What Is The Difference Between Specialty And Supermarket Coffee?

Author: Amy Harris

Supermarkets are experts at warping our brains when it comes to buying food and drinks, and our relationship with the relative cost of things we put in our kitchen. Whenever you are shopping in a store, you are bombarded by offers, all ranges of different sizes, buy one get one free’s and it can be tough to judge the product on anything but price. And our view of what is available to us as consumers gets conditioned by these large chain stores. When was the last time you saw a wonky carrot in a Tesco’s? They must all come out the ground perfect now right? I digress… 
When it comes to the coffee aisle, you are greeted with a full range of options to buy, from the convenient (instant, sachets, pods) to the more conventional (whole bean and pre-ground coffee), that you’re probably spending in the region of £2.50-5.00 for a 250g bag. Yet if you are on a specialty coffee brand’s website like ours or at your local coffee house or roasters you are looking to spend around twice the price for the same quantity. What gives? What is the difference and why should you spend DOUBLE? 

Any artisan or craft coffee will generally use 'speciality coffee beans'. These are different to just 'coffee beans’ in the same vein as wines or whiskeys (malt vs single malt), where the focus is on quality and taste as opposed to price. Commodity coffee is the world's second most valuable traded commodity, behind only petroleum, traded on stock exchanges across the world. For producers of speciality coffee, everything is driven by quality of their crop from the farm location, choice of varietals, picking, washing and processing. Their practices are primarily not driven by price to achieve the highest yield economically. For commodity growers, there tends to be far more automation with a focus on speed of production rather than the quality of beans. Coffee produced by the major household brands and stocked in supermarkets generally are made from commodity coffee. Here, I wanted to demonstrate the reasons for the differences between speciality and supermarket coffee so that you can make an informed choice next time you're choosing where to buy coffee. 

Difference between speciality and supermarket coffee 


But I can buy Fairtrade in the supermarket! 
Fairtrade can be a complicated system to get your head around as consumers. On the face of it, it seems like a positive system to the coffee industry and when it was introduced it did bring many coffee farmers out of poverty. As coffee buyers we like to think that we’re selective about they type of coffee we buy and that purchase decision has a good effect further down the chain. But by digging a little deeper, there are many other factors which contribute to Fairtrade. Firstly, supermarkets feel they can charge more for the coffee labelled Fairtrade - and a lot more than the pennies made by the farmer for being part of the Fairtrade system. Also Fair trade can effect the overall quality of the beans that are part of the system - if a farmer has both good and lower quality beans, and has the option to sell to both Fairtrade and Speciality coffee buyers, you know which would go to which in this situation. Speciality coffee buyers are prepared to pay a higher price than a commodity buyer. If this wasn’t the case, then would the speciality market even exist? 
How fresh are we talking?
Any good coffee roaster will have a high turnaround of fresh beans, and therefore are roasting weekly if not more frequently. However, coffee bought from a supermarket will have (in most cases) longer lead times for getting products onto shelves and therefore the beans or ground coffee will be older, and have an extensive sell by date so you could be buying beans roasted six months ago or more. There also doesn’t tend to be a 'roasted on' date on the packaging. Freshness is essential for enjoying coffee at its best, with the aroma of the beans being the first giveaway. For me, the experience of enjoying great coffee starts when the bag is opened and those fragrances hit you, way before you introduce water. 
How much more expensive is it?
This really depends on how much coffee you use to brew, but if you like it strong like us we recommend 28g per cup. So from a 250g bag of our coffee, you’re talking £0.90 per cup. Compare that to a £5 bag at the supermarket which is £0.56 per cup, it’s surely worth that extra 34p for an amazing cup of coffee!? If you like yours a little weaker the prices of course are even less. Put another way, think about for every pound of coffee it has taken approximately 2,000 labourers to hand pick and hand sort beans during harvest. 
But it’s so convenient! 
I hear you. If you do a weekly shop, its great to get everything you need for the kitchen all sorted in one go. But there are certain things you know are worth sourcing from specialists. You deserve better! Whether that is coffee, meat, wine or bread, it pays to source good suppliers for these essentials. And with the Internet, all this can be done from your armchair. Let’s not allow the supermarkets to homogenise our kitchen cupboards any more than they have already...
Convinced yet?
Supermarkets aren’t going away any time soon, we know that. But us as consumers hold all the cards, and we always have a choice. I hope this blog has explained a little more around the difference between a speciality coffee like Jackhammer and the coffee available to you in high street stores. You'll find the rewards of seeking out speciality coffee are worth the effort.