Without assuming too much about your particular tastes, you probably know coffee has come a long way in the last century. It's been everything from a quick morning drink for laborers, an unassuming textbook accompaniment, and a scientifically studied subject of gustatory passion. So it fits that our coffee-procurement places have changed drastically too. The shifting shape of our coffee shops is interesting because when our serving environments change, it inevitably influences how we feel about what we're served.
100+ years into popularized coffee, we're starting to see trends beyond personal preferences for pour-over or those awful pods (which were recently banned in Hamburg), or the prevalence of wood accents in boutique-y corner shops. After talking with several professional coffee lovers and educators, here are some historical coffee shop design trends that might give clues to where where we'll find our brew in the future.
Early lunch counters served hand ground coffee... unless they were posh enough for freeze dried.
Coffee history on American soil is generally lumped into three "waves" as its treatment and presentation have shifted over time. The First Wave arrived in the 1800s, when coffee entered the casual food lexicon as something to fuel your day. Like tea before it, coffee was a functional beverage, made more affordable and approachable through innovative mass production techniques. For the first time ever, Americans could find coffee at cafes, lunch counters, restaurants and rest stops, and buy it without fuss—tinned in a vacuum packed or freeze dried form.
Coffee-serving environments were the same utilitarian places you'd find food and drink, whether on-the-go or in your own home. And if you were truly chic, you'd spring for the instant stuff!
Get your Maybelline, over the counter opioids & java in one fell swoop at the drugstore.
While industry insiders disagree on the exact turning point, Second Wave coffee started between the '60s and '70s with community coffee shops like Peet's, and exploded in the 1990s thanks to the global takeover of Starbucks. The notion of a personalized cup of coffee, delivered rapidly, and served in a home-away-from-home zone upended expectations of both coffee and cafe culture.
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Goodbye to long-ago brewed carafes, hello to custom-pulled drinks, Italianesque descriptions, easy chairs, plentiful outlets, and World Music compilations on repeat. A hallmark of Second Wave coffee was the use of "third place" interior design—focusing on coffee as a beverage to enjoy while providing a casual social space to imbibe or do hours of work around that unending cup of brew.
America's crowded second living room.
That work element may have been a little too convenient. Most of us who have been young and broke know all about lingering for hours after buying a single coffee. With the rise of the laptop, computer-oriented coffee shop use has raised more and more barista ire over time, as it translates to full tables, lower appreciation of their services, and fewer tips.
Third Wave coffee shops began to spring up in the late '90s and early 2000s after coffee had become a culturally impactful commodity...and its fluctuating value had caused some major social disturbances around the globe. With an increased interest in ethical production, controlling QA, and honing in on nuances of terroir, this school of bean-lovers got increasingly personal and technical.
Ritual Roasters, Hayes Valley CA.
The Third Wave is marked by small roasters working directly with specific farmers and producers, chemically analyzing beans, and giving deep scrutiny to methodologies, all in pursuit the most ideal form of espresso or pour. The shops themselves have reflected this pivot to emphasize the bean and its devoted disciples.
Coava Coffee, Portland OR. A sparse warehouse that seats maybe 15. Standing is allowed. You come here for coffee, not a book club.
Whether they feature modern color-blocked interiors or reclaimed wood and roasting equipment, Third Wave coffeeshops emphasize the barista, beans and cashier above all else. The exalted coffee, and the efficiency or spectacle of making it, are what the spaces highlight.
Seating: limited. WiFi: optional. Ambiance: minimalist to industrial, with very few invitations to linger.
Intelligensia, Silverlake, CA. Seating? Signage? Nah.
Often associated with aggressive posturing and hyperfocus on subtle details, the Third Wave's emphasis on the coffee has been both educational and off-putting for less fervent drinkers. In these cafes, built-in emphasis on the baristas and a comparative lack of relaxation stations can increase interaction with your coffee professional, the idea that these interactions would potentially increase consumer appreciation of beans or methods. But they also tend to prioritize efficiency, lacking the space to hang out or interact past the cash transaction stage. This efficiency can overlook our social attachment to coffee and deepen the stereotype of the pretentious barista.
Stumptown, Portland OR. Long bar, more seats.
So where does coffee shop life go from here? Several Third Wave aficionados believe it's headed back to the lunch counter or bar, of all places. Though actual coffee/bar hybrids certainly exist, the format and relationship promoted are the key point, with more face time encouraged and increased ability to watch a coffee pro work. Comfortable sociability between barista and drinker would do more to educate customers than having them queue, mill around without a seat, and then leave.
Ever sat at the bar in a sushi restaurant? Watching and chatting with a skilled chef is a lot more informative (and enjoyable) than looking at a menu. And you certainly wouldn't pull out your laptop.
Star Lounge, Chicago IL. Housed in an old bar, it blends corner shop vibe with 3rd wave tech.
The schools of coffee thought have never necessarily displaced one another, so a range of options will continue to exist. You can get your drive-through coffee or hunker in a funky smelling bookshop-cafe for as long as those are in demand. But the coffee futurists hope to see you belly up to their bars.
Thanks to the talented off-record baristas and trainers from Stumptown Coffee and Intelligensia for sharing their insights and love of what they do.