Lavazza and the point of diminishing returns

One concept I feel a lot of people in the espresso communities need to learn, or re-learn, is “point of diminishing returns”, sometimes also called the “law of diminishing returns”. It’s a concept I recently recalled when talking about photography equipment. In short, it’s the point after which you are no longer getting value commensurate to the money you are spending.

The idea comes up a lot with gaming computers and selecting parts and trying to find the optimal point in terms of price versus performance, enthusiasts nothwithstanding.

With photography equipment, the concept is the same. Are you shelling out for a 60+ MP camera, or 100+ MP medium format, for photos that will only ever be seen on a computer screen? Would a 20MP or 24MP camera work just as fine for where you’re publishing photos?

And with espresso, the question really needs to be asked regarding not just equipment – e.g., machines like the Decent DE1 lineup – but also coffee. There’s this obsession among espresso enthusiasts with roast date. And I get it, since the fresher off the roast date you can get, the better the coffee is going to taste, since coffee does go stale unless it’s properly stored. That’s the narrative everyone is being sold.

“Buy local!”

“Avoid mass produced coffee!”

“Starbucks is the devil!”

I’m sure we’ve all heard these at one point or another. And with COVID, the emphasis on “buy local” was apt since it was smaller businesses – including the smaller coffee roasters – who suffered under the government-mandated concentration of commerce to the largest companies.

And I fell for that spell as well.

Being in Kansas City the default name for coffee is The Roasterie since they’re… everywhere. Their Super Tuscan was my go-to blend till I discovered Messenger Coffee when I moved to Rosehill Point in Lenexa in 2016, which is right behind Black Dog Coffeehouse, a Messenger Coffee partner. I fell in love with the flavor and it fast became my default and the baseline against which I’d measure other coffees I would try.

When I moved to Kansas City, KS, after buying my house, I discovered Filling Station off Johnson Drive (across from Shawnee Mission North High School) is also a Messenger Coffee partner, so bought beans from them. I just prefer the convenience of doing that over ordering it online. And Messenger doesn’t allow me to order for pickup at their plant like The Roasterie.

Then I lost my job.

Living off savings and having to cut back meant cutting out Messenger Coffee and its nearly $2 per day expense on beans. 18 USD for a 12oz bag of whole beans that lasted typically about 10 days with my normal rate of consumption. That wasn’t the only reason I looked for alternatives. As about the time I lost my job, Messenger was making changes to their branding and product lineup with their partners that I didn’t like. So the timing was perfect for finding a new direction.

After the spectacular failure that was Verena Street “espresso”, I recalled a coffee brand I’d encountered early on when I first looked at making a home espresso setup: Lavazza.

And, even better, it was available on Amazon and could be delivered overnight. A 1kg bag of the Lavazza Espresso 5/10 intensity blend for $19 including the overnight delivery charge and sales taxes. Almost 3x the coffee for the same price I was paying for Messenger’s Relay Espresso blend.

Let me repeat that: 3x the coffee. For. the same. price.

I wasn’t too keen on the flavor profile for that one, so tried the Barista Gran Crema 7/10 intensity for about 3 USD more, and I’ve stuck with that since.

So when I recalled the concept of “point of diminishing returns” when discussing photography equipment recently, it brought me back to coffee and how, for the last several months, I’d been buying a mass produced brand for a fraction of the price of the local roast that had become my default.

And it brings up this question: is Messenger Coffee two to three times better than Lavazza? No.

Indeed the flavor profiles are pretty similar, but Lavazza’s Barista Gran Crema actually wins out for me. I’m not a coffee enthusiast with a sophisticated palate and taste detection that rivals the best sommeliers. And my unemployment had me realizing that the more expensive coffees fail when it comes to the value proposition.

And with my Airscape canisters, the beans stay reasonably fresh for about the entire month the bag has no issue lasting. (Though I will soon be looking into a mason jar vacuum sealer for storing coffee beans over using the Airscape.)

I’ve said before that we need to stop complicating espresso. And that really also needs to start with the coffee. Go with a local roaster if you want and, more importantly, can afford to. But don’t dismiss the value question and avoid larger brands like Lavazza and Illy simply to… avoid the larger brands. Don’t be afraid to explore. Don’t fall for the spell of the roast date and avoid adding larger roasters into that exploration.

You might find something you like that will also save you a ton of money in the long run.