This morning I have a coffee from Papua New Guinea, presented to me by Clean Coffee Co. Check out the links below and let’s drink some coffee!
CLEAN COFFEE CO. PACIFIC HIGHLANDS BLEND
As I proofread my article I realized that the coffee headline is buried DEEP in this article! TLDR version: the coffee is actually really tasty and I enjoyed it but I waxed eloquently about marketing, strategy, etc etc so skip to the last couple paragraphs if you’re one of those weirdos who actually came here to read about coffee! LOL
As I sat down this morning to write this article I realized how little I know about Clean Coffee Co. or the coffee they sent me to review, so I went on a bit of a research bender. Clean Coffee Co. was started in 2014 by friends, Jarrett Kovics and Jonathan Gosberg. Jarrett lives in Dallas, TX and Jonathan in New York City, so I can only assume Clean Coffee Co. is more of a brand than a full-on coffee company that sources, roasts and sells everything firsthand. This is not uncommon in coffee and in the food and beverage world as a whole. Buying a coffee roaster, renting the space to house it, having all the licenses, electric, gas, maintenance and a million other expenses, not to mention the know-how and time to use the thing, is no small feat. If you want to have a coffee brand but you don’t want to do all of that other stuff yourself then you do what a lot of brands do and you contract the work out. You find an existing coffee roaster who will source your beans, store them, roast them, package them in your packaging and ship them out. Beer brands do this all the time and so do a lot of other industries. It’s smart, but in my opinion it also puts some of these brands at a disadvantage, at least in the specialty market for reasons I’ll expand on further. In the case of Clean Coffee Co., it looks like Jonathan’s background is in PR and business and Jarrett’s name popped up relative to a group of CrossFit gyms in the Dallas area.
The guys at Clean Coffee Co. sent me their current “medium-dark roast” Pacific Highlands Blend. From the packaging and marketing info on the package, this strikes me as something that is geared toward mass appeal within the coffee market, more so than our little niche in the specialty market. There is no roast date or “best by” date to be found (thank God for the latter because I’ve seen certain “loved” brands put “best by” dates a full year out on their bags… they aren’t the most useful thing in the world!) and freshness is certainly at the core of what a specialty coffee drinker is looking for as far as information. There also isn’t a ton of info about the coffee itself to be found. It is grown in Papua New Guinea, it’s Arabica, organic and the beans are said to be “AA-rated.” This puts me in a little bit of a conundrum because if you’ve read KC Coffee Geek for a while or have looked at the list of reviews I’ve done, you’ll see that 99% of what I review is specialty coffee, mostly from small up-and-coming roasters. That being said, who can fault a brand that is aimed at the “mass market” of coffee drinkers? Take Peet’s and Starbucks out of the specialty market and you’re left with a very, very small piece of the overall coffee pie in the USA! So, it’d make sense that a brand would focus on the big part of the market and not the small piece of the pie, as tasty as that piece is!
Here’s where some of the problems start for Clean Coffee Co., though, in my opinion. The unique selling proposition of the brand is that their coffee is “clean,” (this is where the CrossFit influence comes from! LOL) meaning there are little to no chemicals involved. Their social media feeds are loaded with articles and links to the health benefits of coffee, organic products, the environment, etc. My question, then, is does the mass coffee market in the USA care about these things? If your potential customer is someone who may spot your bag as they reach for a huge can of pre-ground Folger’s, will they really care that your coffee is “clean” and buy it at a premium? Or if they’re feeling frisky will they see the wall of Starbucks bags and think, “Oh, hey, I’ve heard of them. People LOVE that stuff” and grab a bag of ‘bucks? I think the average American consumer is of the mindset that if you can buy it in the grocery store it’s safe to consume because we have the FDA and all sorts of stamps of approval on everything and etc etc. Being a health care provider I know the way people’s minds think relative to their health and if they can drink a cup of coffee in the morning and they don’t feel bad in some way because of it, then they probably will be very tough to sell on the idea that it contains anything that may be of potential harm to them, thus the proposition of “clean” coffee is tough stance, in my opinion, for this market. Flip the coin to the specialty market, though, and organic, fair trade, direct trade, etc are all words that we’re used to seeing on dang near everything, so again, the virtue of a “clean” coffee is somewhat lost on that market, too, since we’re already mostly drinking “cleaner” coffee to begin with. The small farmers and their locations on Earth often are organic either out of necessity (cost of chemicals, difficulty to lug them up the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere) or because of use of traditional practices or a greater cultural sense of stewardship and sustainability. If I’m drinking coffee that’s 98% chemical free, let’s say, then do I really care that I can get a brand of coffee that’s 99% chemical free? Not really.
