More than coffee it's a movement

Have you ever wondered why some coffee shops charge up to $5 for a cup of plain black coffee when you can find it for as cheap a $1 in diners or fast food restaurants? How can there be such a striking price disparity? Is there a valid reason for this phenomenon, or are these coffee shops and roasters just trying to rip you off- selling you on the idea of a utopian coffee experience where coffee magically tastes like fruit, citrus, or chocolate, washing away all of our problems and brightening our day by the time we finish the cup? And if coffee can actually do all these things, does it really matter where it comes from or what it tastes like?

For some people, coffee is simply part of their daily ritual in an increasingly fast-paced world. It is the best friend to their morning muffin or protein bar on the way to work, something they slurp down with breakfast just to face the day and feel awake. Some like it black or with cream and sugar, but other than that, there are no second thoughts to be had about it. They wouldn’t dare pay more than a dollar or two for their cup of bitter caffeine juice.

But for other people, coffee is the “culinary world’s most enticing shore, a vast unexplored coast of limitless potential.” (Michaele Weissman, God In A Cup) They are more than happy to pay a little extra for coffee if it guarantees quality. 

These different attitudes reflect the distinct evolutionary movements of coffee’s history, with the latter being a reflection of the current third wave coffee movement. The highly specialized, artisanal, craftsman coffee experience is the essence of the third wave coffee movement, and is marked by technological and cultural advancements unlike anything the industry has seen before. 

There are reasons why coffee is regarded the way it is today, both as a commodity and a specialty item. But to understand this, it is important to first understand the history and origins of coffee. How did we get to this high brow of coffee evolution, and what could the future look like for the caffeinated arts?

Making coffee on a wood burning stove.
What it was, what it has become, and what it could possibly be.

~It comes in waves~

The history of coffee comes in waves; each wave movement is a distinctive era of which certain attitudes about coffee dictated how coffee was produced, distributed, and consumed. Each wave has certain nuances that give rise to the next wave, so to understand coffee’s third wave presence and fourth wave potential, it is important to highlight its history.

The first wave coffee movement is the longest and most historically involved. The beginning of widespread coffee consumption dates back to the fifteenth century, where the earliest species of Arabica coffee beans originally grew in Ethiopia and were thereafter cultivated commercially in Yemen. The production and consumption of these beans subsequently spread throughout the Islamic world until the seventeenth century when they were introduced to Europe by traders and smugglers. From there the beans journeyed across the Atlantic to the European colonies in the New World.

In the American colonies, coffee was at first an understudy to tea. However, after the Boston Tea Party in 1773, coffee witnessed the rebellious American spirit and rose to the part as America’s caffeinated drink of choice. Onward through the nineteenth century, Americans drank freshly roasted coffee in their homes from local grocers. This was standard until the first half of the 20th century, when the rise of economic industrialization captured the coffee market. After WWII, water-soluble instant coffee invaded American homes and became the next big thing in coffee. Consumerism and convenience sacrificed quality for coffee that was cheaper, quicker, and more user-friendly. Economic historian Mark Pendergrast summarized this perfectly at the 1959 National Coffee Association Convention when he said: “There is hardly anything that some man cannot make a little worse and sell for a little cheaper.” Thus the American palate became accustomed to cheap, watery coffee. 

It is for this reason that Michaele Weissman notes in her book “God In A Cup,” that this is the era that made “bad coffee commonplace.” She says, “Nescafe and other caffeinated insults lead to the birth of the specialty coffee industry.”

This is the foundation of the second wave coffee movement. After WWII, an influx of Northern European immigrants brought new perspectives on all fronts, and coffee was no exception. By the 1960s, many of these immigrants had settled on the West Coast of the U.S. and their old-world knowledge of coffee allotted them an unprecedented approach to the American coffee market. It was during this time that Starbucks emerged, the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) was founded, and names like Alfred Peet of Peet’s Coffee found great success, with Erna Knutsen of Knutsen Coffee LTD. having coined the term “specialty coffee.” This term is a great summation of the second wave’s approach, where American coffee drinkers were introduced to high quality coffees with discernable differences in taste from around the world. The second wave re-introduced style and charm to coffee but in a way that made gourmet coffee accessible and marketable to the public. Similarly to how the late first wave saw the capitalization of cheap home-brew coffee, the second wave corportized gourmet coffee. 

If you’re one of those people who likes coffee just for the buzz, you’ll have felt right at home in the second wave where decent coffee was widely accessible and empowered the perfect circumstance for you to stop in for your morning cappuccino before clocking in at the office.

Then, as trends in American culture and advancements in technology flourished in the mid 90s, the transition into the third wave coffee movement began. Where the second wave of coffee balanced quality and convenience and a ripple of macro-level coffee culture, the third wave is a bloom of micro-culture. The third wave is an increased mindfulness for coffee in all aspects, following the supply-chain of coffee closely from sustainable farming practices and direct trade relationships, to culinary conscious brewing processes, to the creative presentation in your cup, to the atmosphere and ambiance of the coffee shop you’re drinking it in. The Third Wave gave rise to the overall experience of coffee consumption rather than just the palatability, focusing on all the senses rather than just taste and smell. 

Another contrast with the second wave is the de-corporatization of specialty coffee. The third wave seeks to localize coffee shops and shift away from the commerciality of gourmet coffee that was made widespread in the second wave. It emphasizes coffee shops as communities with intrinsic and individualistic sociocultural ecosystems. 

Overall, the third wave is a much more nuanced approach to specialized coffee.

~We’ve yet to reach the high water mark~

With such an intricate attention to detail within the third wave, it begs the question of how coffee could possibly evolve even further? What would a fourth wave even look like? With such a mindful coffee experience, what more could you possibly want or expect from your cup of coffee?

Making espresso

The answer is science! Although the fourth wave coffee movement is still an up-and-coming subject of opinion and debate, the beginning of the new movement is starting to take root thanks to major advancements in technology. We can’t say exactly what the future will look like for coffee, but here are some of our predictions: 

Even with all the intricacies of the third wave, we expect that the fourth wave will go even further- down to the molecular level. The fourth wave will explore the molecular gastronomy of coffee, and observe the specific chemical reactions that take place at all stages of coffee production. This may also be due in part to the increased need for efficiency with the effects of climate change looming over agricultural processes. With shortages already happening and even more to be expected in the future, botanists and coffee farmers are trying to develop new breeds of coffee that will be able to survive these climate changes. They are also taking a look at the specific horticultural process of farming coffee, from the mineral composition of the soil, to the optimum washing time and length of sun exposure, to ensure the best balance of flavor and sustainability. Coffee brewers are also figuring out how to extract more coffee out of fewer beans, and what specific chemical processes and temperatures will yield the best cup. They are pulling techniques from other cultures and creating new hybrid drinks and experiences. They are also coming up with new ways of packaging products to produce a similar experience to what you would expect in a boutique coffee shop but in a grab and go package. They are even revisiting the idea of instant coffee in an attempt to refine the process to create an even more convenient means to a better tasting end. 

Through all of its changes and evolutions, the fundamentals of coffee are still the same in the way that it affects your mind and body. But with every new wave, the approach to coffee advances in order to provide a better overall experience for the consumer and a more sustainable prognosis for the environment. Through heightened quality, culture, convenience, and sustainability, coffee has reached a level of mindfulness akin to the centuries old practice of wine making and tasting, but with its own futuristic flair.

So now that you’ve ridden the waves with us, it’s plain to see why we think there’s more to this than just coffee, it’s a movement and we are looking forward to what the future has in store!

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Harold’s Coffee Lounge

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