In 2015, a cup of coffee in New York City averaged $1.70; in 2019, that price jumped to $1.97. Besides inflation, coffee has undergone quite the transformation since its first wash of national popularity in the 1960s — known as the first-wave coffee movement.
As much as our favorite drink has transformed, the efforts made to source and sell coffee have also drastically transformed, eventually bumping into its fair share of problems. While it currently boasts one of the biggest markets globally, the method in which coffee is sourced often skirts the questions about morality. Conflict along the coffee belt has been a recurring issue within the past few years, but that wasn’t always the case. In order to understand the extent of coffee conflict, we must first understand the waves of coffee and how they have changed the shape of the market.
Back in the 1960s, Maxwell House and Folgers earned their place in our pantries as a morning beverage readily available for the American masses. These two companies, in combination with other “gourmet” brands, represented the face of the first wave of coffee, in which coffee was treated as a daily commodity rather than a specialty trade. These were the days of no-nonsense, pre-ground beans and a good, old-fashioned percolator drip. The grounds weren’t single-roast, imported beans that capitalized on flavor through specialized processing — and the brands weren’t interested in marketing themselves as such. Likewise, consumers weren’t invested in where their grounds were being sourced from.
The second wave gets a little more complex, but experts commonly refer to it as the “Starbucks” wave, and for good reason. Whereas the first wave seemed to be exclusive to the domestic realm, the second featured a heavy focus on intense mobilization of cafe culture, as well as the specialty beverages and passionate baristas that came along with it.
With the introduction of predominantly West Coast coffee chains, brands like Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee, and Tim Hortons used espresso-based specialty beverages to lure in crowds. Ironically, the emphasis wasn’t on the coffee but the supplementary elements of the drink, as well as the cafe’s ambiance. It’s here that companies began publishing roasts and origins, which created an awareness of sourcing without a heavy emphasis on it.
Aptly nicknamed the “hipster boom,” the third wave of coffee carved its place into existence as the movement that mobilized coffee on its own terms. No longer about the syrup or milky beverages, cafes like Blue Bottle and La Colombe shifted their focus to the beans, roast, flavor profile, and origin of the individual cup of coffee. The hallmark of this wave remains the manner in which coffee is regarded. Like wine or cheese, the third wave considers coffee an artisanal good that requires knowhow to hone in on the drinker’s preferences.
Rather than percolators or espresso barges, the third-wave movement revitalized manual methods like pour over and French press, controlling every aspect of the brewing process to best manifest each roast’s specific characteristics. And while this seems like an ideal scenario for coffee lovers, the third wave struggles to balance its morality with its dedication to sophistication and flavor. Of all the waves, the third is correlated with the most paltry, having been sourced primarily by strife-ridden communities.
The first and second waves vaguely alluded to the origin of their beans. They were predominantly Colombian or Arabica beans with a selection that grew to include Indonesian and Vietnamese coffee. The origins of these beans weren’t obscure, but they were never highlighted the way they are now.
The third wave doesn’t share its predecessors’ inclination for simplicity — on the contrary, it places a heavy emphasis on exoticism. This makes sense considering that coffee is now treated as an artisanal good, and as with any business, the forces of supply and demand are at work. Quality plays an important role, however, it’s less about overall flavor than it is about rarity. “Rarity” in this context is defined as how difficult something is to source rather than how obscure it is. Inevitably, the rarest beans remain engrossed in the throes of conflict. In 2016, Blue Bottle paid $173 a pound for coffee imported from a war-plagued Yemen.
Before we can delve into the main connection between the third wave and coffee conflict, it’s important we understand exactly how those bags of beans end up on the shelves of our local cafes. Whereas first-wave coffee was sourced privately by equitable firms and sold wholesale to companies like Maxwell House and Folgers, the third wave engages coffee sourcing with intense vigor. With consumers willing to pay higher prices, the more direct their relationship with their coffee can be. The third wave actively removes the middleman and encourages cafes to source the coffee themselves, providing associates with a direct relationship with the farmers.
To the naked eye, this seems beneficial for both parties. Cafes get their specialty products, and farmers facing dismal conditions sell their beans for what seems like a pretty penny. But the latter isn’t necessarily true. With bigger companies entering the fray, the division of money can get staggered, leaving farmers with fractions of what their crop is worth. For farmers growing what’s deemed as a differentiated or specialized crop, money will be consistent. For farmers growing a common bean, it’s trickier. Despite the coffee industry being valued at $20 billion, growers across the globe are struggling to rally the proper funds to cover the cost of production.
As farmers struggle to maintain a profit and, in turn, make a living off their trade, the future of coffee remains volatile. This is especially problematic when you account for the conditions of most of these farmers. Residents of Sudan have been facing a deeply violent civil war, Yemeni farmers have been dealing with crippling government oppression, and farmers in the Republic of Congo stand to lose their lives while active explosives litter their farmland. The latter is hardly an isolated incident — Colombia, Burma, Ethiopia, and Vietnam all feature obscured remnants of war, literally making coffee-growing the riskiest enterprise in the country. But there is an upside.
The third wave is comprised of a hyper-aware generation of consumers that take pride in knowing how their coffee is processed and where their coffee is coming from. As such, the global approach to sourcing coffee has offered cafe patrons an easy way to engage with the origin of their beans. This usually splits the consumers into two groups: those who consider buying conflict coffee a great atrocity, and those who see their purchase as a positive impact on an ailing community. Neither are right. This hyper-awareness of farming conditions is slowly growing into what will become the fourth wave of coffee.
The fourth wave builds upon the principles of its predecessor — they share their affinity for manually processed coffee as well as quality beans and roasts. The major difference remains the issue of sustainability. Consumers swimming in this wave not only pride themselves on the awareness of the conditions of farmers but also the climate impact of sourcing particular roasts. While it doesn’t solve the moral complication of buying from the conflict community, it puts farmers’ narratives front and center, allowing consumers to make educated purchases.
As consumers of the market, it’s easy to look past the method that brings us these goods. The onus is on both the company and the consumer to be responsible and make responsible decisions for how we source our coffee.