In 2003, Trish Rothgeb, a coffee roaster, used the term “third wave” to describe changes she’d witnessed in coffee consumption and philosophies in Scandinavia.
Media outlets and coffee brands latched on to the terminology and have used it consistently to describe significant changes in coffee consumption, consumer habits, and industry developments.
Today, we’re on the verge of a fourth coffee wave.
Coffee’s fourth wave focuses on science, including chemistry and innovations in brewing technology. Sustainability plays a big role, with consumers wondering where their coffee comes from and the science behind its production. Cold brew and ready-to-drink coffees are also becoming industry staples.
From the origin of coffee culture to trendy chains to artisan coffee — and now, scientific coffee?
This article dives into the different coffee waves, what they were like, and what the fourth wave could bring.
I’ll also discuss how you can participate in this fourth wave and get the most out of your coffee experience.
What are “coffee waves”?
Before diving into the fourth wave of coffee, let’s first discuss what “coffee waves” are and give a brief overview of the first, second, and third waves.
Tip: For an in-depth guide on the first, second, and third waves of coffee, you can check out this complete article!
The world’s first cup of joe was probably extremely intense and bitter — but caffeine’s mind-stimulating effect was a welcomed one, so people dealt with it (interestingly, today, we love coffee for its bitterness).
Coffee has changed quite a bit since the first hot, bitter cup.
Coffee waves are the changes that happen within the coffee industry. Each wave brings new and exciting innovations and consumer attitudes and expectations. Prior waves influence every subsequent shift. Most coffee-drinkers agree that each shift brings better coffee.
Now that you know what coffee waves are, let’s take a look at the first three coffee waves.
The 1st coffee wave: Beginning of commercialized coffee
In 1650, the Ottomans introduced coffee to Europe, initiating the first wave of coffee. From there, the love of this caffeinated beverage spread like wildfire.
Coffee shops later started popping up in cities around the world, thanks to coffee’s ability to stimulate the mind and body. It quickly became a widely-consumed beverage, and a coffee-drinking culture was born.
As the first wave spanned on, coffee became a hot commodity. It had massive potential as a pre-made product, and coffee brands capitalized on the substantial demand. Eventually, coffee established itself as a staple of North American culture.
The 2nd coffee wave: Baristas, chains, and coffee houses
Coffee chains and baristas began taking the world by storm during the second wave of coffee. The rise of mainstream coffee shops took off in the United States.
The increased popularity of coffee led to people recognizing the difference between different coffees and developing preferences for certain kinds.
The café experience became a mainstay in America, and people began scheduling “coffee dates” with friends and family. As a result, the industry saw an increased demand for more coffee houses, roasts, and blends.
Coffee had officially become an experience — not just a beverage. Emphasis moved toward the creativity of the drink, the “vibe” of the café, and the knowledge of the barista.
It was no longer academics who consumed coffee in the library on Sunday mornings — the practice of sipping a cup of joe became trendy and more globalized.
Even fast-food restaurants attempted to capitalize on the shift. McDonald’s changed their entire aesthetic to align with the new demands of consumers and the popularity of coffee chains.
They even developed the McCafé line of drinks to compete with companies like Starbucks.
The third wave of coffee: Coffee connoisseurs
The third wave of coffee doubled down on the second wave, increasing demand and preference for different coffees, although with more of a focus on the finer details.
Consumers began to take a deeper interest in the specifics of the drink, including:
- Subtleties of flavors
- Coffee bean origins
- Different roast profiles
- Brewing techniques
Additionally, people wanted transparency. Where did the coffee come from? When was it roasted? What are the flavor notes?
The increased desire for knowledge about a cup of coffee likely came about due to the well-educated baristas in the second wave.
If a barista could tell a customer the origin of their coffee, how and when it was roasted, and what to expect flavor-wise, why shouldn’t they expect the same level of knowledge when purchasing store-bought coffee?
In essence, the third wave of coffee was all about coffee connoisseurs. There was a greater appreciation for the beverage — and the industry took notice. Making better coffee became the main centerpoint of this wave.
