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European market potential for specialty coffee

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The sharp growth of the European market for specialty coffees has been partly driven by continuous growth of out-of-home consumption. Coffee shops in European cities lead the way in introducing sophisticated, high-value varieties to consumers. The growing demand for specialty coffee follows the growing consumer interest in how coffee is brewed, as well as where, how and by whom the coffee was grown. It has therefore become essential for specialty coffee producers to tell the story behind their coffee, its origin and the other environmental and social aspects around it.

1. Product description

The global coffee trade recognises two main markets for coffee beans: the commodity market and the specialty market.

The commodity market mainly offers bulk coffee produced in high volumes and of standard quality. The commodity market is highly price-oriented, following the international C-market price. Certification is increasingly used in this market as an entry requirement, due to stricter sustainability protocols of European roasters and retailers. The leading certification schemes in the mainstream market are 4C, Rainforest Alliance-UTZ, Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices and Nestlé’s AAA.

The specialty market is still a niche market. In comparison with the commodity market, it offers higher prices for coffee exporters handling lower volumes of higher-quality coffee beans. Specialty coffee most often refers to Arabica, which has a smoother, more aromatic and more flavourful taste than Robusta. Most specialty coffees are Arabica cultivars, of which Typica and Bourbon are the most widely known. Although recent industry efforts aim to improve the quality of Robusta, in part to reach specialty Robusta quality, high-quality Robusta is not yet widely available.

To this day, there is not an exact and agreed definition of specialty coffee. According to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), coffees cupping 80 and above are considered specialty coffee. Associations in a few countries, such as the Asociación Cafés Finos Costa Rica, also have their own definition of specialty coffee, which usually also refers to the physical quality of the coffee bean, where cupping scores are used as a parameter for specialty coffees.

The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) has the following definition: ‘Coffee is considered to be specialty coffee when it is perceived and valued by consumers for a characteristic that differentiates it from standard coffee and for which consumers are willing to pay a premium. In order for this coffee to be truly specialty, the premium for which consumers are willing to pay must also represent a benefit for coffee growers.’

In general, several aspects stand out:

  • High quality: Some consider specialty coffees those with a cupping score of 80 and above, but for others a specialty coffee means a cupping score of 85 or higher. How high the bar is set really depends on the buyer. There are different protocols you can use to grade a coffee, such as the one developed by the Specialty Coffee Association.
  • Sustainable coffee value chain: Direct trade, close contact between farmers and buyers, traceability systems and the payment of price premiums based on the quality of coffee beans are elements directly connected to specialty coffee. Notably specialty coffees from micro and nano lots allow for more direct trade between producers and small buyers, such as specialised traders and small-scale roasters. Some industry players advocate that specialty coffee has also to be differentiated with at least some certification, although others find that counterproductive due to the extra costs to farmers. The main exception to this is organic certification, for which there is a niche and growing market within the specialty segment.

Unique origins or terroirs are very important in the specialty segment, creating different product types, including:

  • Single origin: Origins have been receiving increasing attention from industry and consumers for some time now. Single origin is associated to high quality and uniqueness from a certain region or country. Examples of single-origin coffees include Jamaican Blue Mountain, Hawaii Kona, Kenya AA and Guatemala Antigua.
  • Single farm or estate: Coffee sourced from a particular farm is called single farm or single estate. These coffees tend to have detailed information on how and by whom the coffee was harvested and processed. Examples include Tanzanian Kifaru Coffee and El Salvadorian Finca el Cerro.
  • Micro lots and nano lots: The specialty coffee market has led to an increase in micro and nano lots. These lots consist of extremely high-quality coffee beans, which are sold for a much higher price than other coffees. Micro lots usually consist of around 10–75 bags. Nano lots are even smaller, consisting of fewer than five bags of coffee, representing an even more exclusive quality. As volumes are low and the costs for preparing these lots and their associated logistics are high, micro and nano lots do not usually represent the core business of a coffee producer, but may primarily boost the producer’s renown for having the skills to produce interesting varieties and processing coffee.

