Designing Better Coffee

What happens when you want to produce the best possible coffee, in the most ethical way. That treats farmers equitably, and yet insists on a level of quality you can’t compromise on?

In this presentation, hear how design, business thinking and ethics combined to address this quandary.

Find the slides for this presentation at

The story of Brew Crew starts in Tonsai, a great climbing destination. A couple of friends talking over beers and food, thinking about the idea of coffee subscriptions. Simon’s friend Ruben had just started Sample coffee and wanted to share coffee with a bigger audience.

They now send out a box with coffee and a card about the coffee, either fortnightly or monthly. They learned three big things in the process of getting to this stage:

  1. Embrace what makes you… you
  2. Start small, learn quickly
  3. Leave things better than you found them

Ruben wanted to sell online so Simon helped set it up, with a quick Bigcommerce store. But online stores make a lot of assumptions about what you’re selling.

Coffee is a perishable good. Ruben roasts a small amount every week, once it’s sold it’s gone. The web store looked broken most of the time.

Also online stores just don’t do subscriptions very well: you do things like set a zero price, with modifiers in the options… you have to ask people to trust you. Or you do a recurring shopping cart, where you have to come back and buy again every month.

Meanwhile, Sample didn’t have any space at the cafe to set up a subscription service. Their hours were no good for courier pickups. They needed to expand.

They are not an online store, so they embraced what they are. Ruben’s a coffee expert, Simon’s a design and web expert. Design is all about customers… and so is a coffee shop.

So they had a second go at the system. Ruben rented a warehouse and cafe space; Simon started building a custom application.

They had three principles:

  1. Subscription only (no adhoc sales)
  2. Don’t over promise, just say what you do
  3. Sell the coffee experience

So the second round created a very simple, very focused website.

I’m legally obliged to include this at a tech conference… and the ‘no nothing’ is too good to correct!

Simon ran into all the things he didn’t know. In his case – print. He’d never done print. He figured he had to learn InDesign…and we can just put that in Dropbox and the guys will print it. What could go wrong?

Turns out it was hard… Now they just do this via the web with print CSS. No need for InDesign, anyone with a browser can print a label.

They were trying to make a personalised experience, like the experience of turning up in the coffee shop. Your name is on the postcard, the sticker used to seal the box gets personalised messages. Since this is all done in the browser as well, the guys packing the boxes can add things whenever they want.

Summit 17 Day 2

Then Simon decided to write a full custom application in Ruby On Rails. This did slow things down…

But they started simple. One question: how much coffee do you want? Then they added another question about whether you drink your coffee black or with milk? This is the same way people talk in the cafe. Then keep going… add options as they make sense and people want them.

It’s a lot like doing design sprints. Do a trial, even if it’s a bit manual at first or just a really simple solution. People kept asking when their coffee was coming, so they let people subscribe to a calendar. Very simple, solved the problem.

As they add more options, the impact on the team is big – the combination of options multiplies fast; and people packing boxes have to do all of it.

Bringing us to boxes. It’s critical to a delivery business. Their first box purchase wasn’t so great, they were annoying and had to be taped shut… and after a few hours of peeling tape noise, you go crazy.

Weird limitations: why is the upper subscription 420g? It’s the maximum amount of beans that wouldn’t tip the entire package over 500g, which is a lot more expensive to send. Sometimes they’d have to trim the boxes manually just to remove weight.

So they started making their own boxes. It’s easier to work with, looks great, has lots of brewing tips and other information in the box. There’s also a map showing where the coffee comes from. The new box didn’t need to be sealed with tape.

The third concept, leave things better than you found them… (idea stolen from Kris Howard)… Simon approaches this three ways:

  1. for the team
  2. for partners
  3. for the planet

Most of the team deals with the coffee, it’s just Simon sitting in an office. Turns out baristas are really nerdy! They measure everything in amazingly detailed ways. They come up with thousands of ways to make aeropress. They test water and survey which titration kit people used to do it.

Simon got the team into using Slack, which was initially just for notifications to go to Simon. But it became the way the cafes communicated with each other, as well. There’s an IFTTT feed that reposts instagram posts from the cafe into the Slack channel.

Partners… for Sample this includes farmers, who grow the coffee mostly on microlots – often on the sides of mountains. Our entire image of ‘farms’ doesn’t apply. To pick coffee cherries that are consistently ripe, the farmers have to pick in multiple sweeps through their trees. It’s a lot of work but it produces the best coffee, so it’s fair to give a good price.

The Sample crew were already paying specialty coffee prices, but what more could they do?


  • Tom’s one-for-one – buy a pair of shoes, a pair of new shoes is given to a child in need.
  • Thankyou – they sell a range of products and give to product-relevant charities.

Sample think about giving by working together, which is where the Coffee For Good concept came from, where a percentage of the price is given to charity. (Coffee For Good was originally going to be called Better Coffee, hence the talk title!)

Better for the planet… they’ve always had a ‘no satchels unless we have no choice’ rule. Post satchels are cheap, strong and weatherproof; but they are single use and usually not recyclable. Even when technically recyclable, very few places can do the recycling. Which is why Sample ended up using boxes. But at first they had to use sticky tape, so they got rid of that. But the actual coffee bag still isn’t recyclable or compostable; so now they’re experimenting with a paper envelope and compostable plastic liner. Sample work with local suppliers to cut down on transport and travel.

So that’s the idea:

  1. Embrace what makes you… you
  2. Start small, learn quickly
  3. Leave things better than you found them