Specialty Coffee, But Make It Fun

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Few things exemplify millennial food and drink culture better than the specialty coffee shop. It is where avocado toast, “overpriced” drinks, minimalist branding, and pale Kinfolk-worthy interiors collided to create a caricature of an entire generation — one whose influence as tastemakers is, undoubtedly, on the decline. But if millennial coffee culture is a Stagg kettle pouring water over beans in a Chemex in the kind of stark establishment that typifies the AirSpace aesthetic, then what does coffee culture look like as the tide turns toward younger shoppers?

Couplet, a coffee company started by Gefen Skolnick in 2019, offers some suggestions. “My main concern in the brand identity was: It needs to be something that stands out no matter what,” says Skolnick, who is 26. The brand sells a moka pot covered in cow print (the “Mooka” pot); a red French press with heart-shaped cut-outs; and bright, holographic bags of beans, festooned with smiley faces. At pop-ups, Couplet slings lattes using a lavender espresso machine. This isn’t just a visual shift: “We’re passionate about specialty coffee, but it’s just sooooo douchey,” Couplet’s website reads. “Queer woman owned and built for everyone, we created Couplet to make great coffee more fun and approachable.”

Skolnick’s company isn’t an outlier. It seems like every new coffee brand wants to be fun and approachable, positioning themselves in clear opposition to the stuffier specialty purveyors of yore. Through tweaks in both branding and perspective, younger entrepreneurs are hoping to create a coffee scene that’s less stark and self-serious than the Blue Bottles of the world — and more welcoming to anyone, and the many ways they might like their coffee.

Take Chamberlain Coffee, from 21-year-old influencer Emma Chamberlain. Opting for colorful bags of blends themed around cartoon animals (“Fancy Mouse,” “Careless Cat”), it calls itself coffee “without the pretentiousness,” and “without the bland, the beige, the boring.” Founded by 24-year-olds Mitalee Bharadwaj and Lisa Yala, Transcendence Coffee uses a cheery globe mascot to convey its goal of bringing “globally-influenced” syrups — flavored like baklava and gulab jamun — to the specialty market. And from home cafe influencer Vivian Nguyen, also known as @coffeebae97, there are bags of coffee that look precisely designed to be positioned next to one of those TikTok-famous chunky mugs.

Aesthetic departures such as these can be, among many things, a way of signaling that a product has new values, as my colleague Jaya Saxena wrote about olive oil’s rebranding. The minimalism of the previous era of direct-to-consumer food and drinks helped convey their simplified production and the elimination of middlemen. But with millennials and their products associated with the ascetic Goop aesthetic, as trend analyst Andrea Hernández has explained, visual tweaks like color, cartoons, and big curvy fonts signify the novelty of up-and-coming brands. “Specialty coffee — for so long in the third wave movement — has been almost like the black and white of the coffee industry,” says Caitlin Campbell, a coffee roaster and barista. “Now there’s brands moving in and adding that color, adding that personality back into it, which helps to bridge the gap for new people to get involved.”

It’s not just coffee taking this approach, of course. “That’s definitely a trend that I’ve seen across the board with Gen Z products: Just wanting to make whatever product category that they’re in more accessible,” says Claire Spackman, the 25-year-old founder of the newly launched “curated Gen Z online marketplace” Consumerhaus. “Gen Z brands stick out a lot more on the shelf,” she says. “They’re very bold, bright, colorful, and really speak to what today’s younger consumers are looking for.” Her shopping platform includes coffees from Couplet and Wunderground, the latter of which offers mushroom-infused blends in cartoon-covered pastel bags.

As they craft new food brands, Gen Z-led companies attempt to signify the different sensibilities of younger shoppers, which, according to Spackman, includes increased interest in storytelling, openness, and a sense of being mission-driven. When it comes to coffee, a crucial part of this approach seems to be decreasing the sense of judgment around coffee drinking and preparation. A 2021 blog post from the Canadian Barista Institute explains that although the third wave coffee movement was initially typified by a dedication to brewing quality and to a customer experience that combined education, hospitality, and speed, this got sidetracked by “pretentious cafe owners” who were “more concerned with pleasing their peer group than their customers.” Coffee snobbery played out around milk — whether one should use it, and what kind — and even cup sizes.

Skolnick, by contrast, told Thrillist that Couplet doesn’t feel the need to push expensive kettles and grinders, when a French press is simple and can get people to actually try specialty coffee at home. Although flavored, sweetened coffee drinks are sometimes looked down on, associated more with teenagers drinking Starbucks than “serious” coffee drinkers, Transcendence’s Bharadwaj notes that “dessert coffee” deserves to be categorized within the specialty coffee umbrella. “It shouldn’t be an elitist, snobby thing: to only drink black coffee, or you’re not a coffee lover,” she says.

While Campbell, 28, isn’t part of Gen Z herself, her work as a content creator on TikTok falls into this same mindset of making specialty coffee more accessible and friendly. “When I first started on social media, I was super intimidated — almost like someone who didn’t belong to a certain extent — because I knew a lot of what you see [with coffee] is super aesthetic, super expensive equipment. You must make your coffee this way. If you don’t drink it black, there’s something wrong with you,” says Campbell. In one video, Campbell shares a comment left on one of her videos that reads: “You’re using Breville and claiming to be a coffee expert??? Lmao yikes.”

When Campbell does show fancy coffee gear in her videos, she provides no implication that there’s any one right way to make or drink coffee, and there’s no sense of her as that unapproachable coffee snob; she’s known for her jolly greetings, always referring to customers as “my friend.” “I want to be different and I want to show that coffee can be fun,” Campbell says. That’s clearly working, since she’s at nearly a million followers.

Similarly, Couplet’s sense of fun goes beyond its packaging, and the brand displays openness and storytelling in droves. “People call us a ‘Gen Z brand’ simply because we don’t feel like the DTC brand era that was built for millennials,” says Skolnick. Through Instagram and TikTok, Couplet shares memes implying that the characters Frog and Toad are not only queer but dating, and videos poking fun at Skolnick’s love life. “We also just take a really fun, lively, conversational approach, like not taking ourselves too seriously — that is the Gen Z approach to building a brand,” she says. “It just feels better to support brands that sound like you, are like you.”

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