The Rise of Speciality Coffee (in Search)
Updated: Apr 22, 2022
Specialty (or the third wave of) coffee has seen an impressive rise in popularity with figures such as James Hoffmann, Scott Rao, Lance Hedrick, Morgan (Drinks Coffee) Eckroth making the subject more approachable and helping those new to the subject make the perfect coffee at home.
Having recently been bitten by the coffee bug I decided to call on my usual toolkit of data and research methods to help see if I could chart the rise in specialty coffee in more detail. What follows is me dipping my toe into the waters, exposing some interesting search trends, and offering some initial theories about what I think we're seeing.
Big caveat upfront is that I am using data from searches using Google. This is not completely unproblematic, but being ubiquitous with searching online makes me confident that the search trends highlighted below are likely significant even if they don't cover searches on Youtube, Amazon, Instagram, and other search engines popular in other parts of the world.
Global Search Trend of "specialty coffee" since 2004
If anyone is in any doubt as to the growing popularity of specialty (or "third wave") coffee then looking at global (Google) search trends should give you a pretty good indication of how habits have changed.
Specialty Coffee Vs Third Wave Coffee Global Visibility Trend 2004-2022
It maybe goes unsaid, but there is quite a significant dent in the rise in popularity at the start of 2020 - which is almost certainly related to the Covid-19 Pandemic. If we focus on the trends from 2017 onwards we can see them in better detail.
Specialty Coffee Vs Third Wave Coffee Global Visibility Trend 2017-2022
Each country's different severity in waves and respective lockdowns will mean that these trends will vary wildly - but globally it seems that the climb has started again.
With a search like "specialty coffee" the intent behind it isn't certain, but if a portion of these people are looking to consume specialty coffee at home, it might explain the relatively quick recovery in search trends as people's behaviour adapts.
Although in case there is any doubt, global search interest in finding a cafe is doing just fine now. Looking at people searching for a "cafe near me" we see a drastic drop followed by some clear steps towards recovery.
"Cafe Near Me" Global Visibility Trend 2004 - 2022
Again, this view would look different by country and some nuance is missed looking at it with a "global" lens.
NB: "near me" searches were something that Google has gotten progressively better at serving results for, so some of this rise in this search trend reflects searcher's behaviour shifting to make use of Google's newfound ability.
Specialty Coffee by Country Since 2018
To break this out into a country-level look at search trends, we need to change data source. Google Trends is useful to see relative trends over a period, but it does not work comparing absolute volumes from country to country.
By selecting some of the top coffee-drinking countries, and searching for "specialty coffee" in English we can look at the more precise search demand on a country-by-country basis and compare them in a way we couldn't do with the previous trends data.
Specialty Coffee Search Trends by Country 2018-2022
Select from the filter above the chart to drill down to specific countries.
This growing trend in "specialty coffee" can be seen across many of the countries. When the trends are split out (see below) this becomes clearer.
Specialty Coffee Search Trend Grid - by Country 2018-2022
Some countries (like Iceland, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Luxembourg & Slovenia) have a considerably lower level of people searching on Google. In instances like this the accuracy of the search data we have available can mean that some of the rises/falls in the trend line could reflect negligible changes in search behaviour.
Of the above data, the clearest increases in trends can be seen in France, Germany, the UK, and the US.
What Happened in Italy, June 2019?
This strikes me as an odd/unexpected spike in searches for "specialty coffee" which I haven't gotten to the bottom of so far. If you think you know - please drop me a comment or get in touch.
Specialty as a Lagging Indicator
Maybe an overdue question is how valid "specialty Coffee" is as a gauge of the rise in people taking more of an interest in better quality, more ethically sourced & produced coffee products.
It had been several months after I discovered specialty coffee, better coffee brewing methods, etc before I was aware of the term and what it meant.
This doesn't mean the term is not useful, and charting the rise in search isn't useful - I believe it is - however, it probably lags behind the actual interest and of lower quantity.
Identifying the Specialty Trends Through Other Search Terms
We can split out the different elements of specialty (or brewing coffee at home) to compare the trends of each to understand how behaviours have changed.
US Specialty Search Trends since 2014
V60*, Filter Coffee, Chemex & Coffee Filter Pepper all saw pretty large spikes - likely due to a change in behaviour around Covid-19.
Were these gateways to specialty coffee due to the lower barrier to entry? Possibly.
* March 2020 is when the LG V60 also launched in the US - this will have added a lot of noise here, although "V60 coffee" did see an increase April 2020 too.
Christmas 2020 Onwards
If April 2020 saw an uptick in the more "entry-level" home coffee-making searches, then Christmas 2020 is when there are clear signs of people doubling down on the hobby.
Coffee Grinder, Espresso Machine & Coffee Water all saw spikes around Christmas of 2020. I wonder how many asked Santa for specialty coffee gear that year?
