What's driving millennial coffee culture? And what can we expect to see from Gen Z?

What's driving millennial coffee culture? And what can we expect to see from Gen Z?

Becky Wooden 9 mins Read

If there’s one thing millennials around the world have in common, it’s a taste for coffee. We’ve been hearing a whole lot of click-bait news stories centred around the term millennials ever since Robbie Williams chorused us into the 21st century. And it’s fair to say most of this press has tarred my generation with a sweeping brush of entitlement. Branded ‘snowflakes’ with an inflated sense of uniqueness and a predisposition to taking offence too easily as well as chastised for purchasing an avocado instead of 4 walls of bricks and mortar (as if the two are price comparable), being labelled a millennial is often not complimentary. Contrary to the general media representation, we are no longer teenagers or recent graduates, but now fall into the age range of 24 - 37 and are born somewhere between 1981 and 1996. That means we are all a bit too busy surviving in an increasingly challenging employment market (millenials make up more than 50% of the UK workforce) as well as caring for elderly parents or starting families of our own to spend too much time stroking our own sense of millennial entitlement.

There’s no doubt that the coming of age of a millennial generation sits hand in hand with the rise of specialty coffee and the cafe culture it fuels. For millennials, specialty coffee is an affordable treat, more convenient and healthier than going to the pub.  Beyond the negative generalisations, we’ve picked up on key trends that highlight some of the more positive attributes of millennial life and how these discourses can drive for constructive change within the coffee industry.

We’ll be looking at this piece through the lens of the UK specialty coffee scene based on our experiences as an East London original roastery and through interviews with a wonderful selection of our wholesale accounts and friends in coffee across the country.

Healthy Bunch: Rise of the decaf drinkers

Millenials are a healthy bunch. With ever evolving research into diet and its effect on our bodies and minds outing the processed foods we grew up on for their lack of nutritional content, it’s no wonder we’ve become a more health conscious generation than ever before. You are what you eat has never had bigger implications for the food and drinks industry.

Alongside this expanding nutritional research is an increasing interest in the effects of caffeine consumption. While a moderate amount of caffeine is considered to be safe for most people, there has been evidence to show caffeine consumed at a greater quantity can lead to anxiety or insomnia. As we prioritise our mental health as well as the positive benefits of a good night’s sleep, millenials are turning to decaf to help maintain a caffeine consumption that works for them and sustain their energy levels through an increasingly busy lifestyle. A study by Perfect Daily Grind found that among 25-39-year-olds, 68% say it’s important to limit their caffeine intake. That’s a big proportion of the coffee drinking community.

Luke is a committed specialty caf and decaf drinker and documents his coffee drinking habits on instagram as Porter Coffee. He thinks of himself as straddling the divide between millennial and Gen Z, saying I try to always have a bag of decaf in the house so I can enjoy a cup of coffee in the late afternoon or evening and not worry about it affecting my sleep.“ The importance of a quality night’s sleep and feeling fresh and ready for the day tomorrow takes priority over that draw of an afternoon coffee fix. 

Porter Coffee essential coffee set up, always stocked with a bag of decaf, just in case.

At Climpson & Sons, we’ve always valued a well sourced and great quality decaf and have seen growing sales of decaf coffee (as well as our decaf recaf combo subscription) over the years. Our current decaf from La Plata Colombia is picked using as much care and precision as all of our other coffees before going through a sugar cane EA decaffeination process. If the millennial era of coffee drinking is about moving beyond coffee as a quick fix pick-me-up, to an experiential taste sensation layered with delicate flavours, then we should definitely consider decaf coffee brave enough to stand alone on these traits.

Convenience is Key: Utilising batch brews

Convenience is key in the world we live in, where the time between purchasing and receiving goods has become ever smaller. Online shopping with a 24 hour delivery to the door has become the norm, ride-sharing services are available at the touch of a smartphone and TV shows can be streamed on-demand, anywhere, any time (National Coffee Blog). The world is instantly at our fingertips and the specialty coffee industry has adapted to keep up.

The normalcy of instant gratification has led to an increased value placed on convenience for millennials and a mindset that impacts our decision making process, even when ordering at our favourite coffee shop. Long gone are the days of accepting a wait of 15 minutes + for a meticulously brewed pour over, as batch brew and cold brew take centre stage for the aficionado that values a well extracted and delicately balanced coffee served in seconds.

A carefully produced batch brew recipe, using the right equipment, water and ratio can be served instantly to the customer on the move. We’ve seen a large increase in batch brew drinkers at our cafe in recent years as customers are drawn to the convenience, complex flavour profiles and environmental benefits of the batch. On this, the lesser environmental impact of a filter coffee is definitely worth noting. A filter coffee produces just 50g of carbon, in comparison to a latte with dairy milk which produces 350g of CO2 so a simple swap to filter coffee is an easy way for coffee consumers to drop their daily emissions. Check out the brilliant Clever Carbon’s concise and insightful CO2 coffee menu here.

Reducing the carbon footprint with a cup of filter.

Similarly, cold brew has become increasingly popular due to it’s convenient appeal. Our nitro cold brewed coffee is infused with nitrogen, stored in kegs, chilled and poured on tap to order. The nitrogen forms fine bubbles in the brew for a cup that looks (and tastes) a little like Guinness. It’s been a hit and we’re now experimenting using some of our fruitier roasts as well as looking into bottling our cold brew later this year.

