The evolution of coffee culture is usually organized in the first, second, and third coffee waves. All of these developments have affected the way we enjoy today’s cup of joe. But what do these coffee waves actually mean?
The coffee waves refer to defining changes in coffee culture over the years. The first wave is characterized by mass-produced coffee, while the second wave saw a shift from quantity to quality. The third wave gave rise to specialty coffee and the push for fair trade.
To give you a better understanding of the history of coffee, we will take a closer look at the defining movements that characterize each wave, as well as the differences in the quality of coffee that they produced.
1st wave of coffee
The 1800s saw a rise in the demand for coffee when people discovered the effects of caffeine. Every household had coffee, and business establishments demanded larger supplies.
The market boomed. However, contrary to today’s coffee-loving culture, coffee was consumed solely for the benefits of caffeine, not for enjoyment.
In other words, people only drank it to keep awake. And though it was consumed regularly, coffee was not viewed as a pleasant drink.
It was very bitter, salvaged only by adding several teaspoons of sugar. Little wonder that coffee drinkers at the time were mostly middle-aged adults who needed energy for a long day at work.
Quantity over quality
Due to the increase in demand, coffee companies started to mass-produce coffee.
And although coffee was becoming more and more popular as a household drink, the largest chunk of profit could be had by supplying business establishments, such as restaurants and diners.
These large-scale productions focused on meeting the demand, which was simply for more coffee. There was yet no push for better-quality beans or blends.
Producers did not disclose where their beans were sourced, and what reached consumers were blends of various unknown coffee origins.
Because of its focus on quantity, first-wave coffee is known to be low-quality. Consumers could only guess as to the practices involved in the growing, processing, and producing of the beans from the coffee plant to coffee bag.
Innovations in coffee production
While focusing on quantity definitely sacrificed the quality of the coffee produced during the first wave, it was thanks to large-scale productions during this period that we now know about proper handling and packaging of coffee beans to keep them fresh.
It was during this time that vacuum packaging, a method of packing that removed air from the container to preserve food, was discovered.
It has been proven to be so effective, cheap, and convenient that food manufacturers still use this type of packaging to this day.
Because of this innovation, consumers no longer had to go straight to the roasters to get a bag of coffee. We tend to take this for granted today because of how easy it is now to access coffee and prepare it at home.
The advent of instant coffee
The exponential rise in the number of coffee drinkers also led to the invention of another important coffee item: instant coffee.
When now-coffee giant Nescafé came into the picture, it was the first to market instant coffee, completely changing the way coffee was consumed.
Instant coffee was quick and easy. You did not have to spend half an hour or more on brewing, and you didn’t need brewing equipment. You simply dissolved the coffee powder in hot water, and voila! Coffee is served.
But while it was Nescafé that brought global attention to instant coffee, they were actually not the ones that invented it.
A Japanese-American by the name of Satori Kato invented instant coffee and patented the technology that is still being used today.
Moreover, this revolutionary invention made coffee even more accessible to the ordinary consumer—a shift that has endured for generations.
Characteristics of first wave coffee
During the first wave, coffee was either instant or vacuum-packed. The beans are usually a blend of several different coffee origins, pre-roasted and pre-ground.
It is typically very dark and bitter, but often flat and lacking the robust, full-bodied flavor of single-origin or specialty coffee.
Perhaps the easiest giveaway that a bag of beans is first-wave coffee is that you can buy it at your local supermarket. It is very accessible and focuses on convenience instead of the whole coffee experience.
All in all, first-wave coffee would taste bitter and nothing else, which is something coffee enthusiasts might frown at.
First wave coffee is usually artificially flavored and provides no information about the actual processes involved in growing, harvesting, and roasting. You may also see vague labels like “premium” or “gourmet” on the packaging.
Today, people expect their coffee to have nuance, texture, varying flavor notes—we can go on and on.
But to be forgiving towards first wave coffee, it’s important to understand how it started, what culture it catered to, and what motivation pushed it forward.
After all, it came about due to necessity. And though it isn’t the coffee that discerning taste buds crave, it surely was the first step towards the coffee experience that we now know and love.
2nd wave of coffee
By the late 1800s, first-wave coffee began to decline, as more and more foodies and coffee connoisseurs expressed their distaste for flat coffee. Consumers began to develop finer tastes for not just coffee, but all food.
This caused another shift, but this time away from instant-everything.
