It's been a while since I've taken a vacation and even longer since I've flown. So when a good deal on a Labor Day weekend in Orlando, Florida, popped up, I jumped at the chance to go. As I filed down the ramp with the rest of my fellow passengers, I was surprised to see an ad on the wall for LIFT, Southwest's new on-board coffee. My interest was piqued. When was the last time you were excited to taste an airline's coffee?
Southwest served the first cups of LIFT in May of this year. The boldest part of the new coffee is the branding effort the airline has rolled out. The stout, wide-mouth cup features a tiny gray sleeve with descriptions of the coffee as well as ads for the charitable foundation -- the Guatemala Light Project -- that the airline supports in the name of the coffee. Southwest even put together a tongue-in-cheek YouTube video for the campaign.
Dark-roasted Arabica coffee from Central and South America, an eco-friendly cup, a charity: Southwest has successfully brought airline coffee into...the 1990s.
And the coffee is still just okay.
"Dark roast" suggests a bold, satisfying cup to some drinkers. However, a darker roast can also serve as a way to mask the beans' true flavors by emphasizing the flavors that the roasting process creates. Despite its dark roast, though, LIFT coffee still has a thin taste. The bold might be there, but there's no body to back it up.
Southwest also advertises that its coffee is made from 100% Arabica beans from Central and South America. While Arabica is generally considered to be a higher quality bean than Robusta, this tells the drinker nothing about the coffee's taste. Considering the amount of coffee grown in Central America alone -- in Guatemala alone, even -- we're talking about a massive amount of coffee. Add the entire continent of South America to the mix and...well, let's just say this isn't your single-origin cup of coffee.
There are a number of theories why airline coffee doesn't taste good. One of the most convincing to me is that the water doesn't reach a high enough temperature to steep the coffee properly. The tight galley space on board an airplane severely limits the size of a brewing basket for drip coffee. This means that the basket might not have the appropriate depth to evenly expose the grounds to the water.
Water quality is another huge variable. Say what you will about St. Louis, but we enjoy great tap water. The tap water in Orlando was brackish and tinny -- not what you look for in good water for coffee. Purchasing purified water for every flight to guarantee a better, more consistent cup of coffee doesn't strike me as something most airlines would seriously consider.
The success of Starbucks on a national level brought specialty coffee to the masses. While major companies like McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts have rolled out their own responses to specialty coffee over the past few years, the airline industry has neglected to address this growing consumer trend. But who could blame them? There's a Starbucks or Peet's coffee kiosk in almost every airport in the country. The industry sees specialty coffee the same way metro newspapers approach national and international news: If there's someone else who can do it better, why try to compete? The only problem is the airlines haven't offered anything in its place.
I think the only way to really improve airline coffee is to go with cold brew. There are obvious logistical and taste issues here, but it would be the best way to maximize flavor given the difficult circumstances on an airplane. If the beans really were better, as advertised, cold brew would need only time and water quality to brew a better tasting coffee. It might not be to everyone's taste, but personally, I'd rather have a good cup of cold -brewed coffee than a mediocre hot one.
In an era of ever-growing fees, smaller portions and the need to carry a credit card on board just to purchase a snack, Southwest's attempt to improve its drink service deserves commendation. While it can't do much in the way of lowering fuel pricesor expanding their food options, the Love Airline did improve their coffee.
Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.