I love that this is something up for discussion on BH!
I've been working with some pretty incredible coffee minds over the past 12 months, exploring capsules and experimenting with what we can do with them.
[I haven't named by business here, because I don't want this to be about my product. I want it to be about my experience in this realm (plus, I don't want this to be spammy!). What follows below is just my (rather long-winded) two cents on this topic]
A quick summary with answers to the specific questions raised, if you don't want to read my full (long) answer:
* Will they make specialty coffee approachable? If this is done right (and I think education is a big, big part of this), then yes - the existing market of capsule drinkers can be exposed to how amazing specialty coffee can be!
* Gateway drug or endpoint? Gateway. Per my point above, if it exposes people to specialty coffee and they enjoy it, capsule machines can just be another one of the brewing methods they use in enjoying the world of specialty coffee. Capsule drinkers still go out to cafes, and if they know to look for specialty coffee, they're going to enjoy a better coffee!
* Wrong message? Not if it's done right!
Ok, now read on if you're interested!
Big mindset shift
There's no denying it has been a hard 12 months trying to put specialty coffee into pods. But something really interesting happened the more we explored pod coffee: our mindset shifted from "pods are awful, and that's the end of it" (something I know many of my fellow baristas believe to be true); to instead realising that ultimately, it is "just another brewing method".
That mindset shift was huge. It made exploring pod coffee exciting - almost unchartered territory (for specialty coffee at least, with some progressive exceptions).
It meant that we had this amazing opportunity to expose a really big, captive market of pod users to a better product. That is really, really exciting.
Imagine knowing that you can make something millions of people enjoy, better* than they're used to!
That's why I've been doing what I'm doing.
[*we all know the deal with the term "better" - here, of course, I mean objectively by specialty coffee standards, but that naturally includes flavour profile]
Now for the hard part - is it going to be a specialty coffee mainstay?
I think it can be, but that will hinge on two really big prerequisites (however big, I do consider both to be achievable)
Pod coffee needs to get better, more environmentally friendly, and explored in great detail;
The specialty Coffee industry needs to be more open to pod coffee, and not dismiss it as 'convenience over quality' - when it can be both (in my opinion).
Naturally, Point 2 above (the industry being more open to pod coffee), really requires pod coffee to get better first. But some people (including yours truly) are working hard to make that happen!
What the people want
As I've noted above, I think that before people in the specialty coffee industry explore pods, and get even close to accepting them as a 'specialty coffee mainstay', people need to make them better. That's what I'm trying to do, with some pretty amazing help from others in the industry.
However to make them better takes time, experimentation, and costs money. It's cost us thousands to get where we are today (and we've barely launched). As a business, we need to recoup those costs; we're (sadly) not funded to explore, research and experiment with pod coffee to make it better
[...although how good would that be?!?]
So, the product has to be one that sells. And who will buy our product? People who already have capsule machines!
We've already seen (according to my point above re/ the 2 prerequisites) that sadly, people in the industry aren't (yet) ready to try capsule coffee to the point that they'll buy themselves a Nespresso(R) pixie.
So, we've got to sell to people who already have capsule machines first.
We've worked tirelessly to develop some pretty amazing roasts over the past 12 months (and some pretty awful ones along the way too!). One thing that's hit me in the guts has been hearing feedback that our flagship coffee tastes 'weak' to many of our customers.
This is a coffee that's ticking all of the right boxes from a specialty coffee point of view! TDS and extractions figures are close to spot on, and the flavour profile is great even for non-pod coffee! I'm genuinely proud of this coffee. But it's too weak!?!
It's because people with capsule machines are, generally, used to an 'Intensity 10' or even 'Intensity 12' roast that consists of mainly robusta beans, roasted so dark it doesn't even look like coffee when you crack open one of the pods. If you tasted it, you would almost cry. It is, by our standards, pretty awful.
But that's what people with capsule machines are used to, and with 80% of capsule coffee drinkers in Australia enjoying their coffee with milk, it requires some balancing...
It's a hard balance; we've got to make something that appeals to existing capsule customers because we are, after all, a business (and we're not going to make pods that nobody will even try!). But we've got to stick to our guns and make specialty coffee that celebrates the origin, the farmer, the unique flavour profile that each of our coffees can offer us - because that's what I love about coffee, and that's what my product has to be.
So what to do? We're going with a few of strategies:
We're offering a more 'accessible' coffee that's roasted a little darker than we'd like, but still offers some great complexity and structure (and isn't baked to the point of tears);
We're pushing an agenda of education: where we explain where our coffee comes from, what makes it so special, how to enjoy it (maybe try a little less milk!) and why it might not taste exactly like other capsule coffee (and importantly, why that's a good thing!);
We're experimenting with more unique, 'specialty-esque' roasts that we'll run on limited release: these will be roasted to what we consider specialty coffee standards. These bad boys will be pretty incredible (judging by what we've managed to achieve so far!). They'll be recommended black and it'll take a lot of education, but we're committed to pushing this agenda hard both with our existing customers but also with the potentially new market of specialty coffee lovers.
It's got a long way to go, there's no denying that. But there are a few people who are working hard to make an existing product better. That's what's exciting me. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning - to expose capsule coffee drinkers to specialty coffee and - eventually - make capsule coffee something that is considered just another brewing method, even in the specialty sphere!
(And just quickly - Regarding the environmental matters, because I mentioned it above - many capsules are either biodegradable or made of fully recyclable plastic. Some companies are now developing fully compostable pods which, once they're commercially viable, will be pretty cool -they'd be so beneficial for the compost bin that I could almost see some people buying them for the compost and not even drinking the coffee! )