Thursday, 13 February 2014

Pact Coffee Review: Subscription Service and Mobile Enabled

Review over three packs of he Pact coffee subscription service, mobile and social enabled business model, and generally mulling on the freshness of coffee.

So over the past 6 weeks I've been systematically going through my coffee armory and trying to weed out the weak links and generally supercharge it.  With a new born in the house, it's been a good time to be drinking a lot of coffee.  So Chemex and V60 for drip, Aero and French press, Gaggia Classic for Espresso, along with Hario and Electric grinders have all been getting a workout, along with replacement Motta accessories.  But far more important than that was to upgrade what I was sticking into the kit the first place.

From a lot of Illy (still love the cans and still a fall back) recently I'd been amazed at how many of the supermarkets had started carrying premium coffee beans, and been cycling idly through seeing what they were like last year.  This was not a very good experience.  Not outright bad, but quality being extremely random.  Probably also not helped by my randomness of purchasing.  Ikea for instance: it's very cheap for apparently decent coffee.  When we were out in Stockholm we found out that Swede's drink A LOT of coffee (mostly all drip and sitting on the warmer).  I can't really recommend the Ikea beans by the way.  Anyhow I had a really good bag of Sainsbury's Fairtrade Taste the Difference Colombian Beans, but the next one wasn't on repeat purchase.  Nothing else really stood out.   So a freshly roasted to the door service, that I could rely on, was the biggest thing I need to find, and coffee friends kept chivying me about.

Pact are actively promoting through Social Media, and I picked up their £1 introductory offer advertising flavour, freshness and flexibility for their subscription service through a promoted tweet, and decided it couldn't hurt to start there.

A subscription service?

So £1 for the first bag and £6.95 each week or each fortnight with premium special editions at £8-9.  Didn't subscription services die with Britannia music in 2007?  I thought this was the bit that I was least going to like, but actually it wasn't a problem at all, as the "service" part was really good and more than mitigated the "subscription" bit.

The buying experience is really nice.  Pact looks great on the web and mobile, and they've clearly gone to a lot of effort to make it simple, clear and direct.  Check out this lovely looking coffee picker: a great mixture of added value in the tasting notes, in understanding the differences of potential clients preferences, and a visual web representation of making a recommendation from a limited selection for clarity without forcing a choice.  Textbook trying to appeal to a wide market, making it very accessible, and generally very nicely done.

The blog, staff profiles, and attitude is really open and approachable, and their Social Media based open feedback approach (every bag prompts you to take a photo and say what you think) brave, and well monitored.  Transparency and personality in a social media promoted company like this really important.

After initial signup (better on the web), the mobile site is the thing that really makes it for me.  You can pause your coffee, delay the delivery date, change what coffee if going to come, and get it dispatched immediately.  I did all of those and each worked really well, communications were good, warnings of dispatch prompted you to make a change if you wanted before actually dispatched and bags turned up exactly when forecast.  So whilst grinding when low on coffee, it was literally: pull the phone out of the pocket, and two clicks on the site to sort new or different coffee, and getting it shipped now.  The coffee available on the site changed enough during my trial to keep me looking.  

So it completely avoided the thing that sucked with Britannia Music back a decade ago which was that things you didn't want turned up in the post, and it was a hassle to send them back.  I only got what I wanted, and actually them having my payment details just made it easier to get the coffee.  Ultimately I do need coffee regularly, so is a subscription that bad?  I'm also wondering what other goods areas could see subscription as a come back model, if facilitated with a really great, lightweight mobile-enabled access model.  Free iPhone if you sign up to buy an iTunes track a day anyone?

Post and Packaging

So it's not a big thing to get right, but I think they really have got this right.  The coffee comes compressed quite flat in a stiff A5 cardboard outer, with a tear open, valved resealable padded inner.  The flat format means it always went through our awkward letter box.  The resealable bag tore or cut open easily and went straight into the fridge.  The reseal was really nicely airtight, and the bag comes with roasting, and packed dates, and tasting notes.