Companies began including additional information on their packaging, some even adding QR codes. These codes directed consumers to websites and videos providing detailed information about the brand and the specific product.
What is the fourth wave of coffee?
There’s some discussion in the industry about whether we’ve yet entered the fourth wave of coffee. Despite the debate, most people agree that even if we’re not in the fourth wave of coffee, we’re certainly on the cusp.
Of course, people still have coffee preferences, Starbucks is still a popular chain, and people still like detailed information about their coffee.
However, we’re starting to see an increased interest in social consciousness, sustainability, and the science behind this caffeinated drink.
Additionally, we’re seeing greater emphasis placed on whole bean and cold brew coffees.
Here are two aspects to look for during coffee’s fourth wave:
- Scientific Interest – There’s a shift in the development of coffee, including increased awareness of accurate brewing measurements, water chemistry, and innovations in brewing technology.
- Sustainability & Social Consciousness – Consumers have developed a longing for deeper information regarding the region, flavor profiles, and the science behind coffee production. They expect to see this information on packaging and expect companies to source sustainable ingredients.
With that said, some experts believe that the science of coffee and sustainability aren’t the biggest factors ushering in the fourth wave of coffee — instead, they think it’s cold brew.
According to Matthew Swenson, Coffee Director at Nestlé, cold brew is the defining factor of the fourth coffee wave.
The increased popularity of ready-to-drink and cold brew coffee available in convenience and retail outlets nearly everywhere has created a billion-dollar industry in less than a decade.
Participating in coffee’s fourth wave
As we merge into the fourth wave of coffee, people are wondering how they can participate in this next shift.
Below, I’ve come up with six ways that you can enjoy this new shift in the coffee industry:
- Research coffee. Learn more about brewing methods and innovations in brewing technology.
- Experiment. Use the scientific method to develop your own perfect-tasting coffee. Try different coffee-to-water ratios, different grinds, and various temperatures.
- Shop sustainably. Research coffee brands and find out where they source their ingredients.
- Encourage social consciousness. Support companies that offer direct reinvestment back to the farmers who grow and harvest the coffee beans.
- Learn about processing. Find out how coffee manufacturers produce the end product. How do they dry their beans? How do they create different flavor profiles?
- Enjoy a cold brew. In 2013, a “cold brew” was simply an “iced coffee”. Today, you can try all kinds of cold brew coffees, from single-origin, cold-steeped brews to nitrogen-infused cold coffee — and it doesn’t matter when or where you try it since cold coffee is viable all the time.
5th wave coffee?
Depending on who you ask, the fourth wave of coffee is defined either as “the science of coffee” or “cold brew revolution.”
And, even though we haven’t even gotten halfway through this fourth wave just yet, people are already starting to wonder what the fifth wave of coffee might look like.
Thompson Owen, co-owner of Sweet Maria’s, believes that the fifth wave of coffee is already underway — and it’s happening in many developing countries.
He explains that in eastern Africa, India, and some Latin American nations, farmers are starting to roast and sell coffee.
That’s right. Farmers who once dedicated their land to coffee beans primarily for export purposes are now financially benefiting from creating product.
Small cafés are popping up behind farms — with farmers not only sowing and harvesting their crops, but also acting as the roaster and barista! From an economic standpoint, farmers are beginning to fully capitalize on their crops.
Since each new coffee wave typically takes inspiration from the waves before it, it makes sense that the fifth wave would double down on the sustainability and social consciousness of the fourth.
This direct-farm connection could essentially be the next big thing in the coffee industry.
No matter what the fifth wave of coffee has up its sleeve, we’re sure it’s going to be just as tantalizing as the first four waves that preceded it.
Without the very first coffee wave, we’d never get the chance to experience highly-designed coffee houses, well-educated baristas, specialty coffees, and the joy of flavor subtleties.
As we begin moving forward to the fourth wave, we’re hoping to dive deeper into the science behind coffee and get the chance to try different types of cold brew and ready-to-drink coffee.
Even if we can’t agree on exactly what the fourth wave brings, we can at least agree that with each wave, coffee just keeps improving.