A Gen Xer’s Informal Review of the Millennial Coffee Scene

By Mark Inman, Olam Specialty Coffee

As a 40-something Gen Xer, being approached to write about the Millennials’ impact on the specialty coffee industry seemed too good to pass up. Sure—I can poke fun at the younger generation just as easily as the next person. It would be simple enough to fill this space with witty observational humor, and a few parting encouraging words for the generation that is slowly taking the reins of our industry as mine fades into the sunset.

When I started in the specialty coffee industry in 1989, I considered myself part of a generation of coffee professionals reviving an all-but-dead industry, and working hard to make coffee relevant to people younger than fifty. Shocking as it may sound now, in 1989 there were very few coffee “scenes” that were interesting or relevant to a Gen Xer. Sure, you had the Woodstock generation in their socksand-Birkenstock combos hanging around the Bay Area clutching their bags of Peet’s. And (I’m sure), it was common to see bespectacled, tweed-wearing prepsters getting their morning cups in Boston at The Coffee Connection. But to your average person in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, coffee was something that you used once in a while to stay up for exams or wash down your pancakes: nothing more.

I saw the light when I held my first coffee job during college at Portland’s infamous Coffee People. It was there that I saw the potential coffee had to interest a younger generation. This re-introduction of coffee was similar to what was happening in craft beer, which was making waves around the same time. Coffee People, like a handful of specialty coffee businesses scattered throughout the U.S., was attempting to get a younger generation excited about coffee by focusing on well-crafted blends, coffees from a single origin, and new flavors that could be developed by roasting at different levels. Adding to this effort was the introduction of the espresso machine in the coffee house, which pumped out a slew of new and interesting beverages that most Americans had never seen before.

During these early years in coffee, the writing on the wall was clear to me: reviving and repackaging a dying trade offered real opportunity for those who craved challenge and wanted to make their mark. For me, and many in my generation who participated in the specialty coffee revolution, success was pretty easy during those early years, if you focused on small and steady improvement. Changes to the old coffee model made huge waves, and resulted in both personal and financial success for those who were championing them. Coffee roasters, cafes, equipment companies, and consultants were entering the market daily, heeding the media’s siren call in numerous reports on cashing in on the “coffee boom.” I often joked back then that if you could spell the word coffee, you could easily make a living in this industry.

Today, to have any hopes of making a career in this industry, you must possess real skill, the ability to relentlessly market yourself and/or your company, and the ability to form strong business connections both here and abroad. There are very few undeveloped markets left in the U.S., and the ones that are hot are loaded with competition that is executing coffee at a very high level.

This is where the Millennials come in. What is happening with this oft-mocked group of people is actually pretty incredible. While my generation was focusing on doing things a bit better than the previous generation, the Millennials are focused on doing things right. Millennials express a real desire to have an intimate connection with the products they use, the food and beverages they consume, and the companies they support and create. This is in sharp contrast to the baby boom generation, which was focused on creating and purchasing goods that were fast, cheap, convenient, and available to all. And while this was an appropriate response to a postdepression/post-war America, it was lacking in many notable ways. Companies that focused on craft, meaningful products, or their social or environmental footprint and ethics were few and far between; the prevailing mindset of the ‘50s-‘70s paved the way for factory farming, abuse of agrochemicals and farmland, the proliferation of sweatshops, and a degradation of food and beverage quality never before seen.

In specialty coffee, we have seen the virtual abandonment of large-capacity batch brewing and the bottomless cup of coffee in favor of high-quality brewed coffee made especially for the customer and sold by the individual cup. And not only do you have the option of coffee brewed from a single drip cone weighed to specific parameters, but you can also have your coffee prepared in a press pot, siphon, or Aeropress by a well-trained barista who will offer you more information on your coffee selection than you probably care to know.

Espresso coffee has evolved from its origins of a cup of coffee produced quickly for workers on break, to a culinary event similar to ordering a cocktail at a bar. Have only 15 minutes for your break? You may be a little latte (pun intended) as your barista labors to pull the perfect shot from an espresso machine that profiles pressure and has programmable temperature. Favor a macchiato, cappuccino, or latte? The barista will then spend more focused time etching an image of a cat or the planet Saturn in the perfectly steamed milk of your beverage of choice. While this can at times border on the absurd, you can’t help but feel good knowing your barista is working hard to make you the best cup of coffee he or she can. All this quality and focused, personal attention for a few bucks—what’s not to love about these times?

This change in the coffee landscape is not exclusive to coffee bars. From coffee roasters touting their buyers’ extensive (and marketably adventurous) travels to far corners of the earth risking life and limb to offer you the best green coffee grown today, to public cuppings reminiscent of wine-tastings, to home brewers that represent the best of modern design and brew control—there is not one aspect of the coffee industry that is not at a significantly higher level than it was just 10 years ago.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to specialty coffee. Look at what’s happening with beer, whiskey, denim, shoes, small manufacturing, music, film, and other media. This interest in craft with depth and meaning is everywhere. And while this is awesome in so many ways, I can’t help but ask the following questions: Is this obsession with the custom and curated a need to admire something real and tangible in our digital and virtual world? Is this movement happening with such intensity because we are living, historically, in stable financial times where people have more disposable income than ever before? Is this a time of extreme and excess similar to what came before the fall of Rome?

Whatever the reason may be, I admire the direction things are going, and I feel good about the kind of world this new generation desires to create. And, unlike the baby boomers who refused to turn over the reins of the future until our generation pried them from their clenched hands, we Gen Xers should feel good about the inevitable shift, as the Millennials seem to have things pretty well figured out.

Mark Inman is a coffee trader and sales manager for Olam Specialty Coffee in Healdsburg, California. Mr. Inman is the former owner of Taylor Maid Farms, a specialty wholesale coffee roaster in Northern California, and has held senior positions for regional and national coffee companies. He is a past president of SCAA, past chair of WCE (World Coffee Events), and current chair of the Roasters Guild.