India’s oldest coffee chain, Café Coffee Day, was brought to a standstill with the death of its founder VG Siddhartha in July. But regardless of the fall in stock prices and the alleged tax complications, he has left a legacy that inspired an entire industry.
It is no secret that India is predominantly a tea-drinking country. Being the second-largest producer of the beverage globally, Indian culture is symbolically associated with tea. But Siddhartha’s work in establishing the coffee sector is unparalleled.
He started the Coffee Day chain back in 1993, and since then, not only have Indians started drinking more coffee, but there has been an outpouring of independent coffee shops as the third wave coffee culture burst on the scene.
Here, we take a look at the different eras in coffee history, what the latest developments are, what the future of the industry looks like, and how it has evolved in India.
Modern coffee history can be traced via distinct cultural periods. Representing the tidal flow-like growth of the industry, these movements were called ‘waves’.
The First Wave
Before the mid-nineteenth century, coffee brewing was a tedious, long-drawn process. Beans were sold in their raw, green form, which were then roasted and ground, before being brewed in pots or via makeshift filters.
The introduction of companies like Folgers and Maxwell House led to a surge in coffee consumption across the US. This was the first wave of coffee culture, as retailers aimed to maximise profits by commercialising the beverage. Coffee became an everyday product, present in virtually every household in the country.
Apart from the increasing availability of coffee, two major developments (that are still huge players in the industry today) characterise this period: vacuum packaging and instant coffee. The former, introduced in 1900, transformed the way coffee was packaged by keeping tins airtight, while the latter made coffee-brewing faster and more efficient after its development in 1903.
The first wave is often criticised for prioritising mass production over taste and quality, something that forced a reaction by enthusiasts and gave birth to the next phase in coffee-drinking.
The Second Wave
Peet’s Coffee in Berkerley, California is largely viewed as the cornerstone of the second wave since its inception in 1966. There was an emphasis on higher quality beans, artisanal blends, and varied flavour profiles. This is what came to be known as ‘specialty coffee’, a term that describes coffee beans of the highest quality, originating from specific microclimates and going through meticulous processing. The Specialty Coffee Association of America grades coffees on a 100-point scale, and coffees rated over 80 are deemed ‘specialty’. Customers at Peet’s were pleasantly surprised by the marked difference in the coffee’s taste.
But the flag-bearer of this era has to be Starbucks, which opened in 1971 and revolutionised the entire coffee community. It helped raise the price of high-street coffee by roasting coffee suited to American tastes, and introducing numerous blends offering desirable flavours. Part of the fabled coffee scene of Seattle, Starbucks helped globalise the beverage by improving what people were drinking.
With this phase, espresso machines were a staple in every café, lattes and Americanos made their way into people’s vocabularies, and flavourings and syrups became commonplace.
Perhaps the biggest change it brought was the way people drank coffee; it became a social experience, giving rise to what is now called ‘café culture’. Before this, coffee was just a quick caffeine fix. Now, people met ‘over a cup of coffee’. It was something that accompanied business meetings as well as casual hangouts.
Second wave culture switched directions from highlighting bean quality to this social aspect of drinking coffee. Starbucks, and the chains that came soon after, played a major hand in that. And that, at the turn of the century, led to renewed calls of higher focus on bean characteristics and the overall taste of coffee.
The Third Wave
Just like food has haute cuisine, coffee has third wave. New forms of processing coffee, higher standards of extraction, increased transparency, latte art, lighter roasts, and legions of innovative brewing methods: this phase has taken the coffee world by storm.
First used in 2002 by Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters’ Trish Rothgeb, the term ‘third wave’ defined connoisseurs’ desire to bring coffee quality to the fore again. They aimed to embrace the history of coffee and contemporise it with new technologies and greater knowledge.
This stage became popular with the ‘Big Three’ of third wave: Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, and Counter Culture Coffee. They roasted coffee lightly, and in small batches to accentuate all its desirable notes, instead of roasting it dark in large mounds to hide defects. Their packaging identified the bean origins, farms and their farmers, roasting dates, crop varietals, processing methods and flavour notes. Cafés around the world followed suit, and third wave coffee culture was born.
With higher and more progressive standards, coffee became luxurious, and thus more expensive. But besides the quality in the cup, customer service is crucial to third wave. While the second wave was notable for its social participation, this stage has a much more immersive, coffee-forward experience. Coffee bars around the world feature baristas brewing coffee in high-end equipment and talking to customers about the story behind the coffee as well as the process. It is, in many ways, an interactive culinary experience.
How is third wave different from specialty coffee? Specialty refers to coffee as a product, while third wave is a culture where we serve that very product.
With the growth of specialty cafés, coffee chains have been forced to adapt and play catch up. Some, like Starbucks, which introduced its Reserve brand of stores to compete with the market, have succeeded, while other chains – such as Barista – have struggled to keep up.
Third Wave in India
Traditionally, Indians have consumed coffee in two prominent forms: the famous filter ‘kaapi’ of the south, and the Greek-inspired frappes of the north. Recently, however, India’s potential as the seventh-largest coffee producer in the world has influenced the introduction of third wave coffee culture into cafés across the country.
Coffee businesses like Blue Tokai, Curious Life, Third Wave, and Flying Squirrel have pioneered the third wave movement in the country. Located in cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore and Jaipur, they mostly use coffee grown in Indian farms, which has helped increase coffee consumption and introduce the population to newer coffee trends. They have also helped popularise coffee beverages like cold brews and espresso tonics, and brewing equipment like the Chemex, AeroPress, V60, Siphon, and filters from different countries.
This has also provided the big chains with the opportunity to expand their businesses. In response to the growth of independent coffee shops, Starbucks opened its first third wave store in Bangalore, based on its Reserve Roasteries.
A Fourth Wave?
A term that has slowly crept into coffee lexicon in the last couple of years, the next wave of coffee seems to represent sustainability, environmental awareness, direct trade, climate action, e-commerce, and technological advancements.The coffee industry is divided over the existence of this fourth wave. But it is safe to say that coffee is getting more progressive and politically aware.