The beginnings of coffee cultivation in Ethiopia are lost to history, but we do know that the form of the beverage we enjoy today originated in the 13th century and rapidly spread throughout the Middle East. Coffee growing was exclusive to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula until the 17th century, when European colonial powers began establishing plantations in Asia and the Americas. The invigorating drink quickly became a craze among the Old World nations, but the settlers who flocked to Britain’s New World colonies didn’t widely adopt coffee until a specific year: 1773. In the wake of the Boston Tea Party, drinking coffee instead of tea became a badge of solidarity against the mother country’s economic policies.
For the people who would become Americans, coffee meant “No taxation without representation.” More than perhaps any other consumption practice, it is absolutely central to our national identity. But the ways in which we have consumed it have undergone a series of radical changes through American history, and these changes have shaped the core audience of dedicated coffee drinkers that exists today. This is a group that skews young, but it includes consumers of all ages who stay in step with trends in coffee culture.
A growing number of analysts identify three distinct historical phases of American coffee culture, with a fourth theorized to be taking shape right now. What we call the first wave goes all the way back to the 19th century and is marked by the appearance of mass-market coffee brands, with vacuum-sealed packaging and instant coffee creating easy access to a quick pick-me-up in the home, office or diner. The second wave positioned coffee as a social beverage and revolved around the rise of café culture, beginning around the 1960s and culminating with the spread of Starbucks and other chains that popped up around the country. The third wave is distinguished by the appearance of “artisanal” coffee culture, with neighborhood coffee shops and independent roasters taking their place in the industry to serve the most engaged and highest-spending consumers.
What is the fourth wave? The truth is that no one is entirely sure just yet how to define it. Some of the leading ideas focus on the origins of the beans—perfecting more sustainable farming practices on the production end, or calling more attention to the coffee’s regional origins on the marketing end. Coffee may also follow wine, whiskey and beer as a driver of tourism. According to writer Callum Sharp, “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the years to come, we’re holidaying in Colombia and staying on coffee farms, engrossing ourselves in blind cupping sessions, sampling new flavours and making notes in our journals.”
The very idea of the “coffee connoisseur” who is expected to be an early adopter of this new business model is a feature of third-wave coffee culture; prior to this moment, any such consumer would have been an outlier not worth targeting. But the typical coffee connoisseur today is different from this original type. What are the primary features that this consumer strives to get out of every cup of coffee?
As with chocolate, American coffee drinkers were for a long time content to accept the finished product from U.S. brands without giving much thought to its ultimate origin or to the conditions under which it was sourced. This changed in the latter part of the third wave, as major brands like Starbucks began touting their fair-trade coffee lines. Customers were invited to pay a small premium for the knowledge that the workers who made their morning cup possible were fairly compensated for their labor.
Fair trade certification was introduced in 1988 by the Dutch brand Max Havelaar after a catastrophic drop in world coffee prices hit small growers hard. In the 2000s the movement achieved its greatest impact, but controversy followed quickly. Critics of fair-trade coffee claimed that, among other problems, the system often failed to provide growers with profits exceeding the cost of certification, to target the poorest growers or to address the causes of systemic poverty. Furthermore, it incentivized growers to offload their lower-quality beans to fair-trade lines, meaning that customers were paying extra for poorer coffee!
Organizations like Fairtrade America and Fairtrade International are still working to ensure fair wages for coffee workers and to address flaws in their system, and plenty of common grocery-store brands still proudly carry the label. But buying a certified fair-trade coffee no longer carries the same thrill of saving the world for most informed consumers.
The concern with compensation for coffee workers overlaps with, and is increasingly swallowed up in, the issue of sustainability. Coffee growers transition from shade-grown to more intensive sun-grown plants, intensifying deforestation and exhausting the soil, and there are concerns about climate change reducing the amount of cultivable land. It is becoming increasingly clear that the future of the coffee industry is in jeopardy and that action must be taken to implement long-term improvements.
There are a number of pathways to working for coffee sustainability. The Rainforest Alliance offers its own certification system parallel to that of the Fairtrade entities, while some organizations use agricultural research to provide novel solutions. Other groups approach the problem from a social angle, encouraging gender equity in the coffee industry or establishing schools for the children of coffee workers.
The fair-trade movement has lost much of its luster for coffee connoisseurs, but that doesn’t mean that they have stopped paying attention to the ethical aspects of coffee production. Today’s conscious coffee drinkers are less likely to look for a Fairtrade America or Rainforest Alliance label and more likely to ask questions about what the providers of their organic, shade-grown coffee are doing to fight against environmental degradation and systemic poverty.
Gone are the days when coffee companies didn’t feel the need to share anything more about their product than a brand logo and some vague ad copy. Today’s consumers want to know about how their coffee was grown and sourced, but they also want in on the vast trove of information that was formerly confined to industry professionals. There is an ever-growing demand for coffee roasters to provide not just high-quality beans but an informal education to go along with them.
Just as wine enthusiasts have learned to throw around some of the lingo used by professional tasters, coffee connoisseurs love to communicate and demonstrate their prowess by identifying subtle tasting notes. Savvy brands have gone to great lengths to educate their customers about the correct terminology and to walk them through the steps of performing a “cupping” or tasting session just like the pros. Consumer demand has led to regular in-store classes at neighborhood cafés and roasters, while the trendsetting Counter Culture brand has gone a step further with dedicated “training centers” located in major cities across the U.S. In addition to home-brewing seminars and cupping sessions for the entire catalog, these centers offer a weekly “Tasting at Ten” series with a different theme for each session.
