The coffee waves — is there yet a 4 th one?

Carmen Lenz
Feb 11 · 6 min read

The coffee industry has come a long way. So has the coffee house landscape which has experienced a fascinating past and is yet enchanting many people from all parts of the world. The coffee industry is categorised in so-called waves in terms of its development. Currently, we are experiencing the third wave of coffee. A milestone in the coffee field history that is primarily dedicated to speciality coffee and in general focusing on a very sustainable coffee value chain. It is interesting as every wave comes along with its uniquenesses.

Let´s start from the very beginning.

It all began in the 1800s with the first milestone. The first wave was standing for growing coffee consumption. A part of the first coffee wave, is the invention of instant coffee which was a trend that has established in America. Instant coffee reflects a modern industry that produced and marketed products that were both time-savers and convenient to use.

Besides the hype about the instant coffee, another great invention coming from America happened during the first coffee wave. It started with the founder of the Californian company The Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills Company. He began to produce coffee that was pre-roasted, grounded and sealed in small tins. That kind of product was usually considered for the luxury and upper class in former times, but the founder William H. Bovee made it available for the middle-class as well. In order to compete the construction of his firm, he hired a few specialists. Amongst his employees was the only 14-year-old James A. Folger. After the construction of the firm was completed, James left the company though came back a few years later and made full partner. Eventually the both of them built up the coffee business and also the company was renamed in Folger & Co. A slightly first attempt of mass marketing when it comes to coffee was born. Coffee consumption began to grow exponentially and for the first-time coffee became widely accessible.

Viennese Melange © cammycoffeespots

A bit later, in the end of the 1900s, the second wave started and soon came with an increase in the quality of coffee readily available. Large companies including Starbucks started to run coffee shops as profitable businesses. Coffee started to become a luxury product rather a necessity. The second coffee wave is characterised by the desire of the consumers, they were keen on getting to know more about the origin of their coffee and wanted to understand the unique roasting styles of what we now call specialty coffee beans.

The benefit of the knowledge contributed to the enjoyment of coffee as an experience. It was not seen as just a beverage anymore. Furthermore, people ́s knowledge about coffee began to chance including their coffee vocabulary. For instance, words like ‘espresso’, ‘latte’ and ‘french press’ became common among lovers of specialty coffee. In general, the second coffee wave is classified by the amount of big coffee chains, such as Starbucks, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Costa or Dutch Bros. Second wave entrepreneurs began to follow the Starbucks model and created places for enjoying coffee. The emphasis has changed, it was more about the social experience of drinking coffee rather than the process of producing coffee, stated entrepreneur, coffee specialist and English author James Hoffmann.

Since the early 2000s, the latest coffee wave, the third wave, has commenced. Main characteristics of the third coffee wave are increasing coffee quality, more direct trade, a greater emphasis on sustainability, lighter roast profiles and innovative brew methods. The third coffee wave is all about making the consumer feel special. The 2016 champion of the world brewers cup Tetsu Kasuya once said ‘Thanks to direct trade, we baristas and roasters can tell consumer the stories behind the coffee beans’ — this statement highlights both the importance of the relationship between the barista and the consumer and the desire and interest in coffee education. Part of that is customer service, but another part is sharing the story behind the cup. This story is one created by producers, importers, roasters, and baristas. It explains why a coffee is distinctive, why a consumer can taste certain notes, and why high-quality coffee takes so much work.

This consumer education is also enabled by greater channels of communication between production and consumption, including direct trade and social media. The majority of roasters and coffee shops associated with third wave are small businesses, independently owned and operated. Roasters and coffee shops who roast beans in-house, represent entrepreneurs who love great coffee and have created a business to share that coffee with their communities. It is a special coffee house scene where the customers not only taste, but also see the dedication to speciality goods and it reflects in the coffee entrepreneur´s knowledge as well. It is about taking the customer along on that journey, show them where the coffee comes from and what quality standards are assured. Offering an all-round coffee experience has become a lifestyle. So concluding, the third wave of coffee emphasises on two key terms: appreciation and quality.

Kahalia Café, London — UK © cammycoffeespots

So now, this exciting journey of the coffee field development triggers the question if there are some hints yet of perhaps reaching the next level of a coffee wave? Are we approaching coffee wave number 4 already?

This question is a tricky one. Not only as the third wave is currently experiencing its highest level and the coffee business is running on a high-quality scale like never before, it is very unpredictable what the future holds. You know, it obviously depends on environmental conditions to a high extend which are very dependent on the climate and the changes that come along. For example, you can hardly tell if the environmental conditions will be good enough in the coffee production countries such as Columbia, India, Brasil and Vietnam (to name a few), like in terms of the ground and the plants. Will it be very dry? Will the coffee plants be as robust as they are now when it comes to Robusta coffee? Also, nearly every few years there happen brilliant tech inventions and many of them are having quite an impact on the coffee industry. Like coffee machines.

So yeah, those points worth keeping in mind aside, there are some predictions coming from a few voices how a fourth wave of coffee could look or be like…

Seattle roaster, award-winning barista, and coffee pioneer Dismas Smith for instance adds, ‘Fourth wave could be seen as an understanding of coffee’s scientific aspects. We would talk more in depth about precise knowledge of soil, coffee plants, coffee beans…

Whereas Callum Sharp, a London based writer and musician adds that the mass speculation is that coffee will step away from the bright lights of barista competitions and rosettas and focus instead on people. Fourth wave coffee is bringing producers into the limelight.

Moreover, Paul Schlader, co-owner of Birch Coffee based in NYC adds, ‘What I’m seeing now and the conversations that I’m apart of is climate change and how it’s impacting farmers. We need to be hyper-focused and we need to collectively understand its impact — how it’s impacting growing and what it means for our resources and long-term purchasing. In order for us to exist, we need to look at different strains of coffee that are resistant to climate change.’

So as we can see, there are quite a few points to consider when thinking of a further creation of the coffee field evolution. It is definitely a process that depends on both our planet and the people. It is a challenge though yet an exciting opportunity to focus on positive, sustainable and important changes which work for humans and nature on the long run. It is a community.

Carmen Lenz

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writer. passionate about coffee, music & travels.