Interestingly, Clean Coffee Co. mentions “total transparency” on their site and provides a chemical analysis of their coffee but they honestly fall short, in my opinion, on the easier things to be transparent about, like who roasts their coffee, the name of the estate/mill it is purchased from, when it was roasted, etc. Again, this may be because I’m looking at this from the perspective of a specialty coffee writer, not an average coffee consumer who would see this on a shelf and grab it at the local grocery store. I guess I’m spoiled by the specialty coffee version of transparency, but again, the details I like to know about coffee aren’t as meaningful to the mass market, so this isn’t uncommon to see from brands that are aimed at the overall market. And, quite frankly, based on the dates I’ve seen on specialty coffee in grocery stores, a “roasted on” date is probably more of a liability than a selling point. The average coffee consumer has no problem grabbing a bag of coffee that may be a year old and enjoying it, so why mess with their heads? LOL
It was nice to see Clean Coffee Co’s chemical analysis on the site, but in 20 years of drinking coffee, I’ve never seen another one of those reports, so I don’t have a frame of reference to know whether that analysis is super unique and special or the same thing I’d see in any of the other organic coffee I drink. I think a more effective way of showing that off would be to pick up a couple other brands of mass market coffee and send them to the same lab and see what their reports look like. That would give the consumer a frame of reference and would enhance the brand’s USP.
Getting to the coffee itself, I found nice, uniform, large beans in the bag with a nice sheen but not overt puddles of oil emerging from the surface. Yes, this is a darker roast, but visually at least, far from the nuking that happens to some brands’ beans. The beans looked beautiful and, as far as what my eyes could tell me, nicely roasted. I used my usual 1:16 ratio of 28g of coffee to 450g of water in the notNeutral Gino pourover to prepare my cups.
The resulting cup was a straightforward darker roast cup of coffee, which is what I expected, and that I enjoyed. As roast levels climb so does the emphasis on caramelized sugars in the beans and at a certain point, some of the origin characteristics are sacrificed. But, a darker roast level also appeals to a lot of coffee drinkers’ palates and plays nicely with basic equipment like the ubiquitous Mr. Coffee! So, if that’s your market and you’re roasting super light, things aren’t going to work well. In the cup I found a clean-tasting, sweet coffee with nice body. There is a good amount of caramel sweetness and tone to the cup, especially as it cools down, and there is very little in the way of the bitterness that sometimes come with a higher roast level or any metallic twang that I sometimes find. In short, for a darker roast, this was really nicely done and a tasty, inviting cup of coffee! Both the body and roast level would stand up nicely to milk, too, I’m sure. In the close-to-room-temperature cup I got tons of caramel and a sweet finish that had lots of spicy notes in it, too. Perceived acidity was low, but there was a little bit of a malic acid character to the cup (think the type of acidity that comes with apples). I enjoyed it!
I’m not sure about the current state of Clean Coffee Co. Their Twitter feed has been silent since April 2016 and their Facebook has been quiet since August. I know my article focused less on their coffee and more on their brand and positioning, but I hope the best for them because starting a business is tough, growing a business is even tougher, and they have a good product that people would enjoy if they’d get it in their hands. I don’t know if they’ve chosen the right USP for their intended market, but what the heck do I know? I think coffee brands that are not actual hands-on coffee companies have a really tough position in the market overall. In the specialty market it’s photos of bags of coffee and trips to origin and roasters doing their thing… that hands-on, craft aspect that so many people whose jobs don’t entail that, that people seem to love. Or, in many cases, it’s kickass service in the roaster’s cafe that sets them apart. Without the craft/story or the service component to focus on for a brand like Clean Coffee Co., I think it’s a tough market and I’ll shut up now.