I had three bags during my test out of the service

Coffee Quality

Bag 1: House Espresso Ground
I really wanted to see what a premium service thought a quality ground should be, both what sort of grind, what sort of coffee, and whether that freshness came through, and what difference it made to my espresso.


So this was good coffee, it was pretty fresh, had a nice consistent grind and did indeed make a good espresso.   Opening it up out of the post was a great experience, however on brewing it didn't blow me away as something a lot more special than something I'd freshly ground myself.  The real problem though for me was that after 3-4 days, I really wasn't excited about the coffee at all. Opening the bag had a lost a lot of it's wow, and I quickly pressed the button to accelerate getting some whole beans.  There is quite a lot of this bag still left in the fridge.

What I'm taking from this is that ground premium coffee really not worth the premium.  You've got to be grinding yourself.  I know you read that a lot on the internet, but this really brought it home for me.

I think if you're only getting a bag every fortnight, and buying ground, and especially if it's already say up to a week roasted, even if ground just before shipping, it's probably eating up a lot of the quality difference between this and a good supermarket bag.  So it's a very convenient way to buy coffee, but I'm not sure it's really going to take your coffee to the next level.  This bag didn't for mine, the next was much, much better

Bag 2 Whole Bean Colombia La Joyeria #388

This bag was a joy right from opening.  Amazing smell, beautiful not-too-dark roast, fantastic taste, I had one really sensational coffee out of this (Chemex Drip), some really great cappuccinos, a lot more really good drip, some good espresso, and the bag disappeared really quickly.  I found the tasting notes really accurate, the grape acidity not my thing in espresso, but perfectly described, and the milk chocolate seamless in cap.  Strictly it wasn't primarily recommend as a drip blend, but I pretty much did everything with it - and the Chemex was my favourite, produced some amazing cup aromas.


One really noticeable thing was though that the amazing coffee was made in the first two days, the great coffee in the next few (still much better than supermarket) but just didn't get back to those first two days.  So after the first bag being so so, and this one being great, I was really starting to buy into this freshness thing.



Bag 3: Whole Bean Finca Las Flores

Previous two bags had been at standard prices, this one was a limited edition import premium at a little bit more.  I think the previous bag, and this premium had unfortunately raised my expectation and the bag fell rather flat on me.

Again I found the tasting notes really accurate, which I was impressed with as normally (ok normally with wine labels) I have no idea how they came up with the words written on packs for what you actually find inside.  But mandarin, was a really good description of the espresso, again not necessarily my thing, but that wasn't the issue.


The real issue was I excitedly got it out of the post box, opened it with those raised expectations and just wasn't impressed.  The smell wasn't nearly as good as bag two, and no matter which way I made the coffee it just didn't have that wow factor - especially the aromatics just didn't hang around the cup the way bag two had done.  This bag has been steadily disappearing, it's certainly good coffee, but I wouldn't spend the extra on it.  Either as a special edition, or actually as a premium coffee services.

Looking at the bag, it's very noticeable how much older it was by the time it arrived with me, than the last bag and this is my suspicion of the issue.  Roasted a week ago is certainly a great deal fresher than supermarket coffee, but is doesn't seem to be really enough to make a big difference to the quality of the coffee, especially if you are then going to be keeping it over a week or a fortnight.

Cost

So Pact coffee costs are very similar to other premium roasting internet coffee sites, Hasbean and TwoDayCoffee as two I'm looking at next for instance.  The difference in cost mostly seems to be in the postage: the subscription nature of Pact, means that Pact seem to be able to roll the cost of postage into the weekly, or fortnight pack price.  Where as these other two would ask ~£1.40-1.60 to post.  So an advantage to the subscription service there.

However looking at that Flavour (Good IMO), Flexibility (Very Good), and Freshness (Not so sure) advertising blog from Pact both these other two sites are hanging their hat on coffee roasted within 48 hours.  So for the cost of postage each time, without a subscription, that's something I definitely want to try.

