America’s obsession with coffee as consumers
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As a kid...
I still remember the aroma of dark roasted coffee every morning. I’d run downstairs and pour a bowl of cereal while my dad was on his second (or fourth?) cup. He was a Maxwell House guy. And sometimes a Folger’s fan too. I used to take his cold, unwanted bean juice and make “coffee milk,” my own beverage. It was just a cold brew with milk and sugar before that was a thing.
My exposure to coffee as a kid was nothing fancy. Coffee wasn’t the consumer product it is today. I’m from a small town where coffee was traditionally about fuel; you’d fill up on its way your car needs to fill up on gas. Then, I moved to New York City, and a new world opened up. I noticed that coffee had a massive commercial influence on the city.
Since living in New York, I’ve been lucky to travel the world in search of the best coffee shops. I’ve sat in the finest spaces, tasted the best espresso, and I’ve been lucky to watch this product evolve in “waves,” as coffee people call it.
Let’s look at America’s history with coffee, how it’s morphed from function to luxury, and how eCommerce has changed this for the better.
First wave: coffee is a commodity
This was the first of five waves. Think about my dad and his love for Maxwell House and Folger’s. In the first wave, coffee was functional; it was about mass distribution and consumption. You only bought your coffee in bulk, brewed it in large coffee pots, and cared less about flavor notes or quality.
There was no curated experience around coffee.
Second wave: coffee is community
This wave evolved significantly from the first. Coffee went from being purely functional to representing an experience. It was the first wave where you could “brand” coffee as an experience. You persuaded consumers to buy into a narrative, a story. This was also the era where chains like Starbucks, Barney’s, and Peet’s Coffee emerged.
And outside the shift towards making espresso-based drinks that Starbucks popularized, the “third-space” was born in this wave. Third spaces were destinations to meet for coffee outside of the home and the office. Coffee suddenly became fun.
Third wave: Coffee has a story
The shifts continued. I’d argue that the third wave influenced millennials understanding of coffee the most. The focus of coffee went from being about a third space for people to work, and instead centered around coffee as a craft. It was out of this wave that brands like Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown were born.
In this wave, much of the branding and marketing that coffee shops used was aimed at being transparent and ethical. Shops would share how they grow their coffee, where they get it from, telling stories and sharing photos of farmers in developing countries, and so on. In this wave, being “Fair Trade” was a label that you wanted to have, especially after two waves where there was little-to-no transparency about farming. Shops didn’t want to be viewed as old-minded or unethical in how they sourced their beans.
Fourth wave: Coffee is scientific (Barista Parlor)
Where the last wave emphasized storytelling and artisanry, this one focused on perfection--coffee as a science.
Brewing your pour-over at just the right water temperature, with the exact amount of beans, understanding the chemistry of coffee, and so on, became paramount for shop owners, baristas, and consumers.
Drip coffee was put on the backburner at specialty shops, and baristas pushed single origin coffees, with unique beans from remote regions of the world. The idea was that you can extract the perfect taste from a coffee by focusing on the chemistry of water-to-bean ratio.
Brands like Barista Parlor in Nashville and Houndstooth Coffee in Texas were born out of this wave, and in addition to treating coffee as a science, shops also placed more emphasis on aesthetics (how their shop looked). The minimalist design approach of white walls, plants, and lots of natural light became a huge feature in this wave.
Fifth wave: coffee is a luxury
At long last, the fifth wave. The fifth wave feels like a paradox.
It’s both international, yet local.
It’s simple, yet complex.
Exclusive, but also accessible.
It’s expensive, yet something we’ll happily pay for.
And most important, it combines something that none of the other waves had or needed: eCommerce.
Let’s look at some of the defining features of 5th wave coffee culture, and how it’s defining the way Americans consume it.
The rise of subscriptions, eCommerce, and dropshipping
First, online shopping has forever changed how we consume. We can literally buy whatever we want, when we want it, and how we want it. Second, where online shopping for coffee is concerned, Trade seems to be owning this space. Launched in 2018, Trade’s managed to make high-end coffee accessible to anyone from around the US.
Their secret to success? Dropshipping.
As with all dropshipping, Trade owns zero inventory, which is brilliant. They built a marketplace, recruited dozens of the top coffee roasters from around the United States to join, and launched it for all consumers. When you place an order, the order gets pushed over to that roaster and they fulfill it with Trade’s packaging, similar to how you’d buy something on Amazon and get an Amazon-branded packaging.
What also makes Trade the top modern destination for luxury coffee is that they have the best equipment that’s barista-guaranteed. If you’re ready to upgrade from pot roast to french press, or pour over to pulling your own espresso, Trade has you covered for roasting based on personal preference.
Making the global, local
Similar to Trade, there’s Yonder, a high-end coffee subscription business. The difference between both is that where Trade focuses on US roasters, Yonder curates roasters from around the world, ones you’d normally never have access to unless you live in or travel to that one city.
For the price of $35 you can get 1 coffee bag roasted in Germany or South Korea, for example, and delivered to your home within one week.
Have you ever paid $35 for a single bag of coffee anywhere? If you scoff at that number, I understand. It’s not for everyone.
That said, the fact that Yonder can even charge that number for a single product only illustrates the era we’re in with coffee, that it’s a luxury.
Instant coffee, but make it frozen
It’s not as far-fetched as you think. While Keurig and Nespresso have had their moment the last decade, normalizing instant coffee for the masses, they’re often criticized for their low-grade quality if you’re drinking it black. There’s a solution to that problem: Cometeer.
With Cometeer, you get both benefits of instant coffee that’s also quality. They pride themselves in selling flavorful coffee from world-class roasters that make the freshest beans.
All their coffee is pre-ground and brewed for you, and then flash-frozen via liquid nitrogen (-321 degrees, to be exact) at peak flavor. All you have to do is melt it with hot water when you’re ready to drink it, and voila. Instant coffee (that tastes good).
Capitalizing on the business of coffee
Blue Bottle, started in 2002, was born coffee’s third wave, and since then, they’ve managed to seamlessly blend elements of the third, fourth, and fifth waves into one brand.
Between 60+ locations worldwide, and a steady growing online business, Blue Bottle delivers a curated experience no matter which one of their shops you visit.
The same is true of Intelligentsia (est. 1995 and now owned by Peet’s Coffee). Anyone who knows Intelligentsia has likely been to a famous outpost on Abbott Kinney Blvd. in Los Angeles, or the Urban Outfitters popup they had in Manhattan.
And then there’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters, arguably one of the well-known brands in the world. Their branding is always recognizable, and their presence is unique, having formed a long-term partnership with the Ace Hotel. Whenever you travel to a hip neighborhood and see the Ace, you can always bet Stumptown will be there.
Fellow eCommerce & coffee strategist, Hugh Duffie, who founded Sandows (a cold brew company) spoke about this briefly.
“Brands like Blue Bottle and Stumptown have been around this long because they think bigger than coffee. They understand that “coffee” is really about community, and that people make it or break it.”
It’s true. Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown have ridden elements of coffee’s third, fourth, and fifth waves relatively smoothly, because they understand the nuance to each wave and know how to build it into their business models.
And that makes all the difference.
The last sip…
I was recently traveling through the Nashville airport, and I wanted coffee before my flight. So I waited in line at an old, dingy Starbucks for 30 minutes, just to order drip coffee. It was all there was (so I thought).
Then I walked, with burnt bean juice in hand, to my gate. Next to that gate was a Barista Parlor, bright, sleek, and modern. My heart sank.
Am I a certified, fifth-wave American coffee snob?
Yes, yes I am. And I’m proud of that.