For years, chains such as Starbucks have dominated the coffee industry, and it is part of the culture in many households to wake up and have a cup of Folgers. In the mainstream, there isn’t a lot of variety unless you know where to look and what you’re looking for.
The same was true with beer a couple decades ago. There existed many established brands of beer, and few people strayed from those brands. As with Folgers, Maxwell House, and Mr. Coffee, these brands were engrained in American culture. And yet, once the trend of local craft beers took form, it grew quickly and today remains stronger than ever.
How did coffee in America get to where it is today?
The coffee bean is a cash crop that’s been purchased in the United States since before we were a country. As long as humans have known about this glorious seed, we can’t get enough of it.
At the close of the 19th century, companies began to see the potential in mass producing coffee, and that was the point that coffee consumption exploded. This time period saw the mass production and marketing of coffee in the United States.
Technologies such as vacuum packaging let companies produce and store more coffee, while the process of dehydration allowed the creation of instant coffee, pioneered by Nestlé. Throughout the 20th century, brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House defined America’s cultural concept of coffee for decades.
Unfortunately, mass produced coffee sacrificed the most important part: taste. With coffee being roasted and ground long before it reaches the coffee pot, that coffee was far from fresh, and Americans were plagued with stale and bitter coffee.
Few dispute that Starbucks pioneered the move away from that coffee and towards better quality coffee. Starbucks has been around since the 70’s, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that Starbucks started growing exponentially, expanding to 3,000 locations in just under a decade.
Starbucks brought European coffee culture into the United States. They introduced Americans to specialty coffee drinks, as well as bringing coffee shops into the culture. Sitting down in a coffee shop to chat with friends or have a business meeting was virtually unheard of among most Americans until Starbucks grew in popularity.
Yet, as this culture and experience became more popular, coffee shops became more focused on the atmosphere and experience of hanging out in a coffee shop and less focused on the quality of the coffee. Starbucks’ humble beginnings as a seller of fresh roasted beans has long ago changed into a more corporate organization. That is the natural progression of things, I suppose, and so the current change in coffee culture is inevitable.
So, what’s changing today?
Over the last few years, I have observed an emergence of what some call “3rd wave” coffee shops. In fact, where I live, two have opened up this year just a few blocks from each other. These are local coffee shops that prioritize fresh beans and well-brewed coffee. While this trend is still in its infancy, it’s clear to me that it’s going to completely change the coffee shop landscape.
This new trend in coffee cares about more complex flavor profiles in their coffee. It takes pride in all the different brewing methods. The freshness of the roast is of utmost importance. The origin of the beans means all the difference in the world. The budding new coffee culture is focused more on quality than quantity.
Those values, mixed with the culture of local coffee shops, is the ideal mix. For coffee enthusiasts like myself, I think this trend is great. Contrarians like to hate on “trends,” and while I tend to agree on that point, there is nothing necessarily wrong with a trend in and of itself. I got into coffee just by accident and simply became obsessed. I never hopped on the bandwagon when others did, but it makes me happy to see others doing so. I love to see people move away from drinks that have more sugar and syrup than actual coffee. I look forward to seeing where American coffee culture goes from here.