Educating customers on tasting notes has the potential to both increase their engagement level and tailor marketing to their individual tastes. But an industry insider-level knowledge of coffee includes a lot more than ways to describe flavor profiles. Consumers are also motivated to learn about regional characteristics, roast levels, grind sizes and brewing methods. Some of this information can be found in third-party publications and enthusiast websites, but much of it is provided directly by the cafés and roasters. Customers expect to have a particular coffee explained to them in detail and to make sure that the next one is even more exactly suited to their sensibilities.
One aspect of café culture that has evolved from its second-wave roots is that coffee enthusiasts expect not just a delicious brew but a memorable experience as well. This tendency helps to explain the prevalence of latte art and the spectacle that is the World Barista Championship. It is also manifested in the classes and educational resources already mentioned, and in simple in-store gimmicks like having a dedicated pour over station on certain days of the week. Many coffee companies that run brick-and-mortar establishments make money and engage customers by offering both branded merchandise and a curated selection of home-brewing gear, allowing a quick coffee stop to become an immersive shopping experience.
Subscription boxes are hot in most areas of retail, but the number of thriving coffee subscription services shows that this is an especially productive niche. You can have fresh coffee delivered to your home by one particular roaster or by a company that curates products from different roasters. These can be highly customized to your tastes or built around themes such as local roasters or brands that contribute to social and environmental causes. The combination of guaranteed quality, education and novelty (sometimes with a dash of ethical consumerism!) makes a subscription service a great way to make memories without any social interaction required.
Coffee tourism is a logical next step in the quest for experiences, and there are already a number of tours available for interested travelers. The combination of ultra-premium coffees and existing tourism infrastructure make Hawai’i Island and Jamaica’s Blue Mountains attractive destinations for coffee tourists, while countries like Brazil, Costa Rica and Vietnam are working to build their reputations. There are even plantations that partner with hotels to provide exclusive guests-only tours. But the fact that so much coffee is grown in developing countries, and usually in inaccessible regions of those countries, means that insufficient infrastructure and concerns about crime will continue to deter many potential tourists. For now, a significant amount of coffee tourism is focused on (safe, popular) cities with robust coffee cultures instead of the farms that actually produce the beans.
The all-inclusive coffee resort remains a dream, but enterprising farmers are bound to pursue this potentially major source of additional revenue. As connoisseurs become more familiar with the places that produce their favorite brews, they will want to visit the source—but will still crave everyday coffee experiences at home or in the neighborhood café or roaster.
One of the most visible trends in American coffee culture is the growing transparency of the companies providing the coffee. Customers learn to value the source of the drink instead of the black-box brand identity of Folger’s or Maxwell House. So in this climate, what value do brands add to coffee? How can they expect to cultivate customer loyalty? There are still a number of roles that coffee connoisseurs expect brands to play, including:
- Middlemen. Individual consumers don’t have the knowledge or means to import beans directly from foreign farms, so getting the product to customers is always going to be the top job of American coffee brands. Each company, from small local roasters to big chains, is competing to secure the best beans at (all other things being equal) the lowest prices. Making the right partnerships with farmers is key, and it can be used as a way to build up the brand’s distinct identity.
- Guides. Coffee connoisseurs want help finding the beans that most closely match their tastes, whether that help is provided by an expert employee in a brick-and-mortar establishment, a community seminar or a helpful online resource. Spreading industry knowledge to empower customers should be a central part of any coffee brand’s mission.
- Good citizens. Okay, you sourced your beans from a group of great small farms that you found out in the middle of nowhere. But did you incentivize sustainable agriculture with organic, shade-grown coffee? Did you send employees on a retreat to build a school for the underserved communities around these farms? Are you actively striving to provide rights and fair wages to the workers (theirs and yours)? These are the things that coffee enthusiasts want to see far more than fair-trade label.
- Flavor alchemists. Look at the whiskey world for an analogy. The initial market dominance of blends emphasizing consistent quality gave way to a growing interest in single-malt and single-grain varieties. Now independent producers like Compass Box and That Boutique-y Whisky Company have emerged with small-batch blends that combine single-malts to create exciting new flavor profiles. Coffee brands should be using this same approach, creating blends that call attention to each component but try to be more than the sum of their parts.
- Status symbols. To put it bluntly, most coffee farmers in developing countries don’t have the resources to bring in their own designers and marketing gurus to boost their product’s image. It’s up to stateside brands to add the packages and gimmicks that will entice customers and stick in their memory. The most successful brands will cultivate a loyal customer base that will use merch and word of mouth to act as walking advertisements, just because they think you’re so cool.
The core consumer in this incipient fourth-wave coffee market is more informed and more deliberate than ever before. They have a massive variety of options to choose from, so roasting good beans will never be enough; brands have to show their impact, share their knowledge and give the customer a memorable time. Applying these strategies correctly will create an atmosphere of community, authentic connection and goodwill extending all the way from the coffee drinker to the coffee grower, with the brand in the center to reap the benefits.