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Waves of Coffee Explained: How to Understand the First, Second, and Third Waves of Coffee?

Waves of Coffee Explained: How to Understand the First, Second, and Third Waves of Coffee

Waves of Coffee Explained

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How to Understand the Coffee Waves 

Looking back at the past 100 years, we can differentiate three distinct periods (waves) of coffee production and consumption.

The First Wave of coffee production and consumption (1930s–1960s) was led by mass-market brands like Folgers and Maxwell House. These brands introduced coffee to a wider audience and helped make it a staple in American households.

The Second Wave (60s–90s) was driven by coffee brands like Starbucks and Peet’s, who made a commodity out of coffee, setting off the concept of coffee-to-go. These brands introduced high-quality coffee to the market and helped to create a more sophisticated coffee culture.

The Third Wave is led by small-batch roasters and independent coffee shops. They focus on coffee quality and sustainability, helping to create a more sustainable and ethical coffee industry.



What Is A ‘Wave Of Coffee’?

The coffee industry undergoes waves, characterized by significant changes and innovations influenced by global cultural trends. Trish Rothgeb coined the term “waves” in 2002, which refers to three coffee movements defined by the Roasters Guild. These waves disrupt norms and alter consumption and attitudes, resulting in permanent changes in the industry.

First Wave Coffee

In the 1800s, coffee became a commodity, and consumption became more regular. The first coffee entrepreneurs emerged, making, selling, and buying coffee at a rate to keep up with demand. At this point, taste was the most important aspect of coffee, with convenience being the main aim. Big names like Maxwell House, Folgers, and Nescafé emerged, but they still lack a strong focus on quality or sourcing transparency. Innovations in the 1800s included instant coffee, vacuum packaging, artificial flavoring, and dark-roasted beans. Nescafé, for example, still lacks a strong focus on quality and sourcing transparency.

Second Wave Coffee

In the 1970s, people began to experiment with coffee, exploring its origins, taste, and catering to preferences. Starbucks and Costa Coffee emerged in 1971, making specialty coffee more accessible and affordable for consumers. This led to a luxurious attitude towards coffee, with sales of beers and spirits declining in the US. Coffee-based drinks like Frappuccinos made coffee more accessible to everyone, even those not fond of the original taste. The emphasis on flavoring drinks appealed to those who didn’t like the original taste, making coffee more accessible to both consumers and original fans.

Third Wave Coffee

The Third Wave of specialty coffee emerged in the 1980s, focusing on quality, unique tastes, and professionalism in the craft. This led to roasters experimenting with lighter roasting levels and introducing exotic flavors. The Specialty Coffee Association of America was founded in 1982, providing a platform for this new style of roasting and brewing. Coffee from Scandinavia and Australia also contributed to the development of coffee drinks like the Flat White.

Flavor notes, traceability, and origin transparency are crucial for consumers, as they want to know where the beans come from, how they were grown, and by whom. Professionals, known as baristas, now have a more involved role in the crafting of coffee drinks, learning about the beans they serve and how to extract the best flavor from them. Sustainability has become a significant issue in the Third Wave, with fair-trade coffee being a notable example. Roasters now build relationships with global growers and provide coffee on a local or personal scale. Other trends include latte art, single-origin beans, freshness, home grinding, and takeaway coffee.

How to Make Third Wave Coffee

Instant coffee and the basic espresso, or coffee with a splash of milk, are purely First Wave, or Second Wave in a pinch.

But getting the Third Wave experience is easy to recreate at home as well as in cafes. Step away from the supermarket coffee aisle…

  • Sourcing: Look at companies such as Rave, Origin Coffee, Union Roasted, and Pact, which use single-origin beans and are completely transparent about where they are from and how the farmers are paid.

  • Method: milk frothers, machines that give you the perfect crema, coffee bean grinders… Think of what those professional baristas use. There are plenty of home versions out there.

  • Freshness The later you grind the beans, the fresher they will be. The same applies to roasting, but if you buy them pre-roasted, the best companies will include Best Before and roasting dates. Store them in dedicated coffee containers.

Fourth wave coffee

The Third Wave coffee wave may be heading towards a fourth wave, with some commentators suggesting it may lack inclusivity, women in management positions, people of color, and accessibility to local communities. The financial boom in coffee raises questions about the future of independent roasters like Blue Bottle. Trends like coffee pods, subscription boxes, and homebrewing have also emerged, suggesting a more split relationship with coffee. The Fourth Wave may make significant changes beyond the taste and smell of the cup.

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