The perfect storm

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”
— Niccolo Machiavelli

And so it is with our incredible industry of coffee. It is thought that creativity is inherent to its DNA, and yet there is a very clear and distinct order of things that has permeated the industry since the beginning of brewing times. Learned people describe the evolution of the coffee industry as a sequence of different and distinct waves. The term “wave of coffee” refers to a period in time or stage in the coffee industry.

The first wave was the introduction of traditional coffee culture in the 20th century. The second wave in the mid-1990s saw the rise of branded chains. The third wave arrived in the mid-2000s, celebrating artisan coffee, and the beginning of the 2010s welcomed the fourth wave and the science of coffee. The mid-2010s introduced the fifth wave, business of coffee, which we are said to be currently experiencing – my favourite wave to date.

It is my belief that coffee, up until now, had been relegated to a mere art form, a lifestyle for the chosen, cognoscenti with an increased sense of consciousness, a ‘raison d’être’ by well-meaning visionaries, aficionados of transcendent hyper reality.

The fifth wave has at long last been acknowledged for what it is, a business from which people all over the world derive a form of income. It is an activity which has associated costs and requires determination, creativity, strategy, and hard work. It represents a trading commercial business. And, with this pandemic, the business of coffee has come to the forefront of our retail industry with even greater relevance and force.

However, I find myself being confounded by waves that make the unwise assumption that what happens in Rome can become universal and be relevant the world over with exactly the same format of expression, perfect and identical waves striking distant shores with the regularity and uniformity of a metronome.

If the true definition of a wave is “a sudden occurrence of or increase in a phenomenon, feeling, or emotion,” then you can and should throw any element linked to predictability and regularity in the same bin as political truths and institutional faith.

The thing is, the idea of a wave should conjure emotions of power, the absence of human control, and explosive creativity looking for the purpose of birth. It should strike a short emotion within a sea of immense tranquillity, reaching faraway shores with both misty effervescence and random chaos. That’s what I call romance.

While imagining the picture of people/companies surfing the perfect wave, I can see four different groups, as follows:

  1. The pioneers: the people who are ahead of the curve/wave and are very likely to die or fail. They sometimes get lucky, time it right, and become very successful. If too far ahead, they miss the tide and end up with nothing more than a few tiny bubbles to ignite their mighty boards.
  2. The adventurers: those who do not always calculate the risk and fail to realise that actions have consequences. They find themselves at the crux of the wave, experiencing a prescient moment of having a huge wave competing for victory against their fragile human shell. However, within that group, there is also a tiny minority who gets it right, and time it to perfection with the right approach/product. These people surf the perfect wave, hide at the heart of this explosion of nature’s might, find the sweet spot of absolute calm, serendipity within this perfect storm, to then emerge victorious and unscathed. They ride their wave like a proud peacock towards the shores of undying fame.
  3. The followers: they are by far the largest group. These are the people who wait and see who has survived and then emulate them. These people are sitting on their boards filled with a false sense of participation, but having wet feet does not make one a surfer.
  4. The settlers: these are the people who watch from afar without getting wet, the spectators who take the time to analyse the odds, calculate the permutations, and elaborate credible strategies that secure their future. They are the ones who, ultimately, make the most money.

The last group has the largest odds of survival, yet the lowest potential for upside in the short-to-medium term, while the first two groups have great potential for success, associated to being placed on top of the precarious list of endangered species.

So, there I go predicting what the sixth wave will be, a paradigm shift away from traditional espresso equipment, the demise of Rome, the rise of super traditional machines. While all previous waves have been birthed in the Western world, this one will come out of the east. It will be a tidal wave, a tsunami that will be triggered out of Asia – now. The Western world will bask in its traditional culture, while China, being new to the brew, will change the rules of engagement, with neither fear nor apology.

In China, regardless of one’s political beliefs and aspirations, people are straight, direct, and devoid of historical prejudices. To them, it is about making the best coffee in the most efficient form. It is not about fooling customers, promoting imaginary artistry, a figment of people’s imagination that a barista does anything more than pressing buttons and making doodles with hot milk. The one thing a human can do that a machine cannot, according to my good friend Dr. Adam Carr, is to taste like great chefs who degust their sauces and creations for flavour, texture, and temperature. 

Yet the beauty of technology resides in evening out those moments, making the in-cup experience more consistent yet equally compelling. If leading brands have realised that the majority of baristas struggle with milk texturing and are seeking mechanical alternatives, it therefore relegates the traditional machine to a mere giant kettle, an expensive yet majestic one at that.

Super traditional machines can provide it all – true espresso with a touch, authentic taste and lines, ultimate consistency, productivity, connectivity, and authenticity to the craft of age-old mores. If the world is ready to have its appendix removed by a robot, then a cup of coffee should represent mere child’s play.

Irish physicist John Tyndall once said: “Life is a wave, which in no two consecutive moments of its existence is composed of the same particles.”

If Tyndall is right, then evolution really means change, a bit like Boris Johnson’s Brexit. While those evolving particles are inevitably linked, a birth always releases a magical realm of new potential.

And if the fifth wave was truly all about business, business is the one thing that helps define and confirm reality as numbers very seldom lie. Its cartesian nature either works or does not, it either makes money or fails. I kind of like this approach. You are either alive or dead, there is no place for survival, this in-between sedated state, pretence hanging on to false hope. Both failure and success can be transient, but, in the long term, destiny unfolds either its sorrowful or joyful wings with strength, determination, purpose, and perceived randomness.

Italian Renaissance diplomat Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli may have been right, but humanity can be defined as people who never stop trying, even though getting it right does not always appear to be a core imperative.

In sum, let this perfect storm usher this new tide we shall call the sixth wave, the rise of Super Traditional machines. Or, maybe I should call it the Wave 5.5, an unfinished wave frozen in a dramatic ‘C’ shape, awaiting to unleash its explosive powers onto unsuspecting shores.

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