The fourth wave: What’s next for the coffee industry?

Everything in life is cyclical. And everything comes in stages. Whether it’s evolution, a person’s career or a business’s development. There’s a beginning, there’s an end, and between it all, there are a variety of notable stages.

In the coffee industry, those stages are called ‘waves’. The term, coined by coffee historian Timothy Castle, came about to describe the cultural growth of craft coffee in North America, which took off in the early 1900s.

But what are these waves?

The first wave

First wave coffee describes the mass adoption of coffee in the American household. It’s mass-marketed instant coffee for the home. It was a time before beans from Buf Umurage, Rwanda. A time, even, before any external influence. Coffee was, by and large, a truly American thing to drink. It was your ‘cup of joe’ in the diner, your ‘two sugars, two creams’, no fanciness on the side.

The second wave

The 60’s saw new and interesting brands branching out into coffee. Pre-Starbucks, coffee was a home drink. The concept of ‘going out for a coffee’ wasn’t invented. I assume the American population lacked disposable income up until this time. Being social and paying for it ‘on the fly’ wasn’t a done thing. Special events were the only time to spend.

But, second wave coffee defines the rise in cafe culture, and with it, external influence. Italian coffee made it’s way onto the beaches of the U.S. and people took to ‘exotic’ flavours and chats with friends rather quickly.

It was coffee by day, alcohol by night.

The third wave

This is the wave of coffee you and I live in today. It’s artisanal, ‘craft’, local, hipster. Generally speaking, it’s a luxury (especially if you’re ordering a rare Guatemalan bean and brewing it using a V60 from a London coffee shop. Seriously, you’re looking at paying up to £6 a cup…).

Third wave coffee is fun. It’s developmental and progressive. We’ve understanding the needs of producers. We’re building actual relationships and we’re working towards locally sourced speciality goods, while the rest of the world tries to mass-produce as much as it can.

But, what’s in store for the fourth wave of coffee?

Rumour has it, we’re slowing entering into fourth wave coffee. But nobody knows what’s to come for the industry. Perhaps we’ll see more commercialisation. (If you live in London, you’ll have just read the news that local coffee shop TAP has been brought out by The Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. Not good.)

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.

We’re seeing this in major players in the coffee industry. JJ Bean Coffee from Vancouver heavily promotes and showcases its farmers, and baristas even make their way to South America once a year to help build schools and provide tools for farmers to help improve their lives.

We’re a global community now. Fourth wave coffee works to showcase this.

Like whiskey and wine, then, coffee has more than one cog that makes it work. The aim: to share this knowledge. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the years to come, we’re holidaying in Colombia and staying on coffee farms, engrossing ourselves in blind cupping sessions, sampling new flavours and making notes in our journals.

Instead of wineries in Southern France, instead of whiskey distilleries in the highlands, we’ll be going to more exotic places on all-inclusive coffee retreats. Farms will have luxury accommodation attached to them and a gift shop or two.

You’ll return from your trip and sit down in a London coffee shop and tell your friend ‘you know, I sampled this coffee on my recent trip. It’s a brilliant Brazilian coffee from Carmo Estate…’.

Our biggest barrier? Political and financial instability in producing countries. But perhaps with the right investment, we can work to solve this inequality and help an industry that’s putting a focus on localisation and people, not commercialisation.


Thanks for reading. Callum Sharp is a London-based writer and musician. He writes about the craft of writing, self-development and coffee, and often publishes short stories and poetry. For more, visit his website — www.callumsharp.co.uk.