Coffee is dead. Long live coffee.
The recent news that one of the country's coolest coffee brands—San Francisco's iconic third-waver, Blue Bottle—was allowing European behemoth Nestlé to become its majority shareholder, sent waves not just through the coffee industry, but also across the Internet. The Oakland, Calif.-founded, little-roaster-that-could, is now set to take over the world. Make that the corners of the world it hasn't yet conquered, after years of well-funded expansion.
What's surprising, really, is that it took founder James Freeman so long to cave—it was back in 2015, after all, that Intelligentsia and Stumptown Coffee, those other third-wave leading lights, sold out to Peet's Coffee & Tea, now owned by—surprise!—another European conglomerate. (And here we thought Europeans didn't like our coffee.)
It's just a little bit fascinating to think about where we stand, right now—three of the most prominent drivers of the transformation of coffee in the United States over the past few years have effectively bowed out. Their product is still around, their cafes still hold the same appeal, but by taking the money and running, these brands are now Starbucks for a new generation of coffee drinkers that has their own, very strong opinions about what coffee should be like, how it should be consumed, and in what type of environment.
Clearly, their coverage may never come close to where Starbucks has managed to go, but that's not the point—Chicago's Goose Island Brewery, a pioneer in its time and still a producer of spectacular craft beer, sold out to Anheuser-Busch InBev back in 2011. Is Goose Island's IPA on on tap in every single bar in America, yet? No, but it doesn't have to be—maybe we're now in an era where every good food and drink idea no longer needs to be rolled out a million times over—just look, for example, at how many years it's taken to get more to more than a hundred Shake Shack locations, worldwide—the way we continue to obsess over the brand, you'd think there'd be triple that by now.
But, coffee. Where to, now? Who's the next Blue Bottle, the next Intelligentsia, Stumptown? Everywhere you look, really—one of the most beautiful things about coffee, and about the growth of the industry in recent years, is how truly local it can be.
Coffee is not beer, of course. You can't create it from scratch in your garage. Your success as a roaster is about so much more than being a good roaster; it's subject to so many different variables—networking, climate change, competition, cultural barriers.
And yet, player after player seems willing to take their chances, to the point where there really aren't that many cities or regions in the United States that don't already have roasters talented and passionate enough that it's barely even worth giving a second thought to whether or not a company like Blue Bottle wants to go for greater financial security—there's too much of the good stuff, right at home.
From Miami's exemplary Panther Coffee to the startlingly-good Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas to the superb Ruby Coffee Roasters, run out of a tiny town in Wisconsin and shipped to cafes all over, not to mention those early adopters like Counter Culture, Philadelphia's La Colombe, or the old-school Pacific Northwest roasters that are still some of the best in the land, all these decades later, American coffee has nothing to worry about. If anything, the recent shifts in the marketplace clear the decks for a few more rising stars to make it big. There's nothing wrong with that.