As the pandemic has led us to brewing coffee at home more than ever before, this same value of convenience can be seen in our online specialty coffee shopping habits as customers turn to new purchasing platforms to discover specialty. Multi-roaster platform Gustatory founder Sam says “by searching far and wide for new and exciting offerings, our customers can avoid the effort and explore our selections knowing they are browsing vetted brands. We also go one step further and offer multi-roaster subscriptions, which means our customers can avoid the browsing, sit back and let the coffee goodness come to them.”

Convenient subscription services like Gustatory vet brands to for easy shopping.

Quality & Traceability: Do you know where your coffee comes from?

But it’s not as simple as choosing the most convenient option for millennials. This decision making is weighed up equally with an appreciation of quality, as well as a transparent story of where a product comes from and quality within the processing method. This has led to an unveiling of the ugly truth behind some products and the unfair practices that lead to it’s cheap pricing on our shelves, and a trend towards paying more for a traceable production chain.

This is something highlighted by arts, activism and academia multimedia platform Shado, who promote ethical brands and purchasing. Izzy says I’ve become increasingly aware of the way coffee is produced and traded in the last year or so... it’s something that is really important to me as I want to be able to make more informed and conscious decisions in regards to purchasing coffee, and also hear about the unique stories of coffee producers around the world!”. This showcases an opportunity for us as roasters to amplify the stories of our producers, informing our customers on what’s in the cup and how that quality translates back to farm level.

This is something we explore at Climpson & Sons through our repeat purchasing model, where we aim to work with the same producers year on year to ensure a sustainable and guaranteed income for producers.  This allows the teams we work with to accurately plan their staffing, crop and production systems in line with the prices they are guaranteed to receive. At the end of the day, it is a business partnership.

This trend of quality over quantity extends out to the equipment we purchase to brew our coffee with as millennials lead a ‘buy it for life mentality’. Instead of purchasing the same product 5 times - we’d rather invest in a more expensive product that has been built for life. This presents an opportunity for coffee brewing equipment to provide models of life-long guarantee and develop equipment that can withstand a heavy cafe service and endure the test of time.

Being Socially & Environmentally Responsible

Where millenials choose to purchase their coffee from is a matter of personal identity. We seek out brands to support our personal narrative and passion for social values. This means it’s become more important than ever for coffee companies to have an active sense of social responsibility. Creating a positive impact in our communities for its own sake, as well as the good of the business. This is something specialty coffee businesses are often proudly rooted in.

This involves engaging in equitable business practices and raising the voices of a diverse range of producers. “At least two dozen pairs of human hands are involved in the production of a single cup of coffee. And many of those hands belong to women.” Erika Koss states in her article ‘Women hold up half the cup’. Recognising the challenges female producers face is more important than ever for specialty coffee companies - and an active role in supporting women at all levels is of value to our millennial consumers. This is something we value wholeheartedly at Climpsons. We’ve loved working with ‘The Lady’ all-female processing facility in Myanmar this year (read more on this story here) and look forward to presenting many more coffees from female producers in the future.

Sense of social responsibility has also translated into a trend of ‘smaller purchasing’ and supporting local independent businesses. This is one of the positive outcomes we saw of a country sent into lockdown, where independent business’ survival became critical and the radius of our worlds shrunk down to metres rather than miles. We saw millennials champion the local corner shop, bakery, cafe and restaurant turned takeaway-joint with overwhelming support. For Shado, “it is important to be contributing to local economies and the economies of businesses that are supporting local communities and people.”

Shopping local on Broadway Market.

The responsibility of a specialty coffee company also extends to the environmental practices they follow. The discerning millennial will seek true sustainability, beyond the buzzword. This is evidenced not through the things we say - but the things we do. The active research and decision making to make the best decision we can to limit our environmental impact on the world. We’ve spent the last months thoroughly researching to find the best fully recyclable bag and are excited to release it later this year.


What’s next? Our predictions for the next generation of specialty coffee drinkers.

Move over millennials, here comes Gen Z. Born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z were born into a world of peak technological innovation — where information has become immediately accessible and social media increasingly unavoidable. An abundance of information is at their fingertips, and they’ll be even more savvy in the choices they make as consumers.

We expect to see the development of a more transverse chain of communication between producers, importers, roasters and consumers where technology and connectivity allow the next generation to speak directly with the people that produce their coffee, and equally allow producers to speak directly with their end consumer through social media and live streamed events.

There is also a much bigger conversation to be had decolonising the history of coffee as a global product in line with a desire for deeper traceability. The full story of how coffee came to Africa, Latin America and Asia is not often displayed in our gentile images of traceability - and we have an opportunity to acknowledge and learn from the role colonialism has played in the development of the industry globally. There is important work to be done transforming the language and messaging we use as an to communicate this story to the next generation of intuitive consumers. We have the ability to address and re-tell this story to a discerning as well as socially minded generation of coffee drinkers to come.

“We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. We do not finish breakfast without being dependent on more than half of the world … at the table we drink coffee that is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are beholden to more than half the world.”

Global interconnectedness. Told perfectly by Martin Luther King

Climpsons Journal