The Hipster Coffee Revolution Is Going to Save Your Morning - and the Planet

Sorry, but I’m a fanatic of coffee culture: I’ve bought into paying more to know where my coffee comes from, tracing the coffee I buy to a website that tells me about its trip – from my coffee’s home country and farm to my cup, in one of the two coffee shops I visit each day. I was riding the “third wave” of coffee way before I knew the term even existed – to describe an environment that I liked and an intimacy from source to shop, in case you were wondering, which you should.

I’ve tasted a purely brewed pour-over that made me feel like I was in the American midwest, in a rocking chair, with notes of blueberries and glazed cantaloupe; a siphon of a single origin coffee; a cortado cut with just the right proportion of milk; even an espresso in which the crema was so righteous I spooned its holy remnants down to the sweet end. This is what coffee can be – what coffee is – that makes artisanal devotees travel, tithe and tip for what we could never, ever get at Starbucks.

For most people, though, coffee is business – whether Folgers or Sanka, Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks, it’s just how they get caffeine at some point in any, or every, given day. And while the Toms Coffee Companies and local coffee shops with fancy interiors but mediocre coffee have carved out a niche among people who fancy themselves better than all that, true specialty coffee is becoming big business, too – helped along by millions of dollars in investments.

For coffee nerds like me, who fear that venture capitalists and coffee missionaries will succeed in converting cup-of-Joe drinkers into religious followers of single-origin coffees and ruin what’s “special” about specialty coffee, it’s time to stop worrying. As first-world consumers, coffee producers and farmers begin to understand the value of the taste of a really great cup of coffee, and the intentional pursuit of that will change what commodity coffee is – its definition, its value and its dominance. We’ll still have specialty, but we’ll gain specialty-as-commodity, too.

I’ve heard all the complaints about how the Starbucksification of coffee didn’t keep artisanal coffee special – but that’s because it wasn’t about artisanal coffee at all. The so-called second wave of coffee expansion was about getting consumers to come to a space to enjoy the ritual of coffee. When Starbucks rose to its dominion, it focused on selling better coffee (not difficult, given its predecessors) rather than the best coffee, along with an environment where consumers could come to enjoy it.

In the third wave, however, we buy coffee based on its origins, its process, its methods – and its evangelists are out to get specific about what separates it from being a standard commodity.

Traditionally, mass production has meant less of all of this. As “the big four” in specialty coffee companies – Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, Counter Culture - attract millions in investments and investor interest (Counter Culture, for instance, remains independent), expanding the number of people who care about what is special, it means we’ll have to grapple with how to expand quality and sustainability while minimizing the environmental impacts of mass, specialty coffee productions.

But mass can mean more in a good way. The oft-emulated Starbucks model isn’t based on “single origin” coffees, perfect slow-pour brewing methods or roasting green beans to pull out their indigenous flavors: it’s about fast, efficient service of coffee (and coffee products) and beans that, when roasted en masse, have a more universal appeal. But if consumers demand single, sustainable sources and a slow pour method – and find it worth paying as much for as some foam-and-syrup filled beverage resembling coffee – then even Starbucks is going to find a way to stop overroasting their mass-market beans.

And as “the big four” take investment money to grow, smaller coffee shops – the young indies – will not only fill the space but expand on it by relying on hyper-local focus, transparency and sustainable initiatives like solar-powered spaces (like Salt Lake City’s Publik Coffee Roasters), minimizing their menus (Culver City, California’s Bar Nine) and even forsaking brick and mortar for a recycled airstream (Seattle’s Slate Coffee).

There’s always another wave coming, and the small artisanal coffee indies will be riding it, too – not just the big four, who are trying to take their current business model to the masses. The real question is: are there enough coffee-curious among us to support the evolution? Will you pay enough to support specialty coffee while it stays sustainable? The ocean these entrepreneurs swim in might not be as smooth as the cold brew they’re serving, but it’s getting a whole lot better.


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