Harmonised System (HS) codes are used to classify products and to calculate international trade statistics, such as imports and exports. The focus in this study is on green coffee beans under HS codes 090111 (coffee, not roasted, not decaffeinated) and 090112 (coffee, not roasted, decaffeinated). The available data does not distinguish between conventional and specialty coffees.

2. What makes Europe an interesting market for specialty coffee?

The increasing interest in high-quality coffees in combination with a growing demand for ethical and sustainably produced coffee, make specialty coffee the fastest growing segment in the European coffee market. The continent is home to an ever-growing number of coffee focused outlets and micro roasteries. An increasing number of consumers appreciate and prefer the fine organoleptic qualities of mild roasted coffee, and are willing to pay more for it.

European consumers interest in specialty coffee is growing

Consumption of specialty coffees is growing at a fast pace in Europe. The European market for specialty coffee offers opportunities for suppliers offering high-quality coffees. This specialty segment is a small niche, which commands high quality and high value.

The increasing interest in specialty coffee is reflected in the growing number of coffee bars and chains, small roasters, small local brands and baristas. The European branded coffee shop market alone grew by 6% in 2018 from the previous year. The leading branded coffee shops in Europe are Costa Coffee, Starbucks and McCafé, with market shares of 8.7%, 7.8% and 7% respectively.

It is estimated that the European coffee shop market will continue to grow at an average annual rate of 4.8% from 2018 to 2023. We also see that some coffee shops, after becoming large enough, start to source their green beans directly, sometimes still leaning on their former supplier, usually an importer, for logistics.

The growing number of specialty coffee outlets shows that a growing number of European consumers are prepared to pay more for high-quality coffees. Specific Europe-wide data on specialty coffee consumption is not available, partly because there is no industry consensus on a clear-cut definition of specialty coffee. Consequently, there is also no specific European import data nor out-of-home specialty coffee consumption available.

Sustainable and ethical trade gain ground in the European market

Sustainability is increasingly important in the European coffee market, both for consumers and industry players. This creates interesting opportunities for specialty coffee, as this niche market has many characteristics of sustainable coffee value chains. Direct trade, close contact between farmers and buyers, traceability systems and price premiums based on coffee bean quality are all elements directly connected to specialty coffee.

Keep in mind that due to these characteristics, many importers and small roasters working with specialty coffee consider certifications counterproductive. These buyers monitor good agricultural practices and social responsibility through the direct relationships they maintain with producers. In the view of these importers and roasters, certifications impose unnecessary costs on farmers.

Note, however, that certification is still regularly required by some specialty buyers and retailers, since it is still seen as an important proof of commitment to sustainability. This is especially so in relation to organic and fair trade certifications.


3. Which European countries offer most opportunities for specialty coffee?

All European markets have been showing growing demand for specialty coffee, although the size of the segment is most pronounced in North Western Europe. This area is marked by higher income levels and consumer awareness, as well as a more developed coffee culture than the rest of Europe. Interest in other cultures, from increased travelling or otherwise, raises consumer interest in the origins of coffee. Social responsibility and political concerns connect consumers with the well-being of producers, while increased interest in environmental themes, from recycling to global warming, stimulate consumer interest in environmentally friendly and sustainable coffee cultivation.

Specialty coffee market finds strong base in Scandinavia

Scandinavian countries rank among the highest per capita coffee consumers in the world. High-quality coffees are the main focus in the Scandinavian market. Countries in this Scandinavia are seen as important players in the specialty coffee market internationally. Norway was the founding country of the Specialty Coffee Association in Europe.

The market for specialty coffee in Scandinavia is still growing. This is partly reflected in the strong growth in out-of-home consumption, showing that consumers in Denmark, Sweden and Norway increasingly look for unique, high-quality coffee in coffee shops. Within Europe, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have registered the highest growth rates in coffee shop retail sales since 2010.