Conclusions

For 
  + Friendly and flexible
  + don't worry about previous hangups on subscription services, if you have a smart phone it isn't a problem
  + Cost competitive, especially for good packaging and posting
  + Good tasting notes
  + Variety of coffee

Against
  - Coffee roasted up to a week ago.

So I liked getting coffee from Pact, but I definitely want to try out a few more delivery sites before I could settle into leaving a subscription service.  So any final view held off, and I'll re-update..

One suggestions though for Pact, if you're reading this:

Suggestions 

Options on Pact's site are for coffee are to have Pact send you one you've chosen repeatedly, or rotate what they send you to let you try coffee.  I think a third option would be great for their site, which would be send me the freshest (i.e the most recently roasted), along with a suggestion along with the tasting notes on each packet, on how the think you make the best coffee with this pack.  I'd be much happier with things just turning up then and trying them out.

Oh and I loved the staff pages about half way down here along with detail on how each of them liked to make their coffee.

Really interesting company.



8 comments:

  1. You might be interested to read about the founder of Pact: http://techcrunch.com/2013/06/24/after-exiting-from-crashpadder-founder-hopes-pact-will-be-the-zappos-of-coffee/

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    1. Cheers Jimbo. Really interesting, causing me to also look up Zappos. Stephen Rapoport's twitter feed quite interesting as well on the UX side.

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    2. http://connectventures.co.uk/ ar investors in it. Something of a departure from their stated aims, but may have known him via crashpadder

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  3. Nice write up. FYI - fresh beans aren't exactly good for the espresso machine (and i presume other methods too) so it's not entirely a bad thing that the beans are roasted a week ago. What you want though, are beans to be packaged asap after it's cooled down. I'm not too sure what Pact does on this front.

    When I roast beans myself, I find the coffee more pleasant from the 4th day onwards, and used within 2 weeks of the roasting date. Any sooner and it taste a bit sour and lots of bubbles form (after the espresso has settled after 30 or so seconds). I've been told the bubbles are due to the de-gassing nature of freshly roasted beans.

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    1. Thanks William. I guess you mean leaving time for degassing and resting the beans after roasting letting some of the trapped CO2 escape? Some really good threads out there on beans which peak much later after roasting than expected, but generally I find that good crema needs a balance of how freshly roasted (and the overall quality of the beans) and how long after grinding you put it through the espresso machine. Coffee geek have a good article on it http://coffeegeek.com/opinions/barista/10-14-2006 . At the moment I'm using very fresh beans, and then giving them say 2-3 minutes after grinding before into the machine. It's working pretty well for me. Fresh beans for me is also that across the life across a bag it stays great throughout, as well as the intensity of the hit when you open it to grind, and how much of that stays through the bag. It also lets me decide when it's best to grind or roast. I wouldn't though tell anyone they were wrong though if they though after 4, 8 or 12 days was best for the beans they were using.. Mainly here looking for how much better than supermarket beans they can be - which could be roasted months ago. When looking at coffee subscription services, if the beans are getting to over a week, or two weeks when they arrive, and it's two weeks for you to use that typically quantity, I think you may well find that they aren't as good at the start than at the end and you certainly lost a lot of the control.

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  4. Great blog post - very useful.

    You should never keep coffee in the fridge, by the way. It's the single worst place for it. The freezer is the second worst place. It's partly to do with the presence of other foods in the fridge and how the fat in the beans react to the cold. The best place for them is an air-tight, light-tight container. It's the presence of air and light that screw with the beans.

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  5. Thanks Joe - I found with ground in a bag, overall it helped a bit, there were bad bits and good bits, but it definitely smelt fresher for longer. You're absolutely right though if not in a really well sealed container it absorbs all sorts of unwanted. Never tried freezing coffee, though know people do. Anyhow just got lazy and kept on throwing the coffee in there when beans arrived in the post. Have corrected, and cleared out my old beans, and started decanting on arrival from packs into airtight push tops again.

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