Since coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia more than 1000 years ago, the industry has experienced serious development and change. While the trends and innovations within the coffee industry are still progressing, there are three main periods - also known as coffee waves - that categorize this progress. Most of us have heard the term “third wave coffee” since this term is often used by specialty cafes and roasters, but what about the first two waves?
This article will explain the significance and the characteristics of each of the coffee waves: first, second, and third.
What Are Coffee Waves?
Coffee waves refer to the period of time in the coffee industry which is characterized by significant developments that have transformed it. Each wave is linked to big developments that changed the way we perceive coffee and influenced the direction of the coffee industry.
The first wave coffee is considered the most basic forms of coffee, which may be now considered as low quality. During this period, which started in the 1800s, businesses and brands did not focus on quality or transparency, and coffee was considered a commodity.
A major focus of the industry was convenience and the importance was placed on quantity rather than quality.
There was no real connection between the bag of beans as a product and the coffee cherry, where it comes from, and no real interest in sourcing better quality beans, or differentiating coffee origins. This is also the time when entrepreneurs first saw the potential in coffee’s exponential growth and the market became commodity-driven.
First wave coffee is often frowned upon for its inferior quality. However, the focus that was placed on the mass-production and the innovations that came with it established a solid ground for the development of the coffee industry as we know it today.
While there wasn’t much progress in the quality of the beans, there was massive progress in the innovation of processing, packaging, and marketing coffee. The main innovations of the first wave include vacuum packaging and instant coffee.
Vacuum packaging was a change that made coffee fresher and revolutionized the way coffee is packed even today.
The development of instant coffee goes hand-in-hand with the focus on the convenience of the 20th century, when the American market developed quick and easy products like single-serve or frozen meals.
During the first wave, the instant coffee giant Nescafe was also established, and almost one-third of imported coffee was processed into instant coffee.
What Characterizes First Wave Coffee?
When it comes to first wave coffee, imagine the kind you can find in the supermarket aisle. It is largely pre-ground with frequent generic “premium” or “gourmet” labels.
The first wave coffee has a dark, bitter taste and doesn’t differentiate between brewing methods or the origin of the beans.
The second wave of coffee was triggered by the rise of Starbucks, which first opened its doors in 1971.
Moving away from the focus on mass production, coffee started to be seen and sold as an experience, rather than just a beverage. It is during the second wave that terms such as espresso and latte were established together, along with innovative espresso-based drinks coined by Starbucks like the Frappuccino.
The focus on the coffee drinking experience encouraged customers to view the physical cafe as a place to relax, meet up, and enjoy better coffee. Coffee lovers experienced a variety of drinks, and there was more attention paid to quality as well as the origin of the beans. But the dominant focus is still not the coffee itself; rather, it is the experience around the coffee.
The second wave of coffee is recognized as the start of the coffee shop culture, revolutionized by Starbucks, which drove the change for the rest of the world.
What Characterizes Second Wave Coffee?
During the second wave, the industry started to recognize and focus the origins in which coffee derived. However, there was still more focus placed on the experience and the cafe culture rather than the coffee itself.
This market is dominated by primarily dark roasted coffee and a variety of espresso-based flavored drinks, offering a massive range of choices for customers.
The third wave of coffee evolved from a small community in the 1980s that was highly focused on the coffee beans themselves. In 1982, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) was founded, giving a platform to this new approach.
The third wave can be seen as a response to the second wave, where the coffee culture was established, and there was now a desire to improve the quality of the coffee itself. The small movement grew in the upcoming decades and was quickly spread to Australia, Canada, Scandinavia, and the rest of the world. Rather than just ensuring a great cafe experience, there was more attention paid to every part of the process, including growing, harvesting, processing, sourcing, and brewing of coffee.
There was a shift from dark roasted coffee towards lighter roasts and other more delicate flavors, characteristic of the bean and the specific single origin. The coffee consumer turned to be more sophisticated, passionate about the taste as well as the experience.
There was also more attention paid to sustainability, transparency about where coffee comes from, and micro roasting, as well as recognition of the importance of the brewing process, earning baristas the respect they deserve.
What Characterizes Third Wave Coffee?
During the third wave, there was a significant rise in single-origin coffee, and the beans were recognized for their unique flavors such as acidity, sweetness, and tasting notes.
The focus started shifting towards lighter roasts, freshly roasted beans, and manual brewing methods that uncover the nuanced flavor profile. Latte art was developed in the industry too and started being a common practice, with regular industry shows, awards, events, and brewing competitions.
The fourth wave of coffee is a controversial notion within the coffee industry. Some believe that the fourth wave of coffee started with the transformation of the approach to coffee from art to science.
The development started around 2010, in which there was closer science-like attention observation of roasting, extraction, origins, and varietals.
In regards to coffee brewing, many started studying the properties of coffee, including accurate measurements, chemical processes, optimizing water quality, and the involvement of CO2.
On the other hand, some coffee experts claim that these changes are not that significant to establish a whole new coffee wave and don’t transform the industry as much as the previous three waves.
Whether there is a fourth wave of coffee or not, the number of enthusiastic coffee drinkers drive innovation and development of the coffee industry like never before. Cheers to that!