Everyone loves a good story. And a great ride of a wave. And everyone is looking for something new. And exciting. And exotic.  Coffee’s likely-to-be fourth wave will be all that and more.

What is the “fourth wave”? With the first three waves most exemplified by coffees such as Folgers, Starbucks and Stumptown, the “fourth wave” can be defined differently by to different people. For some, it extends beyond mere general coffee origins and sustainability themes, but instead focuses on extensive details about the coffee (details about the specific farmer, their estate/coop, or how the sustainability program with that coffee works). For others, the focus is how the coffee process can impact the finished product (certain profile roasting, or one hot trend is to “barrel age” some raw products).  And for others, home roasting raw beans to insuring freshness would be this added step.

All these trends can contribute to a more elevated coffee experience; at the same time, the danger can be to look to “ride the wave” without remembering about “back to basics”.

You need a great story for sure. But you also need great finished product. Part of the problem is often that the marketing, even if it were highly effective, cannot overcome the basic problem of the too often “mediocre” cup of coffee (even if you can legitimately relate a great story). Would a fine restaurant deliberately offer a “mediocre” house wine (even with a great story) as their staple? After all these years, it still amazes me how restauranteurs can “skimp” on product cost for coffee (the last impression at a meal) , either because they believe that average product would not overrule an otherwise good meal, or because they just can’t tell the difference

This problem is also exacerbated by the impact that inferior equipment can have in the process.  Great product may not turn out great if improperly prepared. Behind the scenes support is equally important (much easier with wine- but imagine if you served warm chardonnay!)

Speaking of wine, many restaurants have wine sommeliers, with elegantly bound volumes with hundreds of bottles of wine (often with exotic varietal descriptions), to help “tell the story”. Yet with coffee, the same fine establishments forget to emphasize the beverage that, from an actual cost point of view, has the highest gross margin of product cost of any item on the menu!  So many menus merely list “coffee.” Some finer dining places, if they think they are truly going the “extra mile”, might put a brief description of where the coffee comes from. How about sharing the details of where the coffee comes from- its elevation, its province, its growers, the special care that went into the beverage, any premium that is paid that improves the life or environment of where the coffee comes from.  You would be amazed what an enticing story can be told, and I guarantee that a few extra menu descriptors will yield handsome profits in return.

On the story of where the (hopefully) exceptional coffee began its journey, the quality of the product, and insuring proper preparation, restauranteurs and hoteliers can easily engage with a “coffee sommelier” – their supplier should readily have the specific information at hand, should be able to assist in the marketing effort, and should be able to insure that the coffee is being properly and consistently prepared.

Quality stories are important. When paired with quality product and quality preparation, that’s a wave that anyone can successfully ride for a long time.