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Australia’s Coffee Culture Evolution

I’ve had coffee on the brain lately. No, not in the blood – on the brain.

I don’t mean that I’ve been drinking copious amounts of coffee (although occasionally I do indulge). Rather I’ve been reflecting on Australia’s evolving coffee culture. Hasn’t the standard for coffee in this country moved up a gear in the past decade or so?

For example, once upon a time Espresso machines were only found in niche outlets in areas like Melbourne’s Carlton or Sydney’s Leichhardt. Now they’re commonly found in the homes of middle Australia. So what does this new coffee culture mean for coffee in accommodation?

The old coffee standard in accommodation – Brewed or percolated coffee is still found in many motel and hotel breakfast rooms. For those of you who still offer guests a pot of stale, burnt coffee as beverage ‘service’, the time has well and truly come to take this equipment to the tip. It’s as contemporary as bakelite. The alternatives are relatively simple on this front.

In regards to in-room coffee offering, for a long time guests have been arriving into their room to find a small assortment of sugar sachets, tea bags and… instant coffee.

Now stop for a moment to ask yourself: what do your guests who like, indeed love, their coffee think about instant coffee sachets? Yes they’re free. And free is great for sugar and tea as there are very few tea snobs and who’s even heard of a ‘sugar snob’? But when it comes to coffee it’s quite likely that a number of guests look at instant coffee and dismiss it out of hand even if it is free.

There is even a growing risk that guests look at their free instant coffee and say to themselves, ‘Ugh! Instant coffee.’ That is, free instant coffee not only fails to convey a positive impression or a neutral, but a negative one. Now ask yourself: why would you pay for something that could be damaging guest perceptions of your hospitality?

Towards new coffee solutions – Now I am aware that you already realise that the coffee culture has changed. You’ve probably got your own high coffee standards. And many properties are implementing options that are more in tune with today’s coffee expectations.

For example properties with conferencing are often using automated coffee machines. In breakfast rooms, plunger coffee may have replaced brewed coffee pots. Many have ground coffee and plungers in-room. At the top end of the market Espresso coffee machines are rapidly being deployed into lounges, reception areas and executive suites.

Yet for many operators there are problems with the new alternatives involving both quality and cost. First, the standard of alternative coffee options can easily fall short of a barista-made coffee. Second, many options are expensive and relatively complicated to maintain, some prohibitively so. Let’s look at these in turn but rather than considering conferencing and buffet settings – where cost barriers are more easily overcome – I will concentrate on the challenges of in-room and breakfast-room coffee in mid-tier accommodation.

Coffee quality – Accommodation faces the daunting challenge of providing a coffee experience at least vaguely near that supplied by cafés – businesses that invest heavily in coffee – yet with low maintenance and capital costs in a demanding, unsupervised environment. There are varying qualities of instant coffee, essentially due to the difference between ground (powder) and freeze-dried. Freeze-dried is superior.

Beyond instant the picture gets complicated. There are options such as coffee bags (like tea bags); latte/cappuccino sachets (with powdered milk, just add water); brewed and plunger (excluding stove-top espresso that are impractical). Apart from the method of coffee brewing, the quality, grind and freshness of bean are critical to the final taste. Beans can lose significant taste just two weeks after roasting.

Plunger coffee is potentially a middle-ground (assuming quality of bean, roast and grind). Yet the final taste also hinges on how well the coffee is brewed by the guest. The main advantages of plunger coffee are that it’s a familiar method and it conveys a positive impression of quality but raising the bar beyond plunger means coffee machines, and they bring potentially prohibitive costs.

Coffee costs – There is one basic problem facing accommodation and the costs associated with improving coffee standards: coffee is generally supplied free to the guest (or in a breakfast package). Which means costs come off the bottom line.

However there may be some straightforward ways to reduce costs on this front. For example, for in-room supplies, ground coffee ‘bricks’ are four to five times more expensive than plunger bags. Latte or cappuccino sachets are much less costly than plunger options but arguably superior to instant coffee sachets. Obviously quality perception comes into play in relation to price.

Towards a solution – While alternatives may help to reduce costs and improve quality, these still fall a long way short of Espresso coffee and only an Espresso machine can make up the ground, so to speak (aside from the exotic tools and techniques of coffee nuts). The solution to the dilemma is to find a way to enable guests to pay for their choice of coffee.

After all, it’s a premium beverage with a devoted following. Many guests will pay. This is where an Espresso machine is critical because the latest machines provide the quality expected by today’s coffee consumers (indeed many are familiar with them at home). Some Espresso machines are low maintenance (or can be managed by contract) and have options such as coin or token operation. Some machines use brand-specific coffee pods that can act as ‘coffee currency’, such as Nespresso machines. Coffee currency – in the form of tokens, sachets or pods – can be sold via rooms, as part of breakfast packages (or in the case of some breakfast packs literally inside the packs) just like any guest amenity. This approach capitalises on the important link between food and beverage – each one sells the other.

The standard of coffee in accommodation needs to rise – the coffee culture demands it. Nonetheless, no single solution is obvious within the operational constraints of accommodation. The industry needs to explore a multitude of new and creative ideas, including enabling guests to pay for a superior coffee experience. These new models will, hopefully, give guests a better quality coffee in their room, in guest lounges, at reception or on their way out the door, while at the same time being economically sustainable for accommodation businesses.

Angus McLeay
Travel Essentials

About Tim Svenson

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