As a result, the number of coffee chains and micro roasteries also keeps growing in Scandinavia. In Sweden, about 10 new small roasteries open every year. In Europe, Denmark even registered the highest growth rate of new coffee shops in 2018, with an annual outlet growth of 14.5%.

The largest chain operating in Scandinavia is Espresso House, with approximately 350 shops in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Other large chains are Joe & The Juice (Denmark) and Wayne’s Coffee (Sweden). Examples of specialised coffee shops in Scandinavia include Kafferäven and Drop Coffee Roasters (Sweden), Coffee Collective and Sonny (Denmark), and Lippe and Fuglen (Norway). These roasters cater to niche markets and follow the principles of direct trade, transparency and high-quality products.

French specialty coffee market taking off

France is also an important market for specialty coffees, although it took long for it to take off. Today, the share of specialty coffees in France is still only 1% to 2% of its total coffee market, but has strong potential for growth. The share of specialty coffee in France is expected to rise to about 10% of the total French coffee market by 2025.

The specialised coffee shop market has grown significantly in France. In 10 years, the market grew from fewer than five independent coffee shops to more than 150 today. One of the reasons behind this growth in specialty shops is the ability of roasters to provide customers with the story behind their coffees. As in other countries with a dynamic specialty sector, coffee exporters are increasingly required to highlight the uniqueness of their coffees in terms of quality and origin. Examples of specialty coffee shops in France are Honor and Matamata Coffee.

Other coffee chain actors with a strong focus on specialty coffee include the brand Alter Eco, which imports fair trade and responsible coffee, and trader BELCO, which focus on high-quality coffees.

The UK specialty coffee market is growing at full speed

British consumers traditionally drink more instant coffee than those in other European countries, but the sales of specialty coffees are growing rapidly in the UK. This growth is highly influenced by out-of-home consumption. The expansion of specialty coffee chains, such as Grind, GAIL’s and Joe & The Juice, and the involvement of established chains, such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffè Nero, in specialty coffees are shaping this market.

The United Kingdom is the largest coffee shop market in Europe today, having grown continuously in the past twenty years, including 5.8% in 2018 and 7.1% in 2017.

In addition to chains, such as Costa Coffee, the United Kingdom also has a large number of small-scale roasters and independent coffee shops, such as Second Shot Coffee, Artisan Roast and Town Square. The country also hosts a series of specialised coffee events, including Manchester Coffee Festival, Edinburgh Coffee Festival and London Coffee Festival.

Besides the growing interest in high-quality coffees, there is also a strong interest in sustainable coffees in the UK. In fact, the United Kingdom presents a very established market for certified coffees. Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance-UTZ actually find their largest markets in the United Kingdom.

Germany’s gigantic coffee market opens up for specialty coffee

The domestic market for specialty coffee is growing in Germany. Out-of-home consumption has been growing steadily for the past years, including consumption in coffee shops and bakeries that continues to increase. This growth is expected to continue, as approximately 50% of German coffee drinkers say they are willing to spend more money for better quality coffee.

Germany is the second-largest coffee shop market in Europe, only after the United Kingdom. The upward trend of out-of-home consumption in Germany brings opportunities for exporters of high-quality coffees, with German coffee shops leading the way in introducing high qualities to consumers.

The specialty coffee market in Germany is also marked by the expansion of small-scale roasters, such as Berlin’s Supremo (Unterhaching), The Barn, Five Elephant and Flying Roasters.

In addition to the growing consumer interest in specialty coffee in Germany, the country’s coffee sector also has a number of specialised importers. They buy small volumes of high-quality, single-origin or fair trade coffee. Examples of small and large specialised importers in Germany include Rehm & Co (high-quality coffees), Touton Specialties Coffee (high-quality coffees), GEPA (fair trade), Rapunzel (organic and fair trade), El Puente (fair trade) and Slokoffie (organic sustainable coffee).

