The third wave of coffee is synonymous with a focus on the craft of producing, roasting, and brewing great coffee. Generally speaking, third wave coffee consumers are increasingly focused on the technical skills of farmers, roasters, and baristas.
However, as the appreciation of the craft of coffee has grown, technology has also come to play a more important role. Now more than ever, baristas, roasters, producers, and consumers all rely on technology to understand more about the coffee they brew, roast, grow, and drink.
But why has it accelerated at such a fast rate? And where might it end up in the future?
To learn more about how technological development has accelerated in the coffee industry over the past decade, I spoke to three coffee professionals. Read on to learn more.
You may also like our article on exploring AI in coffee roasting.
How has technology changed over the past decade?
In general, over the last two decades, technological development has skyrocketed. In 2000, less than 7% of the global population had regular access to the internet. Just over 20 years on in 2021, Statista estimated that some 4.9 billion people used the internet regularly – representing over 60% of the world’s total population.
As this has happened, technology specific to the coffee industry has understandably also evolved. This covers everything from new ways of roasting coffee to changes in how we brew it. And ultimately, as the coffee sector has developed, technology has become more important across the supply chain.
Many of these changes have taken place on the business-to-consumer (B2C) front. For example, one of the most effective technological changes has been the implementation of point of sale (POS) systems and digital signage in coffee shops.
D.J. Smith is the Director of Marketing at Just Love Coffee Roasters in Tennessee and Ed Thompson is the company’s Director of Operations. They told me how similar coffee shop technology has helped them to improve efficiency in their locations.
“Most of our coffee shops have screens in the kitchen to help expedite the use of tickets,” they say. “When a certain time limit is reached for the order, the screen flashes, which helps with overall speed.
“We use screens in the kitchens to improve the accuracy and speed of orders, especially when customers also order coffees, so that everything can be served at the same time.”
Considering the boom in online ordering, co-ordinating the preparation of coffee and food has never been so important. Technology allows baristas and kitchen staff to better work together to ensure orders reach customers quickly while still being expertly prepared.
“From the operations side, the technological advancements in online ordering have been the biggest for us,” D.J. and Ed say.
Online coffee sales have skyrocketed over the past few years, largely thanks to the pandemic. According to research from the National Coffee Association’s The impact of Covid-19 on coffee ecommerce webinar, the annual growth rate of the ecommerce coffee market reached over 38% in 2020.
Has Covid-19 forced a change in coffee technology?
There’s no denying that Covid-19 forced coffee businesses to become more reliant on technology, further accelerating its development in the coffee sector.
According to data from the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Industry Report, more than 50% of US coffee businesses said they dedicated more of their resources to consumer-facing technology during the pandemic. This included online or in-app ordering, mobile payments, and delivery services.
Demian Estevez is the owner of Mojo Coffee Roasters in New Orleans.
“The use of technology in the coffee industry was already increasing,” he says. “The pandemic just sped up this process.”
As coffee shops and roasters had to adapt to social distancing measures, health and safety became more of a concern. As a result, many brands became more reliant on digital platforms during the pandemic to stay connected with their customers.
Demian tells me: “During forced closures as a result of the pandemic, we realised that we can emulate the coffee shop experience with our online storefront.
“Making more coffee at home reminded guests of the experiences that coffee shops can provide.”
He adds that social media was a useful way to connect with consumers.
“For Mojo, we found social media was the most effective way to engage with our guests and provide them with updates.”
Furthermore, Demian adds that technology has facilitated more open discussion between staff members, which he believes improves the overall customer experience.
“Implementing an employee-focused app, like Homebase, made sense for us because our business needs can change day-to-day and even hour-to-hour,” he says. “During the pandemic, or periods of challenging weather (which are common in New Orleans), we can contact our team members quickly and adapt our employee schedule accordingly.
“Communication technologies have been integral to our team,” he adds. “If our team has clear and efficient communication, they then have more time to focus on making coffee.”
A move towards contactless
Although the coffee industry changed temporarily in many ways as a result of Covid-19, some changes are likely here to stay. One such example is the widespread adoption of contactless payment technology.
According to a 2020 SCA x Square Coffee Report, cash transactions declined at the start of the pandemic, mainly because of health and safety.
However, Demian points out that the move towards contactless has continued.
“Guests continue to use less cash. Contactless payment technology was already implemented in most coffee shops, so the transition was straightforward.”
D.J. and Ed agree that the move towards contactless technology was efficient.
