If you are like me, you have had many bad coffees when flying and never have high expectations for coffee. Alaska Airlines no longer wants you to feel that way. Today, Alaska announced a new partnership with Portland-based Stumptown Roasters to roll out a premium coffee blend that the airline claims tastes better in the sky. Too good to be true? Perhaps not. Let's figure out why.
On a scientific level, taste buds react differently at higher altitudes, distorting flavors and sensations we normally experience when consuming food and drink on the ground level. Alaska Airlines recognized this and has worked with Stumptown to design a coffee blend to appeal to a wide variety of tastes that won't taste any different—or worse—than a coffee consumed on the ground. Shauna Alexander, Vice President of Coffee and Sustainability at Stumptown Coffee Roasters, said that in an arid and pressurized environment, one's ability to perceive flavor nuance is diminished.
Alaska describes its blend as a medium-dark, smooth, and balanced blend that uses a similar base to Stumptown's Holler Mountain blend. Still, the roast focuses on mellowing acidity and adding "toastiness" to please a wide range of palates. The flavor profiles identified are toasted marshmallow, browned butter, toffee, citrus, and cherry.
By December 1, all Alaska flights will offer the coffee, with it being rolled out on its first flights this month. Passengers can also consume other Stumptown blends at Alaska's lounges at Portland (PDX) and New York-JFK (JFK). Alaska's process of identifying the perfect-tasting coffee in the air is perhaps more interesting than the coffee itself.
"Having flown millions of miles fueled by countless cups of coffee, Stumptown stands out as first class," said Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci. "Like travel, coffee has a remarkable way of bringing people together. I can't wait for our guests and employees to enjoy a cup of Stumptown when they fly with us."
More than 200 pots of coffee were brewed for the development of this project, and 20+ different variables were tested: grind, dose, filter paper, filter pack, and more. After certain blends were identified, the blends were tested on flights, and customers were surveyed blind to assess the taste quality—particularly if the quality were better than coffee you'd drink at ground level.
On a business level, the move is a strong one for Alaska in boosting its profile as the premium airline of the Pacific Northwest. Alaska is already partnered with famous Pacific Northwest brands, including Tillamook, Salt & Straw, Beecher's Cheese, and Fremont Brewing; Stumptown is only growing this portfolio further. On the other hand, the partnership with Stumptown means Alaska has ended its long-running alliance with Starbucks Coffee.
The move also demonstrates Alaska's deep commitment to improving its on-board experience. Coffee is often overlooked as a product on board, especially when other airlines have focused more on the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems, seats, lighting, and bathrooms. However, Alaska nailing the overlooked products might help Alaska pull ahead if customers can expect high-quality basics that positively catch people off guard.
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