The Three (or Four) Waves of Coffee Explained

the three (or four)

When you’re a newbie to the world of artisanal coffee, you might hear some more seasoned home baristas refer to first-wave, second-wave, or third-wave coffee.

You might be asking yourself, “What are these waves I keep hearing about? And what’s the difference between them?”

The three (or four) waves of coffee are the trends that define our relationship with coffee and how that relationship has evolved throughout American history. Each wave sets the stage for the next wave to come. As we examine these waves, we watch coffee go from a cheap commodity to a cultural cornerstone to a form of art. Let’s dive in deeper for a more detailed look at the three waves and how they've defined our modern coffee-flavored world.

The First Wave

Coffee had already made waves in Europe, so when Europeans began colonizing the New World, they brought it along with them. But the popularity of coffee really took off after the Boston Tea Party in 1773. As colonists protested the unfair tea tax imposed by the English, drinking coffee became an act of rebellion.

However, the true beginnings of the first wave can be traced to around 1800. Prior to the 19th century, most coffee was made at home with tedious and time-consuming methods such as grinding roasting beans in a pan. That all changed when the first commercial coffee companies—Folgers and Maxwell House—were founded. These companies drove mass coffee consumption through the roof as it became widely available and much faster to make.

So began the first wave of coffee. As coffee became more accessible, new methods of packaging and preserving it were developed. One new innovation was vacuum packaging, invented in 1900 by the Hills Brothers Coffee Company. Vacuum packaging sealed coffee in its bags and kept it fresh for long periods, making it even easier to sell to mass markets.

Another major milestone was the development of instant coffee by Japanese-American Satori Kato in 1903. Modern-day coffee connoisseurs’ mouths may pucker at the very thought of instant coffee, but during World Wars I and II, it served as an important part of soldiers’ daily food rations. It was such a big part of their wartime lives that when they came back they created a market for it, which led to instant coffee brands like Nestlé’s Nescafé.

New coffee-making methods and wider availability meant more Americans were drinking coffee than ever before. But there was one little problem: the coffee being produced and sold during the first wave didn’t taste good.

At this point, coffee was considered a commodity good. Commodity goods, which include wheat and sugar, are bought and sold on market exchanges, and market prices are dependent on factors like weather and market speculation. Those companies involved in the coffee trade were more concerned with driving profits than how the coffee tasted and were willing to sacrifice quality if it meant higher profit margins. The average coffee drinker didn’t seem to think the taste was an issue, either. To them, coffee was only a way to get a quick caffeine fix during the day, and if getting it faster meant poor quality, then so be it.

In its first wave, coffee established itself as the staple of American households. But it didn’t have to taste good. Coffee companies cared about profit, and consumers cared about convenience.

The Second Wave

In its first wave, the taste of coffee was hardly a consideration. But by the mid-1960s, coffee drinkers were ready for a change. In 1966, Peet’s Coffee and Tea opened its first store in Berkeley, California. Starbucks followed with its first store in Seattle, Washington in 1971. Those stores and others like them promoted dark-roasted coffee made from high-quality beans, and customers were astounded by the improvement in taste.

Between these two companies and others, the second wave of coffee began. In 1978, Erma Knutsen coined the term “specialty coffee” to describe this new direction. Simply put, the goal of specialty coffee is to recognize the unique characteristics of individual beans. With this goal in mind, coffee brokers sold high-quality beans to individual roasters who further enhanced their quality with proper processing and roasting techniques.

As specialty coffee took off, a new philosophy of coffee developed, leading to a slew of terms and jargon to describe roasting processes and the characteristics of beans. Words like “barista” and “latte” sprang up in second wave coffee vocabulary. To standardize and define this new language, the Specialty Coffee Association was formed in 1982.

But companies like Peet’s and Starbucks didn’t just sell coffee; they sold an experience. They began building a sense of community around their product, establishing the coffee shop culture. Instead of just guzzling a quick cup, the coffee shop was a place where people could go to unwind with their friends. Coffee shop culture caught on in a big way, and big brands created fierce loyalty among their fans. In this new era, coffee wasn’t just a drink; it was a way of connecting.

Still, things were bound to shift again. Some consumers began to complain that the experience sold by stores like Starbucks was beginning to outweigh the actual coffee. What these companies really excelled at, they argued, was marketing and branding. The coffee itself was secondary to the values they expounded. Although they promoted high-quality coffee, the premiums they charged for the experience and the commercialization were a big turn-off. It was time for another change.

The Third Wave

Trish Rothgeb of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters coined the term “third wave” in 2002. The third wave of coffee was born out of the desire by connoisseurs who were disillusioned by the overemphasis on the coffee experience and wanted to bring the focus back to the actual coffee. The main influence on the Third Wave was the wine industry. Connoisseurs began adopting the mindset of wine and craft beer enthusiasts in defining and describing the unique qualities of specific coffee beans, and the factors that affect those qualities. These include the climate of a coffee-growing region, the altitude at which the coffee is grown, and the soil being used. Instead of marketing, the coffee bean was at center stage, and instead of experience, it was all about production.

Third wave roasters and coffee companies like Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture committed themselves to education and transparency about the production process and origin of coffee. They devoted themselves to teaching consumers about where their coffee came from and how it was made. Social consciousness also came to the forefront, as companies emphasized the values of sustainable farming methods and fair trade. The growth of organic foods was as a factor, too, with more and more people becoming concerned about what was in their food products and how it affected their bodies.

In two centuries, coffee had gone from a cheap commodity to a luxury item to an artisanal product. In the third wave, coffee making was a craft, an art form to be perfected, leading more consumers to discover the pleasures of a great cup of truly excellent coffee.

The Fourth Wave (?)

We’ve seen the evolution of America’s love affair with coffee and the transformation of our perceptions of it. So, what is the current state of affairs? And what does the future hold?

Defining the so-called “fourth wave” of coffee is a tricky prospect at best. Some industry experts even say we’re being too hasty at declaring that the fourth wave has begun. But we do have a few clues about where the fourth wave might lead us.

One possible direction the fourth wave may take relates to e-commerce. As people have begun to buy things online, they can do the same with their coffee. Hubspot Academy’s Inbound Marketing Course tells us that the power lies in the hands of the buyer. And that’s true. Customers who buy things online can look up product reviews, interact with companies on social media, and make their own decisions on what to buy. This gives independent coffee roasters an advantage since they can leverage the Internet to connect with customers and sell their products.

Another revolution in the fourth wave might be the emerging field of blockchain technology. A recent article on the Noteworthy blog on Medium explains how the Swiss Coffee Alliance is teaming up with Ambrosus—a blockchain-powered company that optimizes quality assurance for food and pharmaceutical companies—to crack down on counterfeit coffee and unethical labeling practices. This revolutionary approach is also aimed at addressing the issue of poverty among coffee farmers and farmworkers—an area in which some critics say the third wave of coffee has fallen short.

And there you have it. We’ve witnessed the transformation of coffee across two centuries and of our relationship with it. We’ve seen where coffee has been, but only time will tell where it’s going. Whatever happens, the story yet to come will be genuinely exciting to see.

What do you think the future of coffee will be? Leave a comment and tell us what you think!

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