The Blue Bottle Paradox
A Rare Dichotomy
On my birthday in February of 2007, I took a trip to San Francisco and stayed in the Mission District. Some friends told me about a little speak-easy café with the best coffee in town. It was in an alleyway behind a garage door. You could only see it from the street by the people milling about waiting for their coffee. This was Blue Bottle and its humble beginnings in San Francisco. It felt like a secret. They had a limited menu and only served filtered coffee via pour-over. At that moment, it became my favorite coffee shop in SF.
Jump to 2022, a billion cups of coffee later and a very public sale to Nestlé, the farthest thing from a speak-easy you could imagine. Blue Bottle has abandoned its “pour over only” mantra, which kept them from excelling in wholesale, and they have now begun offering instant coffee to take home. The most self-righteous brand in the last twenty years (and that says a lot) has decided to go forth with a jar of freeze-dried coffee.
I have no beef with instant coffee. It has been here for years before me and will go on beyond me. It is a sleeper hit thAat everyone thinks went away, and yet it silently has grown as a product category consistently for the last decade despite the rise of Specialty. It continues to grow because Specialty coffee has decided to get in on the game.
In the same year, BB joined the masses with its release of a convenience-based coffee and launched its Exceedingly Rare Coffee program. A series of small production coffees that tell the story of their producer and are released in limited quantity for limited times. I tried the most recent release from El Injerto’s private auction in Guatemala. A Pacamara Natural with notes of strawberry jam and cranberry. Part of El Injerto’s lure is that they have won the Cup of Excellence nine times while being certified carbon neutral by using hydropower and solar energy to run their operation. These coffees are still roasted to order to provide optimal freshness and that light, bright Blue Bottle feeling I remember.
The fact that this company (BB) is owned by Nestlé, one of the largest companies in the world and remains relatively small and serves boutique coffees is a paradox unto itself. Then taking it a step further and doling out back-to-back releases of instant coffee alongside Exceedingly Rare coffee splits my loyalties in two. Finding these two products next to each other is the equivalent of buying a box of Veuve Clicquot for your everyday champagne while picking up a $150 bottle of Veuve to celebrate with on the same shelf. Nestlé continued the mind twist by becoming a certified B Corp earlier this year.
I am all for Nestlé becoming a B Corp. I think it can only help the planet and raise awareness of what B Corps are and why they are essential. I’m also happy for all the people that will get to pay more money for instant coffee. Perhaps in some way, this will trickle down into more money for farmers (TBD). That said, I tried the instant espresso from BB and was not particularly impressed. First, they only recommended making it with some type of milk, non-dairy or otherwise. This recipe indicates a reliance on the sweetness and body of the milk to provide flavor masking. So, I made a latte, and it was just fine. It tasted like a latte. Then I tried it using just water to understand the coffee’s authentic flavor, and it was expectedly underwhelming. It tasted like sweet coffee with a hint of acidity, which is better than most instant but not necessarily as good as freshly brewed anything.
It was clever to position the instant product as an espresso, so the expectation is to mix it with milk and/or sugar. No one expects crema or the body you get from a true espresso; however, it gets the idea across, and the flavor does come through the milk. It was wise to avoid a single origin or a bright filter flavor.
On the other hand, the Exceedingly Rare coffee offerings have been top-notch. They are delicious, high-quality coffees. They put the work of the producers front and center without trying to exploit farmers. They keep to the story and do not include images. They communicate the process, high quality and reputation of the producer within the coffee community.
As a businessperson, of course, I respect the innovation and the bravado in pursuing two paradoxical coffee categories. However, it is disappointing to my barista-purist heart and as a fan that was there when it was only one café. I suppose the disappointment comes from admiring the rigidity in which BB once defended their coffees and brewing preferences. This unreasonable integrity was how they created a cult following in the first place. Now that rigidity has dissolved as quickly as the chips of instant coffee in my mug. It is a symbolic loss of lowering standards. I don’t fault anyone that drinks instant coffee or any other form of brew: to each their own. It is merely the faltering of BB’s own standard and the ultimate symbol that convenience may ultimately triumph over quality.