Batch Brewing – A Coffee Service Comeback?

metal cup on white background
metal cup on white background

I am borderline bright enough to realize that coffee consumption in the Shea household is not a microcosm of global coffee trends nor a harbinger of what might happen in the Coffee Service industry, but in looking at our family’s changing personal brewing habits I was prompted to re-visit current trends with a number of operator friends of mine.

We have six active brewers in our home. The most active have been brew-by-cup devices. Until recently, the most inactive has been a batch-brew system with a 64-ounce thermal decanter. For more than a month, I had been staring at two one-pound bags of a very nice whole bean coffee. My operator/roaster friends, Jeff and Roger at Prairie Fire in Wichita, Kansas had given me this bounty on a recent trip. Occasionally, I would squeeze the bags to experience the wonderful aroma of the exotic blends held within. Several weeks later, another friend sent a dozen bags of Kona whole bean product from the Parry Estate Plantation, freshly roasted. Again, I would go into bag squeezing mode.

Fast forward a few weeks later and my wife, Charlotte upgraded our grinder inventory and we were back in the batch brewing business.

Coffee – a multi-sensory experience

As we patiently awaited the finish of the initial 5-minute brewing process, Charlotte and I were delighted not only with the aroma permeating the room, but also with the sounds being generated by the brew process. One of the first thoughts this experience stimulated was of a market blitz our Coffee Service Company coordinated back in the early 1990’s, where we identified a competitor that in our estimation had an inferior private-label product. Our directive to the sales team was a simple one: Show, smell and brew. The visual differences along with the intriguing aromas closed many an account even before brewing a pot. Our team had fun, closed a lot of accounts, and made money for the company and themselves. It was an exciting experience of sight, sound, smell, and taste.

An Evolving Coffee Service Market

Around the same time as our market blitz, the single-cup brewing movement was gaining momentum. Office consumer fascination with variety and convenience was creating a demand/pull dynamic that resulted in a steady move away from batch brewing to cups, pouches and pods. The trend has continued through recent times. And though for almost two decades we operators have enjoyed a big lift in same-account sales and profits by converting accounts to single cup, with each new season comes more downward pricing pressure from operator proliferation and lowering retail cup prices.

Coupled with these realities, for several years there has been a growing demand for higher quality brew-by-pack blends. The menu of offerings from long-time single cup manufacturers and newer participants in the category has continued to expand, and the quality has improved. But are all of the needs and demands in the office being met?

The Fractional Pack Re-birth?

As I reached out to some of my operator friends, I was not surprised to hear that consumption of some “kits” was on the upswing. More often than not, the SKU’s in growth mode were found to be the higher-end varietals and blends. While it is too early to assume that this trend will move throughout the industry and grow, the prospects of this pose interesting possibilities on the revenue side of things for the operator and a resurgence of traditional business for the roaster.

Thanks to the single-cup pioneers, office coffee service customers have accepted a 70-cent and beyond cost per cup. (Even at this level, office coffee service remains a great value). Does this create new possibilities for high-end fractional packs and/or bulk coffee? Can the days of selling “decent” Arabica blends in the forty-dollar range packed in 40ish count cases be replaced by operators offering higher end blends that could command double that selling price (and profit)?

One thing is for sure. The multi-sensory experience that can be delivered by batch-brewing coffee from a fractional pack or bulk bag is a delightful one.

An industry marked by change

Looking back over the 50-year history of the Coffee Service industry, there have been a number of milestones such as:

The inception of Coffee Service

The creation of the nitrogen-flushed fractional pack

Introduction of thermal decanters

The Coffee Shop phenomenon

Single-Cup Brewing

Looking ahead, one can only wonder what the next decade and beyond will look like, given the growing number of Millennials in the workplace and their discriminating palates; the growing number of small offices that are underserved today, and the ever-expanding desire for a great brew….by the cup or by the “batch!” Will we see another milestone?

Stay tuned.

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