Blue Bottle Coffee and the Difficult, Pleasurable DIY Brand Experience


Blue Bottle Coffee pour over

In the creation of experiences for brands, ease is a common theme. In much the same way as you wouldn’t usually advise a brand to go with an antagonistic Brand Voice (something I’d secretly love to try), it’s not the usual instinct to create an experience for a brand that’s deliberately hard. People, we reason, want things to be easy. An easier experience is a better experience. An easy life is a more enjoyable life. Or is it?

I first encountered the concept of “difficult pleasure” via Harold Bloom, literary critic and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale. While he was talking specifically about the pleasures of reading deep and difficult literature, the idea applies elsewhere too—that greater satisfaction and enjoyment can be gained from doing things that are hard, not easy. I would argue that “difficult pleasure” can justify a higher price point for a brand’s products or offerings too. Let me use a recent example to illustrate what I mean.

A while ago I read an article in Fast Company about how various leaders in the US coffee industry were on a mission to educate the American coffee-drinking public into feeling comfortable paying up to $9 for a cup of Joe. One of the brands involved was Blue Bottle Coffee, and, inspired by their stories of hand-picked beans and meticulous brewing techniques, I promptly purchased a Chemex coffee pot and took myself to Blue Bottle in Chelsea, New York, to get my hands on some of these magic beans.

Blue Bottle Coffee

I discovered once I got there that, unlike Stumptown, for instance, Blue Bottle doesn’t grind beans for customers. But they do sell small, ceramic hand-grinders, so along with my small bag of beans I bought one of those. The price tag for both items together was around $70 (a 12oz bag of coffee from Blue Bottle can cost anywhere from $16-$23).  A final purchase of a box of unbleached Chemex filters completed my home coffee-making kit. Phew.

Even just obtaining my coffee-brewing items felt hard, and I hadn’t gotten anywhere near making, let alone drinking, a cup of Blue Bottle’s famed coffee yet. To make a cup of coffee Chemex-style, and with my particular set of tools, here’s what you have to do:

1. Hand-grind your beans (this takes around 15-20 minutes)

2. Rinse your filter (around two to three minutes)

3. Boil your water (10 minutes)

4. Spoon the coffee into the filter (one minute)

5. Pour water on the coffee just to cover it and let it “bloom” for one minute (1 minute 30 seconds)

6. Pour more water on top in a circular motion and let it filter through (three minutes)

7. Repeat step 6 (three minutes)

8. Once you have the quantity of coffee you require, discard the filter and coffee grounds and pour yourself a cup (one to two minutes)

That’s about 35-45 minutes of hard work for one to two cups of coffee. And damn, but that coffee tastes good. But is it really the coffee I’m tasting? Or is it the all the loving effort I’ve put into the making of it that made it taste like the sweet smell of success?

The first time I went through the process, I have to admit I didn’t enjoy it. Grinding those frigging beans with that crank-driven grinder felt laborious and annoying. But on the second and third tries, I started to produce really delicious cups of coffee. I started to feel like I had special knowledge and skills. My inner barista (who knew?) had awakened.

Making a cup of coffee started to feel like a special ritual, and the coffee at the end of it felt more valuable as a result. Suddenly, paying $19 for a tiny bag of beans seemed entirely reasonable. Would I feel the same way about paying $19 for a bag of instant, the supremely easy coffee option? Absolutely not. Because the experience would not be the same.

In this case at least, it’s the difficulty and the “teach someone to fish” factor—not the ease and convenience—that makes the experience feel justifiably expensive. And as an integral part of the experience, it’s (pardon the pun) by no means a grind, or a filtered pleasure.

So while “difficult pleasure” may not be the experience norm and most definitely will not be the answer for every brand, if you want to create experiences that help you demand a premium, it might pay not to rule it out.

—Claire Falloon is a branding professional who takes (and makes) her coffee black.