Does Instant Coffee have to be bad 😫? We interviewed Nate Kaiser, the owner of Swift Cup in his journey to rethink instant coffee and break its conventional stigma.
Conventionally, instant coffee is made up of the cheapest, lowest-tiered coffee beans. What does Swift Cup do to change this perception?
According to the infamous saying, “you put junk in, you get junk out.” And, you’re right! Commodity instant coffee focuses on making as much of a product for the least amount of money. It’s all about quantity; not quality. This mentality shows! By many consumer standards – my own included – nearly all the instant coffee in today’s market is undrinkable (without milk and sugar anyway).
We would rather risk caffeine headaches than suffer through a cup of commodity-grade instant coffee.
As of now, instant coffee, as we know it, deserves its bad rep. I’m not sure this perception will or should change on a macro level any time soon. That being said, the founding thesis of Swift Cup is, by rethinking instant coffee from the ground up, perhaps we can create something that’s both delicious and truly special.
And, that’s just it! We are a subset of the Specialty Coffee industry; not the Commodity Coffee industry. We share values in terms of sourcing ethical and sustainable coffee and our quality meets a certain standard, both in terms of green coffee we work with and how our brewing and preserving practices affect the final cup.
There’s a lot of smoke in mirrors when it comes to marketing and describing something as better quality.
There’s a lot of smoke in mirrors when it comes to marketing and describing something as better quality. At the end of the day, hopefully, our instant coffee speaks for itself.
Instant coffee, historically, resonates with older consumers. What are some successful approaches you’ve used to make it more enticing for people to try?
This is very true! When I first started Swift Cup and was sharing my idea with older family members, they had optimistic responses. “Oh, it’s like Sanka!” However, anybody under 45 years old had a negative perception we were just talking about.
There is a generational divide that makes it tougher to make any meaningful headway. We don’t want to write off an entire group of consumers; I know many older people who love our coffee. It’s just reality that the rise of Specialty in the Food and Beverage category is skewered more toward the younger generation that will soon become the older generation.
At Swift Cup, we want to make our coffee available where quality-minded consumers – young and old – are already buying coffee. Think online mainly, but also specialty retailers and quality-focused cafés. I think, as we see an increase in specialty shopping consumers, that there may be a chance to speak to a broader audience in the future.
The Instant Coffee Industry is highly competitive and consolidated between major players. How has Swift Cup differentiated itself from the rest of the market?
We let the big companies fight over the market share of low-quality instant coffee. We’re not into that game, and while this may come across as being naïve, arrogant or overly-dismissive, the reality is, we can’t compete with them. They have resources, scale and motivations we don’t!
What we do have is passion and vision for what instant coffee COULD be. When you get right down to it, what makes us different is our commitment to uncompressing quality and ethical sourcing practices first. Right now, it’s a small company in a niche segment of a growing specialty coffee market. We’ll have to see where the chips fall!
You are working with coffee roasters, such as Joe Coffee, to introduce specialty instant coffee. Tell us more about the process and challenge in helping partners bring this to fruition.
One of the most exciting things we do at Swift Cup is partnered with a network of leading specialty roasters – ones whom we admire and are respected in their local communities – to turn their coffees into instant coffee. It’s such a privilege to work with so many great and well-respected companies. Joe Coffee is certainly notable!
From a high level, our roasting partners send us their roasted coffees, and we process them using our proprietary methods. Once processed, we package the instant coffee up and send it back to the roaster (ready for retail at their cafés or other sales channels). It’s a collaborative effort; we work closely with the roasters to identify which coffees will do well as an instant and create a package that supports their brands.
Currently, we work with about 50 roasters in the U.S. and abroad. Slowly and surely, Specialty Instant Coffee is making its way to the market, and that is largely in part due to our roasting partners believing in the viability of this product in the Specialty Coffee market.
What have you learned about making instant coffee?
There is so much; I have no idea where to start. There is so much chemistry involved with making instant coffee. And, if I had known that before we started, I’m not sure we would have even begun. It’s much harder and more expensive than I anticipated. It felt like one of the biggest accomplishments of my life to produce a single cup of high-quality instant coffee.
Initially, there was no way to scale that production. We had exhausted every option, and when there were no options, build something to work for us. Now, we are making tens of thousands of cups every month and always learning something new on a daily basis.
Where do you see the consumer coffee industry going next?
Generally speaking, I think more consumers will continue to shift toward the specialty market. Not just in coffee but every aspect of life. There are many reasons why, but I think this largely has to do with how easily accessible information is in 2019. It doesn’t take but a couple of clicks and a few YouTube videos to learn about anything. Plus, social media can be a wildfire for any idea.
Specifically for coffee, it’s never been a better time to be a coffee consumer. There is innovation on all levels of the supply chain that give us the best coffee the world has ever known. That being said, there are real economic and environmental challenges facing coffee producers. I would expect consumers to start paying more for their coffee and the conversation around ethical and sustainable coffee to deepen and become mainstream.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
Your strength can be your weakness. The thing that caused you to succeed in one area can be a blind spot in another.
I’m not sure where I learned this, but I honestly think about it every day. Your strength can be your weakness. The thing that caused you to succeed in one area can be a blind spot in another. As an introvert and stubbornly independent, this has helped me to understand that I can’t do everything on my own. I need others, and I need to learn from others.
What are the people, books and places that have impacted you the most?
My wife has been a tremendous partner to me. She has patiently listened to the thousands of terrible ideas I’ve had and given me the freedom to experiment, even after miserably failing many times. There have been a couple of times in Swift Cup’s journey that I wasn’t sure we could overcome a challenge. I even considered shutting it down. Without her encouragement to persevere, I am confident Swift Cup wouldn’t be in business today!
Off the top of my head, a couple of books that have impacted me are Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation and Thomas Merton’s Dialogues with Silence. Anything Steinback-related has also had an impact. Like many others, the Enneagram has had a huge impact on how I see myself and understand others.