Are you an aspiring coffee connoisseur? A casual coffee consumer? A regular at your local coffee shop? A local barista?
No matter the case, I have good news for you. I aspire to make all of my readers amateur “coffee scientists”. What does that mean? A scientist is a person engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge that describes and predicts the natural world. In the realm of coffee, this entails not only tasting the multitude of beverages available today, but describing the processes and engineering behind beverage creation, describing the chemistry and effects of ingredients, tracing the taste profile and quality of coffee to the bean’s origins, and so much more.
That said- We’ll leave the science for later entries, because before all of you aspiring coffee scientists start your journey to expertise, it is important to take a look at the current “Coffee Climate”. The coffee climate is my own term for the reaction of the public to the current commercial coffee industry. It is important to note all of the different outlets that coffee comes from and their current state, so you can develop a set of expectations for what you’re going to get when you purchase coffee products.
So what is the coffee climate like in America in 2017? Let’s look at the 3 major “camps” of American commercial coffee consumers and the state the industry is in today, described originally by Trish Rothgeb in 2002, and detailed here in terms of both time and inherent values. The 3 camps come from the first, second, and third waves of coffee.
The first wave, defined by the start of the mass marketing of coffee, started in the 1800’s and continues today. The initial introduction of coffee to the market started with Folgers, and subsequently by Maxwell House and others; even by popularized second-wave coffee chains that had entered their brands into the store-shelf lineup. This wave popularized coffee as a product, and is marked by it’s focus on convenience. This wave brought us things like vacuum sealed coffee, instant coffee, and the first home-drip coffee machines. People who drink first wave coffee generally care about convenience and the immediate effects of coffee over quality and taste, and these people form the first camp of consumers. The outlook of coffee for first wave distributors is generally stable, but that status may be challenged soon by increasing prices of green coffee beans, leading to a hike in store-shelf coffee prices, and the changing of the public’s values to see coffee as a specialty beverage. Current examples of first-wave products you can find on the shelves range from at-home automatic-drip coffee machines and pre-ground coffee to the newer k-cups and more modern keurig single-cup coffee brewers. Current examples of brands include Folgers, Maxwell House, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Mr. Coffee, Keurig, etc., and range from “standard” brands to “premium” brands sometimes both owned by the same company.
The second wave, defined by the social experiences centered around coffee, started in the late 1900’s, and continues today with several large coffee chains and non-specialty coffee shops. Starbucks’ entry into the market, and the start of other large coffee chains including Peet’s Coffee and Tea, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Tim Horton’s, Gloria Jean’s, Caribou Coffee, Dunkin Donuts, etc., came from a change of the public’s values from product convenience to product experience. This led to a large shift in advertising and image of the product. There are not many store-shelf products associated with the second wave of coffee, but product diversity was expressed instead in terms of beverage diversity. Large coffee shops provided not just coffee, but a variety of coffee beverages sourced from other mostly-European cultures including the latte, cappuccino, cafe au lait, cortado, macchiato, americano, etc., bringing about the idea of coffee as a specialty beverage. People who drink second wave coffee form the second camp, and generally care about the experience they get with their coffee and the human connection they get at a coffee shop that isn’t available at home, and may or may not value coffee itself. The outlook for second wave coffee is still great – although the importance of quality was assessed, what second wave coffee providers sought to sell, and have succeeded to sell was is idea that coffee is something more than just a beverage to get you started in the morning.
The third wave of coffee is defined by a great importance put on coffee itself, including the sourcing and processing of the beans, the methods and profiles of roasting, the methods of brewing, the taste profile of the coffee, the introduction of new ingredients to coffee beverages, and even the cultures of the people in coffee growing regions. While some refer to third wave coffee as only independent coffee shops and roasteries, some larger chains such as Starbucks, despite being second wave chains, have entered into the third wave of coffee with the introduction of reserve stores with higher quality small-lot coffee, roasteries, and, more importantly, the training of employees in coffee brewing and culture. Some notable names in third wave coffee are Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture. Many coffee-loving entrepreneurs are opening small third wave shops and roasteries in order to cater to people who want to drink high quality coffee beverages, and who want to create high quality coffee beverages at home. Many baristas and entrepreneurs who seek out employment or try to open new shops and roasteries come from second-wave chains and shops, and want to take their craft to the next level. This is of great benefit to those who want to try many different kinds of coffee, as multiple unique shops with unique offerings pop up around the states. This blog, for example, is a third wave blog directed towards the public, providing knowledge and exploration of coffee beverages to the public, from a non-commercial standpoint. The outlook for third wave coffee is decent, especially considering the large amount of shops and roasteries that have started recently and have sustained themselves, despite the now older notion that an interest in specialty coffee made you a “coffee snob”. Products associated with third wave coffee are old-school manual drip brew gear, internationally-recognized and used gear, espresso machines, coffee grinders, coffee roasters, single-origin coffees at a variety of roast profiles, and a large variety of cups, plates, and other dishes for the purpose of visually interesting plating.
Overall, the coffee industry is and has been continuously evolving, and things look promising for coffee-lovers. But should expectations of a shop or brand should be based on the focus of the shop or brand in question. While your local coffee shop may have higher quality coffee, is it right to hold Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts to the same standards? Probably not, because the shops have different goals. Big chains stress human connection, as well as diversity in beverage choice, but at such a large scale, such a high volume, and with such a big amount of revenue in second wave coffee that it would be impossible to put the extra time and quality into their product that would give you the expectations you might have for that lower volume third wave shop. That isn’t to say that beverages at those large chains can’t be enjoyed – many beverages released from large chain stores involve unique seasonal offerings and flavors that your local shops may or may not offer.
Homework: Try to see if you can get out and try some unique offerings from a third wave shop! You might find a flavor that piques your interest. Maybe ask your barista for a suggestion! Their (sometimes) expert opinion could lead to you scoring a unique, delicious drink.
To learn more about specialty coffee, and keep up with the climate change, check back for more. In the meantime, leave a comment or question and I’ll do my best to get back to you!