The 4th Wave

What will the 4th Wave look like?

It has never been easier to get hold of a decent cup of coffee in the UK, if you know where to go. The number of cafes taking real care and dedication in the production of your daily cup has grown hugely over the last 10 years, putting London on the map as one of the best cities for coffee in the world, and influencing a host of other “third wave” cafes up and down the country. But how much does the general public, or even the wider catering world, even know about this coffee revolution?

Go to many towns and cities up and down the country and a “third wave” café doesn’t even exist. Have coffee in many high-end restaurants or hotels and the principles of brewing excellent coffee has had little impact. Even in London, many customers may walk past cafes unaware of the excellent coffee they serve only to purchase an inferior coffee elsewhere.

How much is the “third wave” a niche that has little impact on the wider public? How can the wider public be drawn in to this often “secret” world? How can the “third wave” cafes survive as they increasingly compete against each other for those customers in the know?

It is certainly not gloom and doom. There are lots of examples of ambassadors of the coffee industry influencing the bigger brands, hotels, restaurants, roasters and machine manufacturers etc. But it is still to easy for many people to be unaware that a coffee revolution is happening.

To understand where we go in the future it might be wise to look at where the “third wave” came from. It was driven from baristas themselves. Disheartened by the output of the big cafe brands (the “second wave”), baristas took on the challenge to offer higher quality. Often short on cash but big on passion, the cafes they opened lacked the fine décor that bigger budgets would allow, and the money was spent on the very best coffee equipment. They tended to adopt the counter based format of the big brands and directly competed on price, even though they were normally using much more of a higher priced coffee. They differentiated themselves from the big brands more by their attitude to coffee rather than the format of their offer.

…And so the general public may not have noticed these cafés opening, not seeing past the shabby chic décor, and spotting the top model machine, the worlds best coffees from the best roasters, and an array of brewing options (these only being signals for “those in the know”).

The irony was that the best quality coffee could be bought from a market stall and you got an espresso from an automated machine from a three Michelin stared restaurant! No wonder the general public was not aware of the coffee revolution.

So what of the future? The pioneers of the third wave may lead a more upmarket 4th Wave, taking on or working with the Michelin stared restaurants and 5 star hotels, serving quality coffee in more lavish surroundings, produced at your table rather than in a take away cup. It’s already happening to an extent with the sumptuous décor of places like CoffeeMania in Russia, and world-renowned restaurants such as Noma taking coffee seriously and we are delighted to be working with the Michelin starred Northcote restaurant with similar aspirations. And the good thing is the price they can get is that much higher and hence more sustainable in the long term (many “third wave” cafes are a labour of love rather than profit)

Until this wave gains momentum there is still lots of work to do just making sure that every catering outlet in the country brews their coffee correctly. Most bad coffee served is still due to a lack of knowledge of simple calibrations and skills, and not because they haven’t got the very best beans and machines.