About a year ago the Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company staged a generous and innocuously disruptive event in the heart of New York City: A full-service pop-up dispensing high-quality coffee, completely free of charge, in the form of carefully crafted drinks prepared by skilled local baristas with a backdrop of vibrant art and live music.
The reaction was generally supportive, but mixed, of course, with some New York-style standoffishness and a bit of baseless ridicule peppering the blogosphere.
But with stodginess and misunderstanding aside, the reality on the ground was that last fall’s event was a clear success, gaining valuable exposure for the brand while providing the company with equally valuable information in terms of what attracts and what confuses the consumers they hope to help their client roasters win over.
Currently, the Swiss Water company is at it again, popping up this time in Venice, Calif., where the response from the public has so far been a much more welcoming embrace.
“New York had a little bit of shock and awe, in terms of the idea of a café that’s just serving decaf. It was a pretty bold thing to do in New York, and certainly we saw that reflected in the press,” Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company Director of Marketing Natalie Dean told Daily Coffee News, adding that while consumers did get on board, it did take a bit of explaining.
“Here in L.A. it’s completely different,” she continued. “Angelinos are very focused on health and wellness. That idea of balancing caffeine consumption and energy management is a much more natural concept here.”
Dean said that people in L.A. have proven readily enthusiastic about how decaf presents more of an opportunity than an absence. Said Dean, “They’re getting to the idea that, ‘I can keep drinking coffee because it’s decaf,’ without any of that idea of ‘you’re taking something away from me by taking the caffeine out.'”
From an operational standpoint the pop-up is not dissimilar to the one that occurred in New York. The Swiss Water-branded coffees, this time roasted by Verve Coffee Roasters, are being prepared on a La Marzocco Strada espresso machine as well as Chemex manual brews supported by a Marco precision hot water system. Grinders are Mahlkonig, and the cold brew, produced by Stumptown, is served on a JoeTap tap system. Other offerings include Blue Bottle’s Decaf Noir and coffees by Australian roaster Campos Coffee.
On the upper level of the two-story popup is another bar equipped with a La Marzocco GS3 and space for events. Green importer Royal Coffee has held classes, cuppings, and presentations there featuring visiting coffee producers. Foodie-attractive happenings have included a mixology session with culinary cocktail adventurist Matthew Biancaniello, and a cold brew tasting with Tiny Glacier, makers of flavored artisanal ice cubes.
Dean said that 2016 research by the National Coffee Association has indicated that while coffee consumption overall has declined by 2 percent in the U.S., decaf consumption actually held steady. “Decaf is starting to get a bigger slice of the pie,” said Dean, adding that the research also indicates that decaf consumption is being led by consumers in the 18-24-year-old demographic, followed by consumers aged 25-39.
It therefore stands to reason that as more and more millennials gravitate to coffee and cold brew as a replacement for less healthy sugary and Red Bull-type energy drinks, it’s the same nutritionally aware inclination that inspires them to avoid caffeine later in the day, though they know they’d otherwise still enjoy coffee as their beverage of choice.
“Caffeine regulation is the number one reason why they stop drinking coffee during the day,” Dean said of documented millennial behavior, contending that demand for high-quality coffee without caffeine will correspondingly rise as does the awareness of its quality and availability.
In Los Angeles, where health consciousness and cold brew consumption are both amplified as compared to consumption habits in the northeast, Dean said the pop-up has helped Swiss Water hone in on their messaging going forward. “The piece that’s really coming to light for us is that idea of: Decaf is about staying in coffee all day,” she said. “For coffee shops, there’s an untapped opportunity. You don’t need to bring in blenders and fresh fruit and switch to smoothies in the afternoon. Stick with what you know, stick with what your baristas know, and think about a curated decaf menu for the afternoon and evening.”
As a case in point, Dean cites the emergence of a permanent, brick-and-mortar all-decaf café in Fukuoka, Japan. Operated by Japanese specialty coffee chain Hayama Coffee in a creative cobranding partnership with Swiss Water and Japanese fashion designer Junko Koshino, the totally caffeine-free Hayama location opened in July of this year, and has proven successful enough to warrant a second location that’s slated to open in Tokyo in 2017.
Having connected directly with so many consumers and successfully raised awareness in the media, in person and via social media, Dean reported that Swiss Water is building upon that connection by launching its own online marketplace for decaf coffees. Set to go live next week, the marketplace allow consumers to browse through and order decafs from top-quality roasters, not unlike the larger scale Decaf Depot website that launched earlier this year. However, Swiss Water will still remain more of an ingredient brand, like Intel, as opposed to a direct-to-consumer brand like the roasters to whom it does provide the direct service of decaffeinating coffee.
“We want to be able to take those messages and drive them back to roaster/retailers, because ultimately we’re not a consumer brand, per se,” said Dean. “We’re uncovering opportunities that I think we can take back to the trade and help them grow their business.”
The 10-day Swiss Water free coffee pop-up started at 1421 Abbot Kinney in Venice, Calif. on October 14, and will continue through October 23.
Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.