Eastern European market for specialty coffee is small but has potential

The Eastern European market for specialty coffee is a lot smaller than in North Western markets, but it shows interesting potential. The largest and fastest growing Eastern European markets for specialty coffee are Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

In Poland, the number of specialty coffee shops is on the rise. In Romania, the number of specialty coffee shops went up from only three to more than 90 coffee shops between 2013 and 2019. The number of coffee shops in Hungary has also grown exponentially in the last few years, reaching approximately 150 specialty coffee shops in 2019.

Examples of specialised independent coffee shops in Eastern Europe include: Rebel Bean, Plato Café and Misto Café (Czech Republic), Two Minutes and The Urbanist (Romania), Black Sheep and The Goat Herder (Hungary), and Java Coffee Roasters and Hayb Coffee (Poland).

Coffee chains are also growing fast in Eastern Europe. Romania had the fastest outlet growth in all of Europe in 2018: 25%. McCafé, Starbucks, Caffè Nero and Costa Coffee are examples of large chains in Eastern Europe. The growing number of coffee shops and micro roasters in Eastern Europe illustrates the consumer interest in incorporating quality and variety to their coffee.

As the specialty niche market begins to flourish in the region, different actors in Eastern European countries have been joining the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Romania have their own national SCA chapters. Czech Republic is also home to the Coffee Embassy, in Prague, whose mission it is to educate and promote coffee culture in the country.

The large number of coffee festivals organised in Eastern Europe also help to illustrate the growing interest in specialty coffee in this region. Examples of events in Eastern Europe include the Prague Coffee Festival (Czech Republic), Warsaw Coffee Festival (Poland), Bucharest Coffee Festival (Romania), Sofia Coffee Festival (Bulgaria) and Vilnius Coffee Festival (Lithuania).


  • Check the European Coffee Trip website to find examples of specialised coffee shops and smallscale roasters active in the specialty niche market in Europe.
  • See our country studies to read more about the specialty markets and coffee opportunities in Eastern Europe, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom.
  • Follow the news on the Allegra World Coffee Portal to stay up to date on the developments in the European coffee chain market.
  • Investigate whether you qualify for industry awards, such as the Cup of Excellence programme. This can be an interesting way to profile yourself and your coffee origin in the European market for highquality coffee. The Cup of Excellence is an annual competition among the highest-quality coffees, which takes place in several countries.

Specialty coffee is gaining ground in the European market. An important trend in this segment is the introduction of specialty coffee capsules in the single-serve market, which is a growing segment on its own. Buyers are also slowly developing interest in Fine Robusta. Besides the growing variety of actors active in the specialty coffee market, mainstream players are also increasingly involved in this sector.

Mainstream coffee actors increasingly engage in specialty market

Large European trading companies are expanding their specialty coffee portfolio. InterAmerican Coffee (owned by Neumann Kaffee Gruppe), for example, was one of the first to set up a division dedicated to sourcing specialty coffees. Other more recent examples include: Olam Specialty Coffee, Volcafé Specialty, Rehm & Co (owned by Benecke Coffee) and 32Cup (owned by Sucafina).

Mainstream companies have also been acquiring small specialised roasters, as way to enter the specialty market. This the case, for example, of the acquisition of specialty roaster Blue Bottle by Nestlé in late 2017, and the acquisitions of Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Intelligentsia by JAB Holdings.

As a result, mainstream companies increasingly adopt terms common to the specialty market, such as single origin and premium quality, trying to appeal to consumers looking for signs of quality. On the production side, producers increasingly work under the umbrella of large-scale companies, having to comply with volume, quality, traceability, certification and other requirements established by these buyers.

