Coffee Waves: Everything You Need To Know About The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, And 4th Wave

Coffee Waves: Everything You Need To Know About The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, And 4th Wave

What is a coffee wave?

A coffee wave is a time period defined by cultural preferences around coffee consumption. Each succeeding wave appears as a response to the previous wave, caused by some degree of dissatisfaction and external factors that affect culture, such as wars and pandemics. 

New trends in coffee making, consumption, and production directly affect how coffee is viewed, enjoyed, and thought about in society. A new wave of coffee indicates a wide adoption of new coffee practices, preferences, and styles. 

Why are there waves of coffee?

Coffee evolution is explained in waves because coffee trends ebb and flow like waves over time. Coffee waves are a reflection of what is important in society at the time of their existence and will change as culture and society’s preferences and needs change.

For example, the first coffee wave was focused on mass coffee production regardless of quality to ensure readily available coffee with sheer convenience. With the westward expansion of the colonies in the 1800s, wartime, and later the American industrial revolution, quick and convenient access to caffeine was more important than savoring a delicious cup of coffee. With it, inventions like instant coffee became popular, and the focus in coffee production was on quantity, not quality. 

What does a new coffee wave mean?

A new wave of coffee signals a changing sentiment toward the current way of producing and consuming coffee. Changes in society, whether they be in values, preferences, or technology, typically push a new wave. As society becomes more conscious of sustainability, quality, and ethical sourcing, the coffee industry adapts to meet these demands. 

Just because a new wave of coffee is upon us does not mean that previous waves have disappeared. For example, flavored coffees (think Starbucks drinks) gained popularity during the second coffee wave but are as popular as ever, as can be seen in the stock price and company worth of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. That does not mean that tastes aren’t shifting. I can, for example, attest that while I cherish my selection of single-origin beans from small farmers and will geek out about them with the right crowd, I still love to get a hot tall oat milk latte with honey blend on any given day for that warm comfort. This is also true for all you year-round iced coffee drinkers. A new wave of coffee may also bring new brewing methods, flavors, and experiences that reflect the changing tastes and preferences of consumers. Ultimately, the evolution of coffee waves shows how coffee is more than just a beverage, but a reflection of society and culture.

What are the waves of coffee?

The first coffee wave occurred in the 1800s and was defined by readily available, bulk-production coffee. The second wave shifted from quantity to quality home consumption in the mid-1960s. The third wave is an elaboration of the second wave, focusing on origin-driven specialty coffee but bringing the experience out of the home and into the coffee shop.

With the emergence of each wave, the coffee industry has adapted to meet the demands of consumers and create new experiences for coffee lovers. The first wave brought about the mass production and consumption of coffee, while the second wave introduced the concept of specialty coffee and the importance of brewing methods. The third wave took things a step further, emphasizing the origin of the beans and the skill of the barista in creating a unique and personalized coffee experience. As we move forward, it will be interesting to see how the coffee industry continues to evolve and adapt to changing consumer preferences and societal trends.

What is the first coffee wave?

The first coffee wave was born out of necessity and is defined by convenience and accessibility to coffee, with little emphasis on quality. Innovation in packaging and bulk production, coupled with a need for fast caffeine at a low cost, created large coffee houses such as Folgers and Maxwell House—icons of the first wave.

Coffee plants reached the Americas as early as the 18th century but did not become popular until the Boston Tea Party in 1773. As coffee consumption almost became a patriotic duty, the colonies needed more coffee, fast. Fortunately, coffee demand had picked up in Europe as well, infusing South America with cash to expand coffee-growing operations. This greatly benefited the colonies, as importing coffee from South America was drastically cheaper than importing from Europe or Asia. South America became the top choice for sourcing America’s coffee. 

Demand in the United States skyrocketed with conflicts such as the Civil War, where soldiers consumed coffee for its alertness- and energy-boosting qualities. Up until this point, coffee was transported green (unroasted) and roasted over open fires, resulting in inconsistent and often burned coffee. In 1864, the Arbuckles brothers founded Arbuckle’s Ariosa Coffee (still available today) after buying the first self-emptying coffee roaster. It was a game-changer. They conquered the Midwest market and sold their coffee to ranchers and cowboys. 

With access to affordable, reliable coffee from South America, coffee companies began to sprout up. Some of the most notable ones are Folgers, founded in 1850, and Maxwell House, founded in 1892. By the 20th century, coffee had gone mainstream. Every household was drinking coffee, and instant coffee arrived in the United States just in time for the American Industrial Revolution, when readily available coffee that simply needed to provide caffeine and be convenient was more important than its taste. This trend continued until shortly after World War II, when the view of coffee changed.

