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Growing Your Business and the Specialty Coffee Industry

James Hoffman recently published a blog post titled A Customer Conundrum where he mostly discusses how to convert second wave coffee drinkers to the third wave without coming off as a snobby. Here's the problem statement in Jim's words:
We’ve tried in the past to appeal to the wider audience. We told them, loudly and proudly, that we served better coffee than the chains. The results of our marketing claims weren’t what we hoped. People liked the coffee they were buying from the chains, and considered us pompous and pretentious. Some just thought that we were trying to ride some new trend, that we lacked authenticity and called us hipsters. Very few threw down their cups in newly-discovered disgust, and headed to the nearest independent for a better tasting replacement.
I probably would have missed this article entirely if it wasn't then shared on Reddit, where u/anomander added a lengthy response (def worth the read). Here's his conclusion:
The industry itself may not be the best promoters of what's seen as 'its own' vision. Our consumers themselves are far more effective leaders and persuaders than we are, and if the industry wants to focus energy on any one direction, better empowering the consumers already sold on the craft coffee vision to promote what we make to others is a far more winning strategy. Often, they're promoting to people they know, so an audience they're familiar with, and with a relationship they've a vested interested in approaching respectfully and convincingly. We don't want to ignore the unreached market, but if our best efforts have been largely to naught and occasionally counterproductive - we need to make a point of not doing the same thing, louder.
Being the founder of Angels' Cup puts me in a somewhat unique position to comment on this topic because we ship blind coffee tastings to our subscribers who then record tasting notes via an app. We get to see what they say about a broad range of coffees, in tremendous detail. Here's an example of an advanced user's tasting notes. And of course, our goal like any business, is to attract and retain customers. Customers range from industry professionals (Q-graders, roasters, shop owners), to people who are just dipping their toes into specialty coffee because they want to see what's out there. We solicit a ton of feedback from subscribers and in many cases we develop relationships with them and know who they are. Anomander's response above is entirely correct. 95% of new subscribers to Angels' Cup come from referrals or reviews people find online. Our monthly advertising budget is less than $100 because it really doesn't work (or at least we haven't figured it out). We've also optimization tested the copy on our website. Saying things like "our coffee is good/better/best", doesn't work. Saying "our coffee is 100% arabica and single origin, here are the roasters we've featured", works much better. In general, the philosophy should be show, not tell. On a more granular level, there are things we can do to promote specialty coffee in productive ways. Here are a few:
  1. Natural process Ethiopians - Instead of saying "our coffee is better than what you currently drink", try saying "our coffee has an unmistakable blueberry flavor, a product of where it's grown, come see if you can taste the blueberry too". The customer says "wow, I get it", and now you've opened them up to all the interested flavor profiles of single origin coffee. Blueberry bombs are a gateway drug.
  2. Public coffee tastings - We've set up Coffee Hunter meetup groups in NYC, San Fran, Atlanta, Philly (needs a new manager), and we're loosely affiliated with one in Des Moines. Offering free coffee cuppings to the public (preferably on Sunday) is a great way to show, not tell.
  3. Barista for a day - When I ask people how they got into coffee, the #1 answer is they worked for a coffee shop. Bars have guest bartender nights. I have no experience with this so can't say if it works, but if I owned a coffee shop I would experiment with guest baristas.
  4. Quality is subjective - It's easy for us to think that people who like dark roasted coffee have that preference because they haven't been exposed to specialty coffee yet, or they're unfortunate victims of marketing campaigns that have brainwashed them into thinking dark roasted coffees are high quality. This isn't true. "Dark roast" is a flavor profile, not a quality score, and some people legitimately like it. Either appeal with a dark roast option, or accept that they're not part of your demographic.
Just my two cents, maybe I'm off base. Welcome to feedback though. And by the way, Jim concludes his blog post with:

I’m interested in collaborating, iterating and learning quicker than others who act alone. I would summarise it all this way: we need to create opportunities for discovery. The coffee served needs to be delicious, it needs to make the people who serve it proud and excited, and it needs to be done in an environmentally and financially sustainable way. I think we’re all getting better at that, and now we need to get much better at creating opportunities to showcase the best of what we do to new customers. I believe working together is a more effective way of creating such opportunities, and I’m open to support and collaborate with anyone and everyone on that.