Specialty coffee in single-serve methods grows

Single-serve coffee methods are increasingly popular in the European market. The ease-of-use of these products, their strong marketing and the variety of flavours available have contributed to their popularity. One important trend within the single-serve market is the introduction of specialty coffee capsules. Examples of companies working in the single-serve specialty segment are the British Halo, Hayman and Colonna and Belgium’s Caffènation. Large brands in the European mainstream single-serve market include L’OR, Lavazza and Nespresso.

The use of specialty coffee in capsules brings interesting opportunities in the process of popularising specialty coffees of different origins and flavours. Nespresso has obviously joined this trend, launching the Reviving Origins programme, aimed at bringing back lost coffee origins. However, bear in mind that within the single-serve market, this is still a very small niche.

The negative environmental impact of coffee capsules is a growing problem in this market. The industry has come up with recyclable and compostable solutions and alternatives, such as Gea and the biodegradable capsules from Dutch roaster Peeze, which are compatible with Nespresso machines.

Growing interest in high-quality Robusta coffees

Specialty coffee most often refers to Arabica beans, mostly because high-quality Robusta is not yet widely available. Nevertheless, the specialty coffee market shows increasing interest in high-quality Robusta varieties. Sector-wide efforts are under way to improve production and reach Fine Robusta quality. In Ghana, for example, the government and coffee brands have started exploring production methods to produce Fine Robusta.

Some coffee shops already focus on Robusta coffees. Black Sheep Coffee in the United Kingdom, for example, serves single-estate specialty grade Robusta sourced from the world’s first specialty grade Robusta farm: Kaapi Royale Coffee, from the Sethuraman Estate in India. Another example of a Fine Robusta producer already exporting is Guinea’s Macenta Beans.

The growing interest in Robusta coffees and the currently limited supply of high-quality Robustas offer interesting opportunities to exporters able to provide constant supplies meeting the Q Fine Robusta Standards and Protocols. You can also consider becoming an R-grader or Q Robusta grader or growing organic Robusta, for which demand is growing.

Organic certified specialty coffee a growing niche within specialty segment

Certification is not a must within the specialty coffee market, although some buyers may require it. Small coffee roasters in the specialty segment are generally more interested in building trust with suppliers — and increasingly so in direct trade — and not much interested in third-party certification. Organic certification, however, stands out as an exception. An example of a cooperative producing organic coffees is COMSA (Honduras).

Demand for organic food products in Europe is on the rise. Organic retail sales in Europe exceeded €37 billion in 2017, growing 11% from the year before. Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland had the highest shares of organic sales in their total markets among European countries, and the highest organic food per capita consumption in the world. The largest European markets for organic food in 2017 were Germany, France and Italy with retail sales of €10 billion, €7.9 billion and €3.1 billion, respectively.


  • See our coffee trends study to learn more about current trends in the European coffee market.
  • Promote the sustainable and ethical aspects of your production process, and support these claims with certification. See our study on doing business with European coffee buyers for more tips on marketing and promoting your coffee.
  • Before engaging in a certification programme, make sure to check that the label has sufficient demand in your target market and whether it will be costbeneficial for your product, always in consultation with your potential buyer.
  • Investigate about new varieties that can be propagated in your farm or cooperative, as well as different ways of processing coffee. This may increase income, but more importantly, it will increase your reputation as a specialty coffee producer. If buyers are interested in your micro and nano lots, they will usually also purchase your other mainstream coffee to fill a container.
  • Learn more about coffee cupping and cupping scores on the website of the Specialty Coffee Association. Consider obtaining a Qgrader certificate to be able to cup and score your Arabica coffee according to international standards of aroma and taste. If relevant, explore opportunities to become an Rgrader or Q Robusta grader as well.
  • Investigate opportunities in highquality micro and nano lots. Read this article on how to limit risk and improve quality of your micro lots.
  • Refer to the Cup of Excellence platform to connect with other specialty coffee industry players and potential buyers.

This study has been carried out on behalf of CBI by ProFound – Advisers In Development

Please review our market information disclaimer.

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