October 19, 2023

Is Stumptown and Alaska Airlines’ new partnership another sign that specialty coffee is becoming more mainstream?


Coffee on airplanes is nothing new. Most international commercial airlines have been serving coffee onboard for decades now.

What has changed in the past few years, however, is the quality of coffee offered on commercial flights. With most airlines partnering with larger roasters and companies like Starbucks and illycaffè (to name a few), there has been little focus on using higher-quality coffee.

The lack of specialty coffee options on commercial flights even created the trend of brewing coffee onboard using the AeroPress – otherwise known as the rather tongue-in-cheek “Mile High Brew Club”.

But it may appear that more airlines are starting to offer higher-quality coffee. On 11 October 2023, Alaska Airlines – the fifth-largest airline in North America – announced it will serve Stumptown Coffee on all its flights by 1 December 2023. The two companies developed a custom blend which is “specially crafted to be enjoyed up in the air” as filter coffee.

This signals the end of Alaska’s partnership with Starbucks, and is a clear indication that the airline wants to serve better quality coffee to its passengers. So is this also a sign of specialty coffee becoming more popular, or is the Stumptown-Alaska Airlines collaboration to be expected?

Read on to find out more.

You may also like our article on whether airlines are starting to offer better coffee.

A host serves airline coffee on a plane.

Serving coffee 30,000 feet in the air

If you’ve ever drank coffee on an airplane, you’ve probably noticed that it doesn’t quite taste the same as usual. This is for a number of reasons, including:

  • Airlines generally using lower-quality commodity-grade coffee
  • Poor-quality brewing water onboard
  • Limited brewing equipment
  • Drinks are served by flight attendants, who are naturally less experienced than baristas or specialty coffee enthusiasts

One of the most important factors, however, is altitude. When we’re at higher altitudes, our ability to perceive flavours and aromas diminishes significantly. In fact, while on a plane, the sensitivity of our taste buds can be reduced by up to 30%. In turn, we tend to taste less acidity and sweetness, while bitterness is accentuated.

To avoid these issues, Alaska Airlines worked with Stumptown to develop a custom blend, which uses the same base coffee as Holler Mountain – the specialty roaster’s signature blend. Stumptown describes the organic blend as “roasted deep enough to bring out notes of toasted marshmallow and dark chocolate, while remaining exceptionally smooth and balanced”.

As part of developing this coffee, the two companies brewed over 200 pots of filter coffee and experimented with 20 different variables such as grind, dose, and types of paper filters. In addition to blind customer tastings, Stumptown and Alaska also conducted numerous tasting sessions both in the air and on the ground to make sure altitude had minimal impact on coffee flavour.

Other coffee-airline partnerships

Stumptown and Alaska Airlines are not the first to develop a custom “altitude-immune” coffee blend. In 2018, British Airways partnered with UK roaster Union Coffee to develop a medium roast Peruvian blend that was able to maintain flavour complexity at higher altitudes.

The coffee, however, was only available to British Airways passengers flying in first and business classes, as well as in the airline’s airport lounges.

We have also seen other roasters partner with airlines to serve their coffee onboard flights, such as:

  • Hawaiian Paradise Coffee, which provides all coffee for Hawaiian Airlines – the largest operator of commercial flights to and from Hawaii
  • Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union’s roasted coffee brand OneKoo, which supplies green and roasted coffee to Ethiopian Airlines

Similarly, more and more specialty coffee roasters have started to open locations in airports in recent years, including:

  • US brands like Stumptown and Intelligentsia
  • Colombian roaster Café Pergamino, which operates a location in José María Córdova International Airport in Medellín
  • Greece’s Taf Coffee, which has a location in Athens International Airport
Developing the Stumptown and Alaska airline coffee blend.

So is the Stumptown-Alaska partnership a sign of specialty coffee’s growing popularity?

It’s clear that more and more airport operators and airlines want to start serving higher-quality coffee to passengers. But does this necessarily mean that specialty coffee is becoming more mainstream?

When it comes to Stumptown and Alaska Airlines, maybe not. In fact, the partnership is something of a no-brainer. 

Both companies originate from the Pacific Northwest – with Stumptown founded in Portland, Oregon and Alaska headquartered near Seattle, Washington. Moreover, both Stumptown and Alaska lean heavily on their roots in their branding and marketing strategies, and proudly represent the Pacific Northwest.

It’s also important to consider that Alaska partners with other “artisanal” PNW brands. These include Portland-based craft ice cream company Salt & Straw, Oregon’s farmer-owned dairy co-operative Tillamook, and Seattle’s small-batch beer brewery Freemont Brewing. So given the airline’s intentional decisions to work with local, quality-focused companies, the recent deal with Stumptown only makes more sense.

The two companies also share other similarities which help to explain the recent partnership. Alaska Airlines has a clear focus on sustainability, and plans to become carbon net-zero by 2050. Additionally, the company says it was the first airline to implement an inflight recycling programme, as well as to eliminate plastic cups, straws, and stir sticks onboard. 

This clearly aligns with Stumptown’s sustainability strategy, too. The roaster, which is a B Corp, plans to stop sending all waste from its manufacturing operations to landfill by 2025. What’s more, the company defaulted to oat milk across all its coffee shops earlier this year in a bid to reduce its environmental impact.

A positive influence on specialty coffee?

Despite the Stumptown-Alaska partnership being rather obvious, it will undoubtedly have some benefits for the specialty coffee market.

According to Statista, over 41.6 million passengers flew on Alaska Airlines services in 2022. Clearly there is potential here to introduce a wider range of people to specialty coffee – and possibly pique their interest in drinking higher-quality coffee when they’re not flying, too.

However, Alaska’s flight attendants will need to make sure they brew Stumptown’s coffee to high enough standards if the new partnership is to have as much positive impact as it sets out to. Otherwise, with poor-quality water and a lack of attention to detail, passengers may not be able to tell the difference.

A pilot drinks Stumptown airline coffee.

Given the proliferation of larger commercial chains in airports, and many airlines’ decisions to serve low-quality coffee onboard, it’s refreshing to see companies like Alaska choose to work with specialty coffee roasters like Stumptown.

And while this specific partnership may not necessarily indicate that specialty coffee is becoming more popular, hopefully it encourages other airlines and travel companies to follow suit.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on if following “The Road to Milan” the World Barista Championship is becoming more mainstream.

Photo credits: Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Alaska Airlines

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