Originally published in The Coffeelicious on Medium.
I recently visited London, where I met up with some of my bestest girlfriends at coffee bars discovered using the app, London’s Best Coffee. I found myself telling a story — the story of how the “third wave” coffee bars we sat in came to be, and what could be next for coffee culture. It goes like this…
Do you remember the lumpy cappuccino? You can still find him in cafés around the UK that the coffee evolution bypassed. That cappuccino is the symbol of a first wave coffee shop, when espresso machines poured out into the cafés of the world, and people had no idea how to use them, but a general rule was the more froth the better. Result? A lot of burnt milk, burnt tongues, chocolate sprinkles and sugar poured generously in to mask the taste of burnt.
These still exist. Give it a few more years and I reckon hipsters will start visiting the few remaining first wave coffee shops ironically.
There’s always one who’s ahead of the game, and in the case of the second wave coffee shop, there were probably many. But as an example, let’s go to Seattle, the birthplace of Starbucks — the pioneers of the second wave coffee shop. Despite my dislike of the multinational corporation, Starbucks did a f***ing great job of introducing a quality latte to the world. They trained their baristas (and started calling them baristas) to steam — not froth — milk. And, quelle surprise, with a kick ass business model in place, they did pretty well.
Countless coffee chains sprung up worldwide, imitating the model of Starbucks. To name a few in my homeland of the UK, Costa, Caffè Nero, Pret A Manger… I remember a friend of mine, who worked for Costa a few years ago, telling me she was sent to Italy for barista training. I was so impressed that these big coffee chains (which I still hate, by the way) were investing such care in the quality of their coffee.
This couldn’t last forever. We started taking a good latte for granted, and seeking something more from our coffee. The experience. No longer were we content with a well made latte and a pretty milky heart/swan/rosetta in our cups. The coffee entrepreneurs of 3 years ago recognised this, and responded with gusto.
Say hello to coffee shop meets design meets sexy barista meets a few syphons and alternative brewing methods and probably has a hipster name subtly printed everywhere in a nice font (or no name — even cooler). And maybe their menu is made of black and white Lego blocks, or written on a roll of parchment that hangs iconically from a toilet roll holder. Maybe they don’t even have a menu.
This is the kind of coffee shop/bar you’ll find if you use the app, London’s Best Coffee, or if you hang out with me in Copenhagen. They’re still going strong. However, there are now so many of them that I’m beginning not to notice or care about the graphics or the sexy baristas. I no longer have to hunt these coffee bars down in odd side streets (because they’re everywhere), and I no longer get that feeling of satisfaction that I’m ahead of the game when I get coffee at these places. I sense that wave four is on the way.
I’ve been wondering what’s next for coffee in the Western world where hipsterdom is fast becoming the norm. Already we’re seeing syphons and craft beer taking up space in third wave coffee bars, but that’s not dramatic enough to merit its own wave.
Here are a few ideas in case any of you coffee entrepreneurs are reading…
Let’s pull together contemporary art and science and just be silly. You enter the coffee bar — which probably has no name on the outside, and is maybe underground. (You just have to know it’s there.) You find yourself in complete darkness and complete silence. You take a step forward, and you hear the crunch of what is unmistakably Kenya Gathiruini AA coffee beans under your feet. The coffee dust you create with your steps rises, encircling you with aromas of blackcurrant and blueberries with a sparkling grapefruit acidity, as you continue walking.
Then you enter what can only be described as the Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of coffee. All the walls are made of glass and full of cold brew or something, that steams, rises, collects, cools, then drips into cups that stand in random places on random levels in the room (like buckets for a leaking ceiling).
Coffeescientists stand around, pulling endless espresso shots from a giant 50-group-head-long espresso machine whose shiny metallic pipes and wires take up one entire wall of the room.
Let’s not forget the milk. No matter how hipster we get about our coffee, we (at least the Brits) will always want to drink it with milk. So let’s put a cow in the middle of the room ’cause fourth wave is all about understanding the journey that took place from farm to table ’n’ all that. Now those milk-steaming jugs are a little bit boring, and we can probably more accurately measure the temperature and consistency of milk in some hugely over the top chemistry-lab-like equipment, then angle it precisely so the barista can manoeuvre it to achieve the ultimate rosetta.
You pay for your coffee on an emotional basis, not an honesty box or anything so old school, but the data collected with your apple watch or the chip in your brain. It measures your happy endorphins and pays for your coffee accordingly.
Starbucks are trying, bless them (see Guardian article), but their time is past. It’s time for the fourth wave coffee entrepreneurs to step up to the plate (cup).