Will America’s Newest Java Obsession Dethrone National Coffee Brands?

Big things are happening in the brew world, and we’re not just talking about craft beer. America’s specialty coffee movement, also known as the “third wave of coffee,” is that which brings appreciation to artisanal coffee and all that comes with it — from equipment and aesthetics, to humane production practices.

According to a 2014 infographic by the National Coffee Association, 34 percent of Americans consume gourmet coffee beverages daily. The majority of these daily gourmet coffee drinkers are 25-39 years old. In December 2014, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) estimated the retail value of the U.S. coffee market at $46B, with specialty coffee making up more than half (51 percent) in volume share and even more than that (55 percent) in value share.

Some of the biggest retail players in specialty coffee right now are Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Sightglass. Three in the bunch — Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, and Sightglass — are all based in the Bay Area. So, despite an “11 of the World’s Best Cities for Coffee Lovers” roundup on Matador Network earlier this year, which listed only Sacramento and Denver for U.S. cities, we can’t help but wonder: Is San Francisco brewing as a new epicenter for artisan coffee? And beyond that, are artisan coffee brands primed to overtake national java brands?

So, we took to the streets of San Francisco to get a firsthand look. As you’ll see in the video below, it’s evident in the Bay Area that smaller roasters are preferred in comparison to national chains like Starbucks.

But don’t just take their word for it: According to Foodable Labs’ unstructured data from the Restaurant Social Media Index (RSMI), the average consumer sentiment for these three artisan coffee brands — Blue Bottle, Sightglass, and Four Barrel — is 92.71. For national brands Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and Peet’s, the average consumer sentiment is 81.23, more than 10 points below the artisan brands.

Additionally, the SCAA reported a nearly 10 percent year-over-year increase (2013 to 2014) in Millennial consumption of specialty coffee daily. What’s all the buzz about?

Another Wave of Coffee in a Sea of Caffeinated Millennials

Seven years ago, LA-based food critic Jonathan Gold defined the three waves of coffee. The first was Folgers, the second introduced more “premium” brands, like Starbucks and Peet’s, and the current third wave includes “sourcing from farms instead of countries and bringing out more clean flavors from each bean.”

That is to say people are interested not only in where their beans are coming from, but also in supporting these producers. According to a study from ad agency Barkley, more than 50 percent of Millennials aim to buy from companies that support causes they can get behind.

This is crucial for business owners (in the coffee world and beyond), considering the buying power Millennials will have within the next couple of years is estimated at $200B annually in the U.S. alone.

Diving Into the Big Three

Below, in no particular order, we dive deeper into the appeal and offerings of Blue Bottle, Sightglass, and Four Barrel.

Blue Bottle Coffee

Blue Bottle is the biggest of the three with 21 units.

The Oakland-based roaster, with a shop aesthetic described by the LA Times as “bright, spacious, and minimal,” is in the process of expansion, with a recent opening of its third LA store in mid-July. In 2016, Blue Bottle plans to expand in Brooklyn and relocate its existing Williamsburg roastery to Bushwick, an emerging Brooklyn neighborhood that is considered a hotbed of Millennials and creatives.

Aside from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, Blue Bottle Coffee has established presence internationally, in Tokyo, as well, and its Blue Bottle at Home subscription service allows others to enjoy the java, too.

The Experience

Blue Bottle's pour-over coffee  | Credit: Blue Bottle Coffee

Blue Bottle's pour-over coffee | Credit: Blue Bottle Coffee

Founder and CEO James Freeman knows how to run an honest company. This sentiment can be seen in his recent decision to close Blue Bottle’s wholesale division. On the company’s blog, he writes, “I get nervous when we can’t control the contexts, methods, and outcomes that are part of the experience of drinking our coffee.”

Aligning with this mantra is the company’s promise, from day one, to never sell coffee that’s 48+ hours out of the roaster. This ensures consistency and the ability for guests to enjoy coffee at its peak flavor. Ranging between $4 and $7 per cup, Blue Bottle offers espresso drinks, blends and single origin coffees, and New Orleans-style iced coffee, and is known for crafting pour-over coffee on self-designed drip bars. A range of bakery treats are also available at many locations, from made-to-order caramelized Belgian waffles to granola. 

Adding to its retail lineup, Blue Bottle sells brewing equipment and hosts coffee classes at select locations, educating java lovers on topics like brewing practices and green coffee buying. The brand also offers free, easy-to-use brewing guides — from Chemex to Aeropress — on its website, and conducts ongoing public discussions and cupping sessions at different Blue Bottle locations.


Blue Bottle supports sustainable farms, including Brazil’s Carmel Viva, the origin of Blue Bottle’s Brazil FAF Carmel Yellow Catuai Natural, and a coffee farm in the Andes Mountains, from which the brand’s Colombia Huila El Playon is sourced. Each blend tells a different story, with insight into the farms and farm owners, closing the farm-to-consumer gap.

Brand Value

In the past 10 months alone, Blue Bottle announced three major acquisitions. In April, the specialty coffee brand announced its merge with SF-based Tartine Bakery, the perfect equation for expansion and scalability between two aligned artisanal brands, both of which have a cult-like following. In early 2014, Blue Bottle acquired LA-based Handsome Coffee and merged with subscription-based coffee roaster Tonx, adding to its well-rounded value. Blue Bottle also acquired Perfect Coffee, a Bay Area subscription service “dedicated to getting guests the most delicious ground coffee available.”

Blue Bottle recently (in June) raised $70M from tech investors. Led by Fidelity, other big names in the round included Bono, Jared Leto, Tony Hawk, and Instagram founder Kevin Systrom. That’s on top of the $25.75M raised last year — and the $19.6M Blue Bottle raised in 2012.