That's exactly what we're doing at Angels' Cup! The roasters we feature get access to all the data app users are recording on their coffees, and many roasters have been blown away by what they learn. And perhaps more importantly it's a huge opportunity for roasters to showcase their coffees in a harsh environment where brand bias won't save you. If you're a roaster interested in sending us samples, contact abby @ angelscup.com

10 Best New York Coffee Roasters You Shouldn't Miss

10 Best New York Coffee Roasters You Shouldn't Miss
There are so many amazing coffee roasters in NYC and Brooklyn that we easily could have added another 20 names to this list. But we narrowed it down to the 10 we like best. Hope you find something new and exciting to try!

10. City Of Saints Coffee Roasters

Brooklyn-born roaster City Of Saints unites people, businesses, and the community around them through good coffee. Their beautiful and massive space in Bushwick also brings local roasters together where they can roast on City of Saint's new Loring S35. Definitely reach out to them if you're looking to get into roasting but don't have $90,000 to drop on a 2-story tall roaster. Their Kenya Watuha is excellent so is the Sumatra. And what about that packaging design?! Totally cool. City of Saints Kenya

9. Lofted Coffee

In a stylish 1000 square foot loft in Brooklyn that most people dream of living in, you'll find the guys of Lofted Coffee and their gorgeous cat perfecting the art of coffee. They focus on quality green beans and roasting to Scandanavian standards of delicacy. Their Colombia Narino and Colombia Pompeya are flawless cups! Lofted Podcast 8

8. Luft Coffee

Bespoke coffee is alive and well in New York City thanks to the guys at Luft Coffee. Their light, clean style is embodied in their aesthetic and roasting style. Their method and style is unique and really brings out the nuances of the bean. The talent comes through in every cup and they are definitely a roaster to look out for! The Colombia Huila is our favorite, so complex that you discover a different flavor/fruit in every sip. Luft Burundi Kayanza

7. Joe Bean Coffee Roasters

Behind the excellent coffee at Joe Bean is a dedicated team that loves sharing experiences, whether coffee or culinary. Drink and food is their motivation and innovating fresh new ideas for coffee is one of them. Creating a new coffee-loving city in Rochester is very exciting and we cannot wait to see the coffee adventures the future holds for them! Their Uganda Buginyaya is a must try. Super exciting cup with graham cracker mixed with winter spices. Ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon are present with apple and pear acidity. Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 12.48.45 PM

6. Peaks Coffee

"In the depressing winter of 2014, Peaks was born in a snowy backyard on a cast iron skillet." And the rest is coffee goodness history. The team at Peaks Coffee want to share every coffee drinker's peaks and valleys in life over a great cup of coffee. Their beautiful mission comes with beautiful coffee. We are definitely excited to be working with such a great roaster. Try their Ethiopia Guji. Unmistakeable peach shines through and lingering cotton candy sweetness make this coffee a dream. Peaks Coffee Company

5. Gimme Coffee

One of the leaders in the specialty coffee scene in New York, Gimme Coffee is one of our favorites. this award-winning roaster is truly talented and their coffees are always excellent and well crafted. Consistency and quality is always present and the team at Gimme is dedicated with improving the coffee community around them. Their Congo beans were out of this world. Very complex, with the flavor of a Kenyan a body of a Sumatran. Gimme Congo & Tanzania

4. Copper Horse Coffee Roasters

Art and science come together at the small batch roastery of Copper Horse Coffee in Ithaca, NY. A lot of love and hard work goes into every batch and they carefully roast the beans taking into consideration the different factors that each individual bean has. This award winning roaster is a true gem. The award winning Enrique Torres Colombian is a favorite, as well as the Panama Carmen Estate Copper Horse Coffee Roasters

3. COFFEED

Great coffee and doing good for the world is what COFFEED is all about. One of the very first local roasters we worked with, their commitment to charity is inspiring and the coffees are always interesting and fun. Their Cameroon Oku Valley was one of the most interesting cups we've had. Snappy acidity with an upfront earthiness and a mild sweet finish make it a must try! coffeed

