Can specialty grade coffee be produced at a mass level?
Chick-fil-a has put an effort the tell people that their coffee is direct trade and specialty grade. Though I don’t buy that their direct trade actually helps the communities as much as they claim, I do like that they are working to cut out the middle man. That’s just good business sense. I don’t think we need to always make good business decisions pretty with pious make up. Now the real issue is the coffee. Is it as good as “specialty grade” makes me think it will be? I am going to say the answer is both yes and no.
Yes, because they did a fantastic job marketing and many consumers will apply a higher value to that coffee than it probably doesn’t merit. I have had the coffee and it is pretty good. Now “pretty good” means, I’m walking into a shop with a large children’s playground about to buy fried chicken on a biscuit, expecting to be served dirty water.
Here is the rub for me. Growing and processing is a major part of Specialty Coffee. The other part is masterful roasting and brewing. Their brewers are probably on par with shops like Starbucks, but I don’t think they can roast that coffee well enough to play in the specialty game. They cannot roast small batch coffee (small enough to maintain control) and produce the quantity they need to supply for that many stores.
I think they have up’ed the game by buying better beans in a more sustainable way, but I don’t they can should claim to be playing the specialty coffee game. It will only diminish the consumer’s perception of specialty coffee.
I certainly agree with some of these thoughts, but disagree with others.
Firstly, I agree that few will expect a premium cup of coffee from any retailer selling fried chicken bits in industrial biscuits, even though the marketing is masterful. A very large portion of the population does not spend much time or energy thinking about coffee, and this move should please most of this group.
I also have questions about “specialty grade” coffee claims. Their website says that they only buy coffees that score 80 or higher, but that is not enough to be specialty. The SCAA also specifies that specialty coffee should have “a distinctive character in the cup”. Chick Fil-A is likely looking for a stable blend that can be repeated year after year with little variation. “Distinctive character” can get in the way of a stable blend, so is likely not a sourcing criteria, or even option.
One area where I disagree, however, is on the roasting. Chick Fil-A has used Royal Cup Coffee for some time, and is likely still using them to roast the Thrive Coffee. Royal Cup Coffee also roasts for meh coffee retailers such as Waffle House and Cracker Barrel, but roast well respected coffee for The Ritz-Carlton and Peabody Hotels, so I would say their expertise is high enough to pull off a fine roast.
With that said, I doubt any roaster for Chick Fil-A would try to coax the most subtle and interesting flavors out of even the finest coffee. Chick Fil-A’s customers are most likely to dump a load of milk-like substances and sweeteners galore into the brew. Perfectly roasted specialty coffee can actually fail miserably under those conditions.
Instead, I think Chick Fil-A is trying to win a portion of Starbuck’s current pre-biscuit business, and a chunk from other fast food patrons. Decent green coffee roasted between a McDonalds roast and a Starbucks char is where they want to be, and will probably find a lot of success.
As others have said, when I find myself in a coffee desert, I may resort to Chick Fil-A coffee to keep my heart pumping instead of resorting to McDonalds. That, of course, will only happen after my travel AeroPress explodes in a catastrophic coffee desert incident.