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. Coffee 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 British Empire’s policies. For the people who would become Americans, coffee was a symbol. More than perhaps any other consumption practice, save cola, it is central to the American 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. At the level of the connoisseur, this is a group that skews young, but it includes consumers of all ages who stay in step with trends in coffee culture.
Ethics. 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 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 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 International are still working to improve wages for coffee workers and to address flaws in the system. But buying a certified fair-trade coffee may no longer carry the same moral clout that it once did.
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, increasing deforestation and soil erosion, and there are concerns about climate change reducing the amount of cultivable land. Consequently, the future of the coffee industry is unclear. Still, the demand for a more sustainable, ethically-produced coffee seems to be driving innovation and with it, better practices.
So, while the fair-trade movement has lost some of its luster for 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 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. Coffee drinkers want to know about how their coffee was grown and sourced, but they also want in on the wealth 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 degree of education to go along with them. Savvy brands have gone to great lengths to educate their customers about the correct terminology, the right way to define flavor notes, and how to cup. In addition to home-brewing seminars and cupping sessions for the entire catalog, these centers offer a weekly tastings 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 more than ways to describe flavor profiles. Consumers are also motivated to learn about regional characteristics, roast types, 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 specific sensibilities.
Experiences. 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 existence of latte art and the spectacle around events like 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.
While subscription boxes are hot in most areas of retail, the number of coffee subscription services shows that this is an especially productive niche. You can have fresh, highly customized coffee delivered to your home by one particular roaster or by a company that curates products from different roasters.
Coffee tourism may be 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 of places like Jamaica attractive destinations for coffee tourists, while countries like Brazil, Costa Rica, and Ethiopia are working to build their tourism reputations. The all-inclusive coffee resort remains a dream, but enterprising farmers are bound to pursue this potentially major source of additional revenue.
What Should Coffee Brands Do? 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 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? 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 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 merchandise 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.