2. Gorilla Coffee

Another Brooklyn-born roaster, Gorilla Coffee boasts fantastic espressos not only for New Yorkers but also people in Tokyo pining for third wave coffee from the U.S. thanks to new Gorilla Coffee that opened there. Exceptional quality and top notch equipment make Gorilla Coffee a consistently great cup. And their owner, Carol is so much fun! Gorilla Coffee

1. Cafe Integral

Keep an eye out for Cesar Vega and his team at Cafe Integral. They are raising the bar in the coffee community, introducing exceptional Nicaraguan coffees to New Yorkers and beyond (they also have a cafe in Chi-town). They are a dedicated group, very proud of their product and rightfully so. Their honeyed Maracaturra is complex but clean and crisp with a hefty and comforting body perfect to start your day with. cafe integral

Want to try more coffee?

Angels' Cup is an online coffee tasting club where subscribers get to blindly sample up to 208 different coffees per year, from over 100 top 3rd wave roasters. Small samples sizes mean you get to sample more coffees for less money. Tasting flights start at only $8.99!

Join Angels' Cup Today!

A Vinebox Review From the Founder of a Coffee Subscription

A Vinebox Review From the Founder of a Coffee Subscription
A few weeks ago, Angels' Cup gained a new follower on Twitter. It was the folks at Vinebox, a wine subscription service offering small tasting flights. As the founder of a coffee subscription service also offering small tasting flights, I couldn't resist signing up. I think my experience as the founder of a similar company (but in a different market) might make for an interesting perspective on what Vinebox is up to and whether or not you should give it a try. For a little background, before I launched Angels' Cup, I actually considered doing a wine club but passed on the idea in favor of coffee. The name "Angles' Cup" comes from the wine and whisky world where "angel's share" or "devil's take"refers to the small portion of wine/whiskey that evaporates through the walls of the barrel as it ages. It was fun to imagine that missing portion being sent to subscribers. I chose to go with coffee instead of whiskey or wine for a few reasons. Most importantly, sampling 208 different coffees per year is affordable. A cup of the best coffee on earth costs less than $3, and in my opinion that makes it a better way for average people to develop a sharper sense of taste. But despite the fact I keep hearing that "coffee is more complex than wine", I don't believe it. Coffee technically might have more chemical compounds in it, but wine has so much more going on in terms of varietal, origin, and vintage. So I was extremely excited to see that Vinebox not only launched a wine tasting subscription, but did a better job than I ever could! I signed up immediately, and a week or two later, my Vinebox arrived! ?? Vinebox 2

Website and Packaging - 10/10

Wow this is nice packaging. The bottles are beautiful and photogenic. The box has a magnetic closure. Those aren't cheap. Everything fits together well, the chance of a bottle breaking in shipping is probably 0%, you can throw this thing down a flight of stairs and it won't break. A+ work, Vinebox!