It is clear that in some of these trends the level of search tends to drop after Christmas even into 2021/22. This is not uncommon from what I have seen in a number of different industries I have worked in through the pandemic.
Attention shifted to shopping online and spending more on experience in the home, but as the need to lockdown/isolate has generally lowered (across Europe, North America) there is some evidence that behaviours have shifted back to looking a little like pre-pandemic levels.
It is worth calling back to the "cafe near me" search previously - globally people still want to drink coffee from a cafe potentially more than ever. Locally, that story is likely more complex and nuanced and there is much more research to be done here.
Not All Growth is Due to Covid-19 Behaviour Changes
It should be worth noting that all of these searches have been increasing (in the US) even before Covid-19 - that's not to say ALL coffee searches are (this is a highly curated keyword set and likely impacted by some of my own biases), but the increase does seem noteworthy.
There's a clear indication that the number of people (in the US) searching has increased around the different roast levels. Given the de facto standard for coffee for the uninitiated seemed to be dark, darker, and darkest, an awareness of different roast levels (and search around these) is a sign of a more engaged searcher.
If you were wondering, the US average monthly search volume for each of these (as of April 22):
Avg. Monthly Searches (US)
Dark Roast Coffee
Medium Roast Coffee
Light Roast Coffee
I've added "Green Coffee" as a point of comparison here - although it must be said that the intent behind someone searching could be medicinal as much as it could be someone looking to roast their own.
If we consider this is for the US English-speaking search market, this is still relatively low - which is why the trend is more interesting than the absolute number. It is possible to only shop for and purchase medium & light coffees without making explicit searches on Google. Looking for rises in specific brands or roasters would likely shed more light here.
Whilst "dark roast coffee" is less likely to be specialty related, it's interesting to note the rise for the two possible reasons:
Taking an interest in the roast of coffee is a step in the direction of caring more about coffee
It may show that the marketing/fetishisation around dark-roasted coffees is increasingly effective.
Out of all the trends I've seen this is one I'd likely want to keep the most interest in - the shift in popularity of Medium & Light is an interesting way to gauge specialty's rise.
How to Use this Data
There's a lot of data here (and so much more I haven't included), but it's worth considering what this data means and what we can do with it.
Keyword search volumes are highly problematic when we start looking at them too closely. There are a number of different tools providing this data, all with different methodologies attached - each with its pros and cons. There is no single "truth" here, however, and in my experience trying to draw a direct line from search volume to potential revenue is highly problematic. However, if you want to understand growing interest in an area OR relative interest between subjects - this data is invaluable. This is a relatively top-level look into broad keywords in this topic, the methods and approaches used above can be used to hone in - in much more detail - to inform changes in customer behaviour, pain points, content to produce, and more.
If you want some more detail into the data sources used, here there are:
Google Ads historic keyword search volumes - these give more detailed results back until 2018. These numbers are not exact, nor should be treated as such - they provide a good benchmark and means to compare keywords and user behaviour.
Google Trends Data - Provides broad search trends since 2004. These are on a scale of 0-100, zero being the least searched-for and 100 being the most searched-for within that timeframe, in that location for that term.
Keywords Everywhere - To get longer-term comparable trends for individual specialty coffee searches, I have used Keywords Everywhere. This uses today's Search Volume to establish what the relative search volume would have been using the Google Trends data. There is no way to easily establish whether it is more/less accurate than Google Ads data, BUT this method should be considered as a good way of reflecting on (and comparing) trends rather than these numbers reflecting the actual number of people searching.
The growth of specialty coffee is clear - whether we look at the term directly or at some of the search terms which show someone may be on the path to specialty. This appears to be the case in more than just English-speaking countries. Covid-19 seemed to be a big accelerant in the rise of specialty coffee, but the ascension was already in progress.
A large grounding piece of knowledge is not one I included in the data above, but is worth reflecting on here:
"Coffee" has 9,140,000 (avg) searches per month in the US.
"Specialty Coffee" has 9,900 (avg) searches per month in the US
Specialty is still a tiny slither of a HUGE market.
If we have seen growth in interest in this area, there is still significant potential for growth as the current slice of the search market (at least in the US) is still very, very small.
As with any research of this kind, it has left me with considerably more questions than when I started.
Here are some following areas I hope to be able to probe further in the future.
Non-US trends of specialty searches
Investigation into Coffee Beans (species and origin)
Charting the popularity of Arabica vs (expected) growth of Robusta
Coffee roasters and their impact + how visible they are within search engines
The impact of coffee influencers
Other consumer coffee trends - looking at Costa's and Nespresso's success & how that compares to the competition.
What questions has this raised for you? I'd be really interested to hear any questions, corrections, and general feedback. My DMs are open on Twitter you can comment on this post or get in touch (link below).
Do You Need Help With Your Own Research?
If you have any questions or need any support to produce your own kind of research about coffee (or any niche), please get in touch, it'd be great to discuss what it is you need and whether I can help.