Iced Coffee at Sightglass  | Credit: Instagram, @sightglass

Iced Coffee at Sightglass | Credit: Instagram, @sightglass


Helmed by brothers Jerad and Justin Morrison, Sightglass, an independently owned concept with six locations (all in San Francisco), is named after the viewing window on the coffee roaster that “exposes the complex and delicate process of roasting coffee.” The sightglass also captures a sense of transparency, which can be seen in everything the company does — from its beans to its blog.

The Experience

Sightglass features brewing tools and goods for sale on its website, including a glass dripper, gram scale, Aeropress tools, and more. The company also offers subscriptions for coffee (with seasonally changing varieties) and Sightglass’s Owl’s Howl Espresso. And, similar to Blue Bottle, Sightglass offers home-brew video guides for different brewing methods.

Sightglass offers pour-over coffee, espresso, small-batch baked goods, and whole beans for sale.


Practicing small production methods, Sightglass makes it clear that sourcing green coffee, and its direct farm-to-consumer practices, are instrumental to the brand’s success. This is why Sightglass takes so many origin trips, to not only connect with producers firsthand, but also to evaluate every step of the process — from the initial cherry selection to export prep.

“Time, effort, and miles are the investments we make to develop deep, lasting, and beneficial relationships with our producers,” states the Sightglass website. 

Sightglass carries coffee from Latin America (Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala), Africa (Ethiopia and Kenya), and the Pacific Islands. Each bag of whole beans projects the coffee’s details, including origin, farm practices, the growing altitude, taste notes, and variety/processing method. The El Meridiano, Tolima from Colombia, which sells at $18 a bag, is a perfect example of this storytelling.

Brand Value

Like Blue Bottle, Sightglass has caught the attention of investors, including Twitter and Square Co-Founder Jake Dorsey. 

But unlike Blue Bottle, Sightglass is still betting on its wholesale program. Being an artisan product, the brand offers customized programs depending on each cafe, restaurant, and specialty market’s market needs, goals, and environments.

In April, Sightglass announced a partnership with Portland-based Salt & Straw Ice Cream, which ultimately led to Affogato Bar. The collaboration focuses on the pairing of uniquely flavored, handcrafted ice cream (with flavors like blood orange olive oil and sea salt with caramel ribbons) topped with a Sightglass single origin espresso. Affogato is located on the mezzanine level of Sightglass’s flagship roastery.

Also this year, it was announced that a Sightglass cafe will be housed in the newly remodeled 2016 SFMOMA.

Four Barrel

With three San-Francisco-only locations — including its flagship in Mission District — Four Barrel’s presence is widespread as it continues to build relationships through its wholesale channel, with clients including NYC’s Maialino, and SF restaurants including Slanted Door and Bar Tartine. Four Barrel is also behind San Francisco’s The Mill, located on Divisadero.

Its mission, beyond crafting great single-origin coffee, is to use its platform to aid in charitable efforts. That’s why Four Barrel, owned by Jeremy Tooker, Jodi Geren, and Tal Mor, is helping a 900-person co-op to build a schoolhouse in Ethiopia. Four Barrel seems to be a brand that vibrates with community goodness and excitement for coffee. According to its website, all coffee is roasted with a vintage German roaster that holds consistent heat and allows airflow controlled by humans rather than technology.

The Experience

"Night time coffee processing in Rwanda."  | Photo Credit: Instagram, @fourbarrelcoffee

"Night time coffee processing in Rwanda." | Photo Credit: Instagram, @fourbarrelcoffee

The no-frills Four Barrel specializes in single-origin coffees, and also offers a coffee club subscription. On its site, you can find videos, like an original “Off the Clock” series, a behind-the-scenes look at Four Barrel employees outside the workplace. This type of approach, like many specialty coffee brands, turn customer relationships into friendships, making guests actually feel like part of the brand.

Taking coffee education up a notch, Four Barrel offers classes down the street from its Valencia location at a space called Homeroom. Topics include everything from espresso-making techniques to challenges in coffee-producing countries. What began as education for Four Barrel’s wholesale accounts quickly grew into endless inquiries from customers, wanting to dig deeper into coffee culture. Classes range from an encouraged $15 donation to $25, depending on the use of coffee. All proceeds go to the Ethiopia schoolhouse project.


Four Barrel sources its coffee from third-generation farmers and mill-workers in Latin America, Indonesia, and East Africa. Like Sightglass, the Four Barrel team takes pride in its sourcing trips to ensure high quality products, and repeatedly visits these farms in order to forge strong, long-lasting relationships.

Brand Value

In 2013, Four Barrel acquired De La Paz Coffee Roasters, which has been more of a side project for the brand, offering different coffees than Four Barrel. While Four Barrel focuses on single-origin coffee, De La Paz hones in on blends.

In the Bay Area especially, where a tech-driven, on-demand culture of entrepreneurial-minded enthusiasts are looking for the next big thing, specialty coffee has become “the only option.” Now teetering on the border of mainstream, this gourmet coffee culture — where in-office, vintage home-brew equipment has become the norm — has become a first adopter’s dream.

But as Tartine Bakery’s Chad Robertson told World Coffee Press, the next wave of adoption is hitting hard and fast. 

“The third wave was about artisanal upstarts roasting their coffee in different ways and a super-obsessive attention to detail,” said Robertson. “The fourth wave is bringing that same thing to a much wider audience without compromising it.”

As consumers become more educated about where and how goods are sourced, and as the startup culture takes over America, will independent coffee shops overtake national ones? In cities where coffee culture is dense, this shift seems to have already taken place on a local scale. And it seems these new waves of a caffeinated nation aren’t crashing down anytime soon.