Over the last ten years, there has been an interesting change in styles and trends of coffee beverages served in specialty cafes. When I started making coffee I didn’t understand much about coffee flavour and more specifically, how to manipulate and control a flavour experience.

Coffees at that time were rarely balanced or harmonious in structure.

Double ristretto, double shot, less milk, more water and any other variations of ‘standard drinks’ were more regularly ordered in my cafe than now. These variations were generally based around increasing or decreasing the intensity of traditional ‘coffee flavour’, which we now often identify as bitterness, roast, astringency and more.

With the progression of coffee knowledge, farming, roasting and extraction we are now gaining far more control over the intensity and balance of varietal and origin flavour. Barista and Brewers competitions have helped create new acceptable ‘baselines of quality’ and we have now spent years more scientifically understanding how to bring out the unique characteristics of coffee flavour.

While flavour is important, the value of competitions have also pushed us to understand taste balance (the balance of bitter, acid and sweet aspects) and tactile expectations (roundness, texture and finish) which are subconsciously important to any person regardless of their experience, or how much they are paying attention to what they are drinking. With this new level of control over taste experiences, there has come a shift in drink styles to reflect an increasingly progressive industry.

Part of this shift has involved removing the traditional cappuccino, latte and flat white style ordering system that many of us in Australia are accustomed to, in favour of more simplified and structured menus with options like milk, black and filter.  Some people see this change as offering less choice due to the simplified number of drinks served – however I disagree with this statement, because this style of menu opens up so many new possibilities, choices and advantages for the customer.

The first advantage revolves around specialisation. In the food industry we have seen specialisation win more often than not. We are now seeing more success amongst stores that specialise in one food (such as those only serving fried chicken). These businesses have been able to focus on their ingredients and preparation to a level of detail previously unmatched. These models have become increasingly popular because they had lead to a higher level of quality, efficiency and consistency due to their attention to detail.

In the coffee industry the best milk based coffees I have ever tasted have been made using coffee that was processed, then roasted, then extracted with the intention of achieving a specific result, but when the end product is unclear or always changing then it is more difficult to line up each aspect to maximise its potential.

Those who tailor origin, process and roast to a more specific end result have created a greater separation between different origins, varietals and styles of flavour. When coffees taste so different from one another in a good way, we have seen far more interest from the customer in idea of specialty coffee.

Since ONA Coffee cafes started this simplified drink menu five years ago at The Cupping Room, customers have started asking for a specific blend or flavour characteristic rather than a latte or flat white.  It hasn’t always been easy – there has been a lot of “Why can’t I just have a latte?” and reading a coffee menu in this new way can be confusing at first. However, this style of menu gives a more real choice to the customer, given 5 grams milk difference from latte to flat white isn’t creating dramatic separation between options. For an example, you can see what a daily coffee menu looks like at ONA Coffee’s newest venue, Highroad:

See example of Coffee Menu 

So instead of choosing between a latte or flat white, the customer can choose between a lighter bodied blend with more gentle caramels and malts as a flavour preference. Or, they can order a more chocolatey, bolder style blend to suit their preferences. In this way, the consumer can truly fit their preference, rather than experiencing a coffee they don’t enjoy, washing it out with more milk, or ordering a latte due to the bigger glass and ‘weaker taste’.

With a less complicated drinks selection, the coffee menu can be further broken down into labels or quality levels of coffee as judged by the roastery and coffee buyers. Should the customer be interested in unique flavour experiences they can order a gold label filter coffee (90+ cupping score) which would be made using a pour-over, and if they are not fussy they can order a black label filter coffee which would be made using a batch brew and is more straight forward in flavour profile. This way the customer doesn’t need to understand every detail of how a coffee is prepared, rather they can choose based on intensity and expectation of quality.

The result is a system of coffee ordering that satisfies the intention of flat white and latte style menus whilst simultaneously allowing for new flexibility, quality and variations in flavour experiences. In other words, more potential engagement for the customer.

But can the customer properly engage with this ordering system, or is the industry moving too fast? For me, the answer is built around execution, guidance and attitude. The most fundamental aspect to the success of this system is constantly driving for higher quality from coffee so as to make different origin flavours easier to connect with.

Guidance and attitude of the person selling the coffee is still essential even if the quality and consistency is higher. This can be as simple as not using negative words such as no and can’t, and rather framing any situation as a positive, guiding the customer to their own new choice. Removing the detailed information on how an aeropress or v60 may differ can simplify the choice and in turn allow the customer to focus on what is important, coffee flavour.

Moving forward, I still see driving for higher quality as the most important aspect. Creating new ‘baselines of quality’ gives the perception of more consistency. Without proper execution of flavour to match expectations, the whole delivery of specialty coffee to the consumer means very little, unless their expectation of quality is very low.

With subtle restructuring of coffee menus, and the removal of the noise and information overload I see coffee being sold based on intensity, flavour and quality expectations, and something anyone can connect with.

Hugh Kelly 
ONA Coffee Research and Development