Culture is always changing, and yet culture almost always maintains a certain level of tradition in its roots. Coffee culture is incredibly interesting to me, because lately in countries like the U.S. and Australia many groups are actively rejecting 'traditional' coffee culture and substituting in a plethora of new science, ideas and lingo. Throw out the percolators, chuck the burnt beans, and send back bitter espresso. Cool dudes with beards and tattoos and designer glasses replaced old school black and bitter brews with sweet and fruity 'offerings' in an effort to show how much this legendary bean really has to offer. It's funny, for how long coffee has been an integral part of our worldly culture like wine and beer it has taken until the last few decades for many people to really start caring about it.
Coffee used to be rich with stiff tradition – coffee was strong and dark and bitter and it gave you vigor and clarity, there was nothing else to be bothered with. Boil it in a pot, reheat it, load it with sugar if you were a pansy, it didn’t really matter what it tasted like – if you had to wince to get it down you knew it was working. It kept the U.S. going, as my dad would recall his sleepless nights in the Navy, coffee even defended this nation by keeping men and women of service motivated to do their duties. It was good, what else was there to fuss over? This general popularity of the drink is often referred to as the First Wave of coffee, it was something cardiovascular to the country, no use in examining it any further.
And then the green siren called.
Maybe not so much a green siren, but a business man named Howard Schultz single-handedly redirected the direction coffee culture was moving in America. On a trip to Italy, Schultz became fascinated at the coffee culture they had developed. Old gentlemen would stand behind bars and sling shots of espresso for hours and hours during the breakfast rush and workers and writers piled in, often without saying a word, down their espresso in one go and were off with the rest of their day. Poignant, efficient, poetic. Schultz was determined to tell his home country the wonders that coffee could bring to their daily lives if it could be captured in a new venue. This is how Howard Schultz becomes the CEO of a small Seattle based franchise called Starbucks.
With the new idea that coffee can be a social activity, that it can be enjoyed rather than just seen as fuel was the start of the Second Wave of coffee, and it exploded in the market. The green and white clad franchise quickly swept the nation with countless competitors popping up left and right, all priding themselves of the tastiest beverages and the most comfortable scene. It was fun, a lot of fun actually, but customers weren’t exactly paying entirely for the full benefit of their taste buds, they were buying a way of life, an experience to share with their friends and family. Nobody at this point had really compared or fully studied coffee from a more basic angle, and so while the culture around coffee had changed quite drastically, the beverage itself wasn’t much more spectacular than it had been a few decades ago.
Enter the Third Wave of coffee, the wonderful generation we are living in right now. The curious generation that asks why and how, that strives for quality over quantity, the nerds and the geeks. We realized that coffee can be much, much more than just a logo or social outlet, that it can truly be an incredible product with so many mysteries that we seek to discover every day. It can have the same stature as fine wines from France and the experimental nature of craft beer from Vermont – everything can and will be challenged. Taste can be revolutionized, culture can be changed. The fact that we are experiencing such a rich and developing culture that become deeper and deeper every single day is an incredible gift of the twenty-first century, and anybody with enough tenacity can put their mark on it.
Next week I will continue talking about what the Third Wave has done and what it continues to explore, until then stay cool people!
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