Value - 6/10

Vinebox costs $35/month. Plus $6 s&h equals $41 total per box. Each box contains three 100ml vials of wine. A typical wine bottle is 750ml. So the equivalent cost per bottle is $102.50! Here's how a 100ml pour looks in a glass: Vinebox 3Vinebox 5Vinebox 4 Now, I hate when people think about Angels' Cup this way because if you want to minimize your cost per ml, you should buy a case of wine, not sample vials. That being said, it's hard to resist the psychological draw of doing the math because it lets you compare apples to apples. And at $102.50/bottle, this is an expensive apple. At this price, I mentally can't just allow myself to relax and be a subscriber indefinitely. I'm going to have to reevaluate whether or not this is worth it every time I receive a box. The other questions need to answer is how expensive are the wines? This table shows each wine, the full bottle price listed on Vinebox.com, and the price I could get each bottle for according to wine-searcher.com Wine, Vinebox Cost, wine-searcher Cost 2014 La Damme Blanche, $25, $17-19* 2009 Château Suau, $35, $18** 2013 Castelmaure Cuvée no 3, $40, $23** Average, $33, $19.67
* 2014 not available, this is the average price for 2011-2013
** Not available in the US, based on conversion of euros to dollars
That doesn't look so good... I'm paying about a 3x markup for the sample sizes. But there's one major caveat to consider: None of these wines were readily available in the US, and I have no idea what import fees, taxes, and shipping would add to the cost. It's entirely possible that if these were on the shelves, they could all be $40-50 bottles. Eventually we'll receive some samples that are available in the US and be able to make a better comparison. I feel like part of the value I could get out of Vinebox is trying things I can't afford to drink on a regular basis, so I really hope the numbers come in higher when we're able to make that apples-to-apples comparison. At Angels' Cup, an 11oz box of coffee costs $22 (shipped), and includes 4 samples of coffee that if purchased individually would have cost $18-21 for 12oz anyway. Angels' Cup isn't the cheapest coffee per oz, but it is the cheapest way to try a ton of different coffees. At $41 for 3 samples, it might be cheaper to simply to go a wine bar and share a few glasses with a friend. Also important to note, the wines were all good. All three were from Bordeaux, and fortunately I've had a lot of Bordeaux wines in the last two years. It's a hit or miss region and sometimes you get real swill. All three selections were what I would consider to be in the top 25% for wines up to $50. No stinkers.

Oxidation - 8/10

My key concern going into this wasn't so much the cost, it was oxidation. When you expose a wine to air, it begins to oxidize which significantly changes the flavor. You can't just open a bottle of wine, pour it into a vial, and ship it to someone (legality aside). Either the winery has to bottle it straight into the vial from the barrel, or the exchange has to be done in an oxygen-free environment. These particular vials say "Bottled for Vinebox Inc. by WIT France". A quick Google search for "WIT France wine bottling" yields this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8IWgj40Pss (which I recommend you don't watch). If I had seen that video before subscribing, I wouldn't have joined. It was not confidence inspiring. But since joining, I've chatted about oxidation with the founder, and that's not the machine they're using. They're using some sort of contained processing line. Ignore the video. I was planning to buy full bottles of the Vinebox wines to sample side-by-side with the vials, but unfortunately couldn't find any in the US. I think I heard a rumor that the second delivery will feature mostly Californian wines, so maybe I'll be able to do a better analysis next time. For now, my inexpert opinion is that the white wine was 100% fresh. It had nice buttery notes and tropical fruit acidity. The reds didn't taste oxidized, but I wouldn't aerate or decant them either. Again, not an expert on this stuff, I just know what wine tastes like a few days after opening and I'm listening to my tongue. Hopefully I'll be able to be more precise next month and update this review.

Overall - 8/10

At the end of the day, I've decided to keep my subscription for another month. Here's a rough guide to help you make your decision:
  • Who should subscribe today:
    • Gift Buyers - I think that Vinebox is a particularly excellent gift idea, it looks great, it's fun, and the wines were delicious. You won't be disappointed.
    • Casual Explorers - If your goal is to try a few extra wines this year without breaking the bank, Vinebox makes a fun monthly subscription.
  • Who should wait:
    • Aspiring Somms - If you're signing up because you just watched Somm and want to get into wine, your money is probably better spent on a WSET or wine tasting class, or even just splitting some bottles with other friends who share your interest.
    • Value Hunters - The value proposition is this subscription's weakness. It's an easy problem for the founders to fix though, all they need to do is select more expensive wines. If the box included three $50+ wines, this subscription would be indispensable to me.

Final Thoughts

All this comes with one major caveat. This is Vinebox's first shipment ever. If I was an Angels' Cup subscriber for the first shipment, I would have unsubscribed in a heartbeat. We shipped some coffees that we weren't terribly proud of because we thought our audience would want to learn the difference between light and dark roasted coffee. We also foolishly forced ourselves to ship coffees from a wide geographic range at the expense of flavor. A year later, we have stronger relationships with roasters, we know what our subscribers are looking for, and we're 100% confident in the coffee we ship. I'm optimistic that Vinebox will be able to gather feedback from early users, improve the service, and build an awesome business. They're off to a good start, and I'm excited to be along for the ride!

Join Vinebox OR Join Angels' Cup