Beginning with Starbuck’s early love story with consumers, the world of coffee as shown literally unbounded vitality and appeal. As it is often the case, the race to bet on the sector’s future has unleashed the insiders’ fantasy. So, having set in stone the first three waves which turned coffee from commodity to fashion - with the success of specialty beverages like Zoolander’s Orange Mocha Frappuccino and the “infamous” spice pumpkin latte by Seattle’s behemoth - to opportunity for the art of connoisseurs to thrive, with a special attention on the whole bean-to-cup journey and on the diffusion of small local roasteries, what will the fourth wave look like, if there will ever be one?
Connoisseurs looking for new experiences.
A vision - perhaps too elitist to be labeled as a wave - preconizes an evolution where coffee more and more mirrors wine, in a sort of consolidation of the third wave. Namely, somehow in line with wine tourists visiting vineyards and wineries, an upgrade from espresso drinkers to “cult followers” who reach the places of origin of coffee, for tasting sessions in Columbian, Brazilian or Costa Rican coffee farms. A fascinating perspective, but maybe not a realistic one, at least on the short term. For sure, this is a point of view which strongly believes in sustainability, not only in terms of safeguarding environmental resources, but also and especially of empowering farmers, following the example of Italian and French wine producers.
A probably more feasible version of this connoisseur-inspired perspective sees the diffusion of the habit to find “coffee lists”, styled like wine lists, which will allow bar- and restaurant-goers to choose their own favorite espresso, based on different taste and aroma profiles.
The future is in the stars.
A second perspective focuses on baristas. Here again, this would be the “glamourization” of an existing trend, where baristas are a sort of “pivot of excellence” in the coffee system. According to this view, referring to world-renowned “superstar baristas” will become all the more normal not only for insiders but also among “simple” coffee enthusiasts: it is something which is already happening for big chefs and, although under a dimmer spotlight, for the great sommeliers. The role of a superstar barista will not just imply being a celebrity, but also and especially being a force of development for the world of coffee: by creating new recipes, by promoting new tasting opportunities and by spreading the word on the organoleptic features of the different coffee varieties and preparation steps.
Like before, more than ever.
What if the 4th wave of coffee were already here? It’s the opinion of those who think they can define as “fourth wave” the globalization of the third. The interest shown by big multinational groups for smaller companies which managed to grab local market shares by focusing on the research on coffee at its origins, on roasting quality and on offering a more “hipster” coffee, so to speak, would be the proof that the future does not entail a paradigm shift, but rather the large-scale diffusion of the latest big thing, through the muscles of distribution and marketing.
Technology could be a leading force of the next wave as well. Especially through a meticulous and accurately scientific control over all the steps which lead a bean to turn into a delicious beverage. Beginning from an ever-deeper knowledge of the raw material’s features, through an ever more precise definition of the perfect brewing ratio, to issues pertaining to the chemistry of water and its impact on the end cup.
What with sustainability?
Some are ready to bet that the 4th wave of coffee will be fully centered on sustainability and on the many aspects where safeguarding the planetary ecosystem can be related to coffee. Sustainability as focus on the impact of climate change on farmers’ activities. Also, sustainability as attention to local enterprises, in order to avoid repeating sad examples of companies which failed because of the high costs of farming “signature” coffees whose long-term success proved impossible. Furthermore, sustainability related to packaging, with a keen eye on recyclable materials. So, more generally, the 4th wave of coffee would coincide with a supply chain where every step is a win: for farmers, for transformers, for resellers and for drinkers. And of course, for the planet.
Always more on-the-go.
A feature of the second wave, inherited by the third one, could be a valid candidate for the fourth. It is coffee “portability”, regarding which some interesting innovations are being developed, spurred by the recent revamping of cold coffee brought about by cold brew and cold drip, in terms of flavoring, but also of packaging, where also cans, in different formats, are trying to gain their place under the spotlight.
What about the post-pandemics?
If on the one hand we all look forward to freely going to restaurants and bars, on the other hand it is hard to imagine a world where some of the purchase behaviors which became relevant during the pandemics lose their weight all of a sudden. What if the 4th wave of coffee should rise… in our homes? Three areas must be closely watched. Firstly: the progressive increase in choice and quality for coffee in pods. Secondly: a keener attention on home brewing, again in terms of better quality, but also of easiness of use and affordability of home machines. Thirdly, of course: e-commerce, the real “new normal” for more and more consumers, who today can enjoy an extraordinarily wide choice of blends to taste, just one click away.