“There has been more emphasis on takeout and online payments, and we experienced an increase in our cashless payments,” they tell me. “It was easy to implement additional changes.
“Toast (our POS system) has a tap function so that customers can pay by placing their card over the reader,” they say. “The technology is customer-facing and customers don’t need to touch the card reader.”
Customer service also turned contactless as a result of Covid-19. In the 2020 SCA x Square Report, the number of coffee shops offering curbside and/or pickup services increased by 521%. This led to an astonishing 5,380% increase in combined sales from curbside and/or pickup services as social distancing measures were maintained.
But in order to implement these new contactless services, coffee shops had to rely on technology even more, generally through using food and beverage order and delivery apps.
Big Hospitality reported that between May and August 2021, food and beverage delivery app Uber Eats almost doubled the number of new businesses joining its platform, which included coffee shops.
“Covid-19 got us up to speed with curbside pickups,” say D.J. and Ed. “Previously, we had not considered curbside pickups, but as we were finding ways to deal with the ‘new normal’, technology allowed us to listen and adapt to the emerging needs of staff and customers.”
What about the wider coffee industry?
While this article has so far focused on the increase in technology in coffee shops, roasters and producers have also become more reliant on technology over the past few years.
While both the practical skills and knowledge of roasters are essential to roasting high-quality coffee, there has been growing use of automation in the sector throughout the recent years.
More and more roasters are utilising artificial intelligence-driven technology to exert more control over developing roast profiles. AI can detect key stages of roast development, such as first crack, arguably more precisely and consistently than humans can – ultimately improving coffee quality.
One example of this software is Cropster’s First Crack Prediction, which provides a timeframe for when first crack should occur. This allows roasters to make more precise and controlled changes to roasting variables more quickly and effectively.
Coffee farmers have long relied on technology to help in coffee production. Mechanical harvesters were first used in Brazil in the 1960s to assist producers with picking ripe cherries, but there have been further advancements in technology since then.
Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones can also be useful tools for coffee production. As many coffee farmers live in remote and mountainous areas, it’s often difficult to map out farm boundaries on foot or in certain vehicles. Drones can provide farmers with a range of data that may not be accessible otherwise.
The increase in producer-focused mobile apps also provides useful digital tools for coffee farming. Platforms such as Yara’s Coffee Club can keep track of a number of variables, such as nutrient levels in soil and quantities of fertiliser used – helping to improve coffee quality.
Moreover, recent advancements in AI technology allow producers to understand more about the quality of their beans.
Companies such as Demetria can provide farmers with digital tools that can predict coffee quality, as opposed to farmers solely relying on roasting and cupping coffee. Demetria’s technology uses near infrared sensors to create a “fingerprint” of the coffee, which assesses the levels of different organic compounds in the coffee beans.
How can technology improve sustainability?
Alongside increasing efficiency and consistency, there is also a consensus that technological change can also pave the way for improved sustainability in the industry.
Across the industry, there is a growing demand for more traceable and transparent coffee – people want to know more about where coffee is grown, the person who produced it, and how much they were paid.
Ultimately, technology makes it much more feasible to safely and securely store a range of information from across the supply chain, including how much farmers were paid for their coffee.
But what about bridging the gap between producers and consumers through technology?
As consumers express further interest in knowing more about the origins of coffee, technology can help close this gap and bring them further together.
“There is an interesting dynamic in the coffee industry where customers want to know more about the journey of coffee,” D.J. and Ed explain. “So how do you balance out telling your customers more information?
“We place coffee information cards on our shelves. Customers can scan a QR code, which takes them to a video to learn more about the coffee.”
Despite being invented in the early 1990s, QR codes became immensely popular during the pandemic as a means to provide more information to consumers for a number of reasons, including price transparency. Between 2018 and 2020, the use of QR codes in the US increased by 94%.
“Additionally, customers don’t always have the opportunity to speak with our roastmaster,” D.J. and Ed add. “By scanning a QR code, customers can hear our roaster talk about the coffee.”
The global coffee industry is undoubtedly reliant on technology, and there’s no signs of this slowing down any time soon. It’s clear that as we move forward, technological change will continue to shape the future of the sector.
But just how it will do so remains to be seen. In recent years, Covid-19 in particular proved to be a disruptive influence which guided technology in a unique way, expediting some changes which were already gradually occurring.
Whether or not longer-term ripple effects from the pandemic will continue to guide the technology we use to grow, roast, and brew coffee is as yet unknown.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how automation is shaping the coffee industry.
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