A global byword for specialty coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee was established by the clarinet player-turned-coffee guru James Freeman in 2002. Freeman established firm footing for the brand’s distinct coffee culture based on his experience selling drip coffee from a cart at farmers’ markets. His secret is to focus entirely on the delicate nuances of coffee beans and hospitality-based individualized service. Somewhat of a unicorn in the coffee world, Blue Bottle Coffee has attracted significant investments from Silicon Valley, and has steadily expanded across the US, with far-flung locations in Tokyo and Seoul.
Welcome to the 76th issue of B .
We all have heard of the idea of taking a “coffee break.” It’s when we take a break from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives and refresh with a cup of coffee. Similarly, people rely on coffee for its stimulating effect when they need to stay focused and totally immersed in a task. To some, coffee is something like a delicacy, and these aficionados take extra time to seek out the best coffee joints as they traverse the world. Others equip their kitchens with coffee makers and other paraphernalia to craft the best self-brewed cup of joe in the comfort of their own home. And in this digital era, coffee draws people out to offline gatherings. In short, the way contemporary society consumes coffee is nothing short of a craze. And it wouldn’t be overreaching to say that coffee is the only beverage with such a significant social and cultural influence for as long as it has. One of my interviewees, a businessman from California, said, “the US was built on coffee.”
This coffee craze has largely been propelled forward by certain coffee houses or brands, rather than by the coffee itself. Blue Bottle Coffee, featured in this issue, is the leading coffee brand behind the beverage’s phenomenal popularity for the last decade. As a frontrunner of specialty coffee—which is regarded as the third wave of coffee—Blue Bottle Coffee managed to create its own distinctive tastes and improve the entire coffee experience. Thanks to the brand’s concerted efforts, the high-end coffee industry has seen incredible growth over the years. Harking back to our publication seven years ago, B also covered Intelligentsia, another specialty coffee brand that is often referenced alongside Blue Bottle.
Featuring these two specialty coffee brands seven years apart, B discovered some interesting facts. In 2012, the concept of specialty coffee was just gaining momentum with mainstream consumers, and Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, and other specialty coffee brands were not much different from one another. They all sought to connect with local communities, provide customized services, and improve distribution and farming systems. Specialty coffee carved out its stake in the market, and Blue Bottle Coffee decidedly embarked on a different path with an insatiable desire to discover and start another new wave in the industry. A good brand grows as it establishes core values and commits to them, and Blue Bottle took this concept one step further to expand and modify brand values so that it would stay relevant as a brand through changing times. In this process, brands often risk losing some of their customer base and get involved in a few internal quarrels. But this seems inevitable, as new things can only be achieved when a few brave visionaries take that important leap of faith.
As Blue Bottle founder James Freeman put it: “If we were so boring and obsessed over brand purity as others do, then we would’ve never started serving lattes. We will never be that company.” Excellent sports teams experiment day in and day out with new tactics and bolster players to triumph amid generational changes. Similarly, Blue Bottle held back nothing and embraced new frontiers without reservation. The brand acquired a coffee bean subscription startup and a grinding tech firm, improved its website with a bit of help from Google Ventures, and established a systematic employee training program. All these initiatives are part of the brand’s ever-evolving road map. This issue of B presents Blue Bottle’s story of passion from 2002 to today, starting with the first tasty coffee they ever brewed to the establishment of their brand value to make good coffee accessible to everyone. Moving forward, I hope this brand’s stories provide readers an opportunity to stop for a moment, just like a coffee break, and reflect on what it means to grow.
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