What is the second coffee wave?

The second coffee wave was a response to the cheap, low-quality coffee of the first wave. In the late 20th century, with an economic boom, the push for better coffee led to the establishment of large coffee companies such as Peet’s and Starbucks and the higher quality, premium coffees known today. 

In the 1960s, after the end of World War II, life in the United States changed, and with it, people’s coffee-drinking habits. The post-war era brought on an economic boom not seen before in the United States. With a strong economy and unparalleled prosperity, life became more about enjoying the finer things in life, and coffee consumption shifted to more expensive specialty coffee. 

The rise of second-wave coffee is often attributed to Starbucks, Caribou, etc., but Peet’s Coffee, founded in 1966, was the first indicator that a new wave of coffee was brewing. By the 1980s, the second wave was fully underway, with companies like Starbucks recording record profits and specialty coffees such as cappuccinos and lattes becoming more popular than ever. With this shift in quality, we saw coffee labeled with the location of origin for the first time. 

What is the third coffee wave?

Third-wave coffee signaled the transition from the second wave’s large coffee companies to a bloom of individual, local, boutique coffee shops whose sole focus is what’s in the cup, emphasizing quality over anything. 

Trish Rothgeb, the CEO of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco and a licensed Q-grader of coffee and roastmaster, coined the term "third-wave coffee" in 2002. She explained third-wave coffee as 

“a way to bring consumers into our world and help them engage with us...”

And indeed, the 2000s brought any average coffee drinker with a slight knack for curiosity into the coffee world. In 2000, the World Barista Championships were hosted for the first time, indicating a move toward worldwide shifts in coffee trends. The barista championships were dominated by Scandinavian baristas in the early years but quickly gained traction in the United States and Europe. 

The spark toward quality lit a fire, and local coffee shops run by passionate people began focusing on the quality in the cup over anything else, sharing passionate stories about the origins and brewing techniques for each blend and single-origin roast in their portfolio. 

Many people fell in love with the purity of coffee as well as its nuances and began brewing their own specialty roasts. Brewers such as Chemex became well-known, and any coffee drinker who was diving into this world of coffees-of-place had one. Hario brewers were born in 2012 out of this coffee wave and have become a popular pour-over alternative. 

As exciting as this coffee wave is for our industry, it does have its drawbacks. Most notably, with the rising cost of these coffees, between the cost of small production from fair-trade farmers, rising export and shipping costs, real estate prices affecting operating costs of cafes, and increases in labor costs, the experience in these coffee shops today is not the same as it was in the early 2000s. 

As a result, these coffee shops had to adjust and are now commonly found in premium neighborhoods, servicing typically white, well-off families in America and disproportionately alienating minorities and low-income households. 

What is the fourth coffee wave?

The fourth wave of coffee is currently underway and is expected to unite all coffee drinkers and coffee growers by breaking down accessibility barriers created during the third wave’s quality-at-any-cost approach and enabling everyone to enjoy premium coffee.

Is the fourth wave of coffee upon us? In an article in the LA Times from 2019, Trish Rothgeb said that the fourth wave of coffee 

“is about community and not what is in the cup. It is about intentionally creating community around coffee for those who were left behind in the third wave.” 

I was curious to learn more about the direction we are heading in the coffee industry since the release of that article. I reached out to Trish to get more insight, and she was kind enough to take some time and share her impressions of what is to come for our industry.

“I see specialty [coffee] moving in both directions—upmarket and ‘down’ market to capture more and different coffee lovers!” Trish told me. 

The barriers created during the third wave are actively being torn down in the fourth wave, with an intentional focus on creating accessible coffee shops that prioritize the community, first and foremost. From engaging community leaders to changing who cafes staff their company with, to sourcing coffee from marginalized communities from across the world, every step of the coffee production process is getting a hard look and is getting turned upside down to make coffee more inclusive and accessible to everyone, for the benefit of everyone, and I cannot wait to see where it takes us!​


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About the Author

Justin Kramp is a coffee fantatic and the owner and founder of Final Grind Coffee Co. He loves drinking single-origin specialty-grade coffee from around the world while researching interesting topics in the coffee world to share with his readers like you.

He founded Final Grind Coffee Co. in college in a quest for better coffee in a more convenient way.

To learn more about Justin and Final Grind Coffee Co., click here!