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The new black: How coffee got creative

By Hannah Thompson , 21-Nov-2016
Last updated on 22-Nov-2016 at 10:19 GMT2016-11-22T10:19:53Z

The new black: How coffee got creative peak coffee

With the opening of new shops apparently slowing and brand loyalty at an all-time low, we look at the innovative new concepts fighting back against ‘peak coffee’.

It often feels like the UK can’t move for coffee shops.

From established giants such as Costa, Caffe Nero and Starbucks to the smaller, ‘independent’ and ‘hipster’-style groups such as Workshop, Brew, Grind and Co, and Bobs and Berts, the coffee sales market has grown 10 per cent to almost £8bn in the past year, and new concepts pop up quicker than you can say 'flat white'.

According to recent research, UK consumers drink an incredible 2.2bn cups of coffee a year.

From cold brew to Japanese, gravity-fed drip towers, and everything in between – and even brands such as pub chain JD Wetherspoon  and stationers WHSmith getting in on the action – coffee seems as energetic as an extrovert after six espressos.

‘Peak coffee’?

But when a report from analyst Horizons suggested this month that the UK could be at ‘peak coffee’, and noticed that the market had apparently slowed in the past year, eyebrows were raised.

In its latest Ones to Watch survey, Horizons found that the number of new coffee outlets had grown by just 9.8 per cent, compared to 11 per cent the previous year. Small brands were still fairly dominant, the report suggested, but there were fewer new coffee concepts than before. 

Similarly, a report from analysts the Allegra Group ‒ which oversees the World Coffee Portal research ‒ in April this year suggested that customers were experiencing ‘brand fatigue’ when it came to coffee, with customer loyalty as fickle as ever in the wake of such market saturation.

Sales of coffee were still strong, it said, but the big brands were having to fight harder to maintain market share, with the boom in new concepts (such as Costa’s Costa Fresco concept and Starbucks’ evening menus) evidence of their constant need to innovate and attract. 

With customers’ needs changing and high-end, day-to-night food options becoming ever more in demand, could the caffeine carriage finally be slowing down?

The search for authenticity

It’s not quite that simple, says Jeffrey Young, chief executive of the Allegra Group.

Although he disagrees that the growth of coffee concepts is slowing down overall, he admits that brands are struggling more than before, with quirky ideas most likely to thrive in today’s “fifth wave of coffee”.

He explained: “Cookie cutter brands are not resonating with consumers but good chains are growing. We are now seeing the emergence of the fifth wave of coffee, led by high quality boutique chains. Competition will drive innovation.”

Ultimately, Young’s assessment is that groups that are “truly authentic” and “keeping things simple but doing it extraordinarily well” will flourish. He highlighted innovations such as Caravan Coffee – artisan roasters originally based in London's Exmouth Market – and Workshop Coffee – whose website says it aims to "source, roast and brew the best coffee possible" – as great examples.

Business-class brew

His views would appear to be winning out when it comes to new concepts.

One such example is The New Black (pictured, above), a high-end, coffee-based concept that hit the fast-paced London City when it launched at 10 Philpot Lane earlier this month.

Originally founded in 2012 in Singapore by Malaysian-born entrepreneur Phoa Kia Boon, it is now aiming to bring a “meticulously designed, business-class” experience to corporate coffee lovers.

According to its marketing, it offers ethically-sourced artisan roasts from across the world, with each cup prepared by highly-trained baristas with state-of-the-art machines from Alpha Domiche and Modbar.

In line with consumers’ constant and increasing use of tech, there are even iPads with interactive ‘Tastewheels’, featuring tasting notes to help guests 'better understand the different flavour profiles', according to the group.

This isn’t your average latte.

As Sonja Wittenberg, director at The New Black, says: “The focus [today] should be on quality, good customer service and teaching customers something new. A cup of coffee is so ingrained in many people’s daily routines and we believe they should not have to settle for average or substandard. The coffee we provide has a journey that has been carefully nurtured, roasted and curated.”

Perfect partners

The rise and rise of high-quality food doesn’t alter this championing of a great cup, either, according to Wittenberg, and has been described as yet more evidence of coffee’s continuing innovation.

She explains: “While some artisan coffee is already being offered in hipster and independent cafes…we serve our customers with a ‘business class’ service where baristas [can] help pair their coffee choices with a fine selection of food.”

Similarly, Young from Allegra believes that “high quality, fresh, and artisan” food is a winning formula. “More and more,” he says, “[brands must] focus on excellence most of all. Exceptional quality, a sense of style, and artisan food.”

Sipping with style

Mixing coffee with style and food – and creating coffee shops that also moonlight as offices, nightclubs, exhibition space or private dining rooms ‒ has arguably been on the agenda for years, but none more so than with the ongoing growth of uber-cool London brand The Grind.

Originally founded by David Abrahamovitch and former DJ Kaz James (pictured, above) in 2011, Grind & Co has always blurred the line between laid-back bar and cosy coffee shop.

Soon after opening in Shoreditch, the duo quickly installed a recording studio upstairs, and introduced evening cocktails and DJ nights.

Having pledged wide scale expansion since 2014, the group quickly went on to open the Soho Grind, Holborn Grind (which is in super-cool ‘Millennial’ hotel The Hoxton) and the London Grind in London Bridge, and recently revealed details to open a new flagship site in Clerkenwell following a successful £1.3m crowdfunding bid.

Grind & Co has is no way abandoned its coffee roots, having also recently launched a new roastery in Shoreditch, but it’s fair to say that the Clerkenwell site is designed as much around its restaurant, bar and late-night club – specialising in Espresso Martinis ‒ as its traditional daytime coffee shop.

The proper restaurant (the artist's impression is shown, below) will serve a chef-created menu along the lines of scallops with samphire and miso-glazed spare ribs.

Upon announcing the new site, Abrahamovitch explained the move. He said: “Along with The Grind, we’ve grown up a little. Clerkenwell Grind is our new perfect night out.”

Far from ‘peak coffee’, the apparently-saturated market is now arguably seeing coffee’s creative late-adolescent stage, breaking free of convention and graduating to new horizons.   

As Wittenberg comments: “Innovation is certainly booming across the world. Human beings want choice. Too much homogeneity results in us seeking out new things and experiences… bringing together the true art and science of coffee making.”

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