People have been drinking coffee in the United States for almost 250 years, ever since the colonists made the patriotic switch away from tea after the Boston Tea Party of 1773.
Café culture was born among European immigrants who were looking to sip on a familiar beverage while congregating with friends. But the idea of specialty coffee shops really took flight in the United States with the founding of Starbucks in 1971.
Now, nearly 50 years later, coffee in America is undergoing yet another change. Just as the foreign nomenclature and customizable beverages (venti skinny double extra hot mocha, two pumps, anyone?) made Starbucks a sophisticated choice in decades gone by, Extraction Lab is a sign of the coffee times today. The Brooklyn-based coffee shop offers the country’s most expensive cup of coffee at $18 a pop. The so-called “gesha” beans that go into the beverage are grown in a high-altitude Panamanian forest and then brewed in a $7,000 Alpha Dominche coffee maker called the Steampunk.
The Price of Experience
How did we get here? Believe it or not, it started with Wi-Fi, which transformed coffee shops from a place to gather to a place to work. As people spent more time in these “third spaces”—neither home nor office, but something in between—Starbucks gradually inflated their prices until paying $2.10 for a 16-ounce coffee seemed, well, somewhat reasonable.
True coffee connoisseurs were not impressed with the quality of the product, however. The chain had more than 3,000 locations by 2000, not to mention a dizzying array of toppings and syrups, but the flavor profile of the bean itself had stayed the same since the company’s inception. Eventually, aficionados started to ask: Is there more to coffee than this?
The Foodies Are Coming
The demand for high-end coffee birthed the so-called “third wave” of coffee culture—the first being the rise of packaged ground coffee and the second being the dawn of café culture. The craft coffee movement comes during a larger cultural shift in which consumers have developed a general distaste for large corporations, and a renewed focus on all things small and local. Coffee connoisseurs now talk of the body and flavor profile of coffee beans with a level of gravity previously reserved for oenophiles.
“Craft coffee has placed quality, farmers, and craftsmanship over numbers,” said Steven Sutton, the founder and CEO of Devoción, a Brooklyn-based company that claims to be the only exclusively farm-to-table coffee roaster in the world. “This in turn has inspired innovation and a new generation of coffee drinkers who are interested in experiencing coffee for its true gastronomic properties and origins.”
Craft coffee has placed quality, farmers, and craftsmanship over numbers.
Nowadays, coffee appreciation often acts as a gateway drug for foodies—an accessible stepping stone to other areas of gastronomic expertise. Think of it that way, and it’s easier to understand why people are willing to pay serious money for a truly exquisite cuppa, much as a wine collector might pony up for a Chateau Margaux 2009 Bordeaux.
Phil Di Bella, one of the founders of Abbotsford Road, a company that ethically sources its beans from around the world, said that what customers are really paying for is an experience. “[It’s] not only the traceability of the coffee…[but also] the flavor profile,” he said. “The ambience, the service.”
Devoción’s Sutton said increasingly savvy consumers want artisanal coffee for the same reason they like craft beer and small-batch olive oils.
“Consumers want to know where their coffee comes from and how the farmers are being paid and treated,” he noted.
Coffee, which for many is a social event, a lifestyle, and even an addiction, is particularly well-positioned for what Wall Street analysts call “premiumization.” As long as consumers continue to care about where things come from and how they’re made, the craft trend is not a trend at all—it’s the new normal. There may still be a chain coffee shop on every corner, but its purpose is now utilitarian in nature. For joy, consumers are turning to craft coffee shops like Extraction Lab.