop (e.g. host a tasting night) and never apologize for the end of an old one.

SCR: How does/should a coffeehouse source S.O. coffee? Through roasters? How do they find ‘hot’ new ones?

AH: I prefer the approach of finding value: good coffees, seasonally available at a reasonable price. Once on the collective radar of the hipster barista hive mind, demand exceeds supply and the laws of economics take flight. By definition, a ‘hot’ new coffee is a poor value.

Coffee traders and roasters have geographic areas of specialty. Some have strong ties in specific Latin American countries, which is most common in North America, others in Africa, Indonesia or elsewhere. [A retailer should] Figure out where your roaster spends his or her time and focus on that resource and listen to his or her recommendations.

SCR: What’s a good overall strategy with regard to offering single origin coffee? Should they concentrate on one region or continent or go for a global variety?

AH: This advice should be company specific and will be different for every business, but I suggest the best approach (as with most things specialty) is to focus on quality control, which is best maintained with a limited number of offerings. For example, choose 2-3 favorites of what is fresh, seasonal and a good value today and give them the marketing emphasis and care when serving that they deserve. As a general rule, the 31 Flavors ‘we’ve got something for everybody’ approach does not promote good quality and is a difficult business model to sustain with perishable products.

SCR: Should retailers make them part of the menu or the main part (or offer them exclusively)?

AH: This will be different for every business.

SCR: Are there certain marketing techniques that work with in promoting single origin coffee to novices and aficionados alike?

AH: Yes, be accurate and tell the truth. Both you and your customers know that your coffee is not the most rare and exclusive, amazing coffee that the world has ever seen. Understand the coffees you serve and then honestly describe them to your consumers. Building a bond of trust between buyer and seller is the only sure way to keep both novices and aficionados coming back for more.