People began to crave different flavor notes, aromas, and textures that you just can’t get with instant coffee. It started a curiosity about coffee beans, how they are grown and harvested, and what flavors you get to enjoy per coffee origin.
And while the conversation was indeed going, it was not until Starbucks appeared that the second wave actually happened. In 1971, Starbucks opened up shop in Pike Place Market, Seattle and completely changed the coffee scene.
The cafe culture
Aside from the clamor for better coffee, people also began to view coffee drinking as a social activity. It was enjoyed with friends at a coffee shop.
It changed from being a required drink in the morning to ensure you’re alert for your meeting to a whole new experience. Coffee drinking became something that you did just because you liked it.
And this is precisely what Starbucks brought to the table. Sure, there were coffee shops before Starbucks came around.
But none ushered the cafe culture in like Starbucks did. Their whole premise was to sell an experience. Coffee, yes. But primarily, the experience. And it stuck.
Their coffee shops were set up for people who liked to linger, chat, and even read while they drank their coffee.
Coffee drinking was no longer the thing that you rushed to get in the morning. It was something people did for leisure. People made time to lounge at coffee houses, even in the afternoons.
When Starbucks established cafe culture, more coffee shops began to sprout, spreading the coffee shop culture even farther.
As the cafe culture progressed, coffee shops began to develop a variety of coffee-based drinks that catered to the tastes of not only the working class that needed an energy jolt, but also the younger crowd, such as students and teenagers.
Experience versus coffee
While the second wave can be characterized by better-tasting coffee and a more informed consumer base, many people thought that there was more emphasis on creating and sustaining an experience around coffee rather than truly exploring coffee itself.
With the emergency of cafe culture, people felt more connected to their coffee, and most were satisfied with the quality of the coffee that they were served.
Baristas gained a certain stature in the coffee world as a sort of bridge between the consumer and the coffee beans themselves.
This is largely because baristas are trained not only to serve coffee and coffee-based drinks, but also about the coffee beans being used, where they come from, how they are grown, how they are processed, and so on.
Unfortunately, the average coffee lover is not really as knowledgeable about coffee as he thinks he is.
Most understand their drink primarily from the baristas they meet. The downside to this is that most baristas are not coffee experts and are there to add to the overall coffee shop experience.
While the second wave stirred a new and growing desire for better coffee, the focus was not on coffee itself but on the pleasantness of the experience of being in a coffee shop or buying a sweet coffee-based drink.
Serious coffee enthusiasts that crave a deeper understanding of coffee and who want to explore different coffee varieties, brewing techniques, and roasting methods, find the second coffee wave still lacking. Almost there, but not quite yet.
Characteristics of second wave coffee
Second wave coffee is typically dark roasted and bitter, although usually not as dark as the first wave.
It also is characterized by a wide variety of espresso-based drinks that come in different flavors, like a caramel macchiato or a mocha.
If you frequent your local coffee shop, chances are you are being served second-wave coffee.
And if you go to the supermarket and find coffee that’s pre-ground and pre-roasted but comes in a packaging that tells you about the origin of the beans, that’s second wave coffee as well.
3rd wave of coffee
The third coffee wave came about when a small community of coffee enthusiasts founded the Specialty Coffee Association in 1982.
But it was not until 1999 that the term “third wave of coffee” was coined in order to put a name to this new shift in the coffee movement.
The whole motivation behind this wave is to improve the quality of coffee and discover new flavors through new roasting and brewing methods.
It was during this period that people really began to appreciate the different characteristics that accompany the well-known bitterness of coffee beans.
It also gave rise to single-origin coffee that’s freshly roasted and sourced from smaller farms.
Today, this wave is more commonly referred to as specialty coffee—coffee that is sourced from select farms that meet rigid standards in both growing conditions and practices.
Hunger for better coffee
As the third coffee wave emerged, more consumers learned that there is so much more about the coffee beans that we truly understand.
There are hints in the flavors and details in the qualities of coffee that people have begun to appreciate and even expect in their coffee.
Serious coffee drinkers have begun to not only learn about the nuances in coffee, but even to roast, grind, and brew their own coffee beans at home.
More people have begun to pay attention to where their coffee beans come from and how growing conditions and practices affect the taste of their brew.
As compared to the second wave, where consumers enjoyed the experience of drinking coffee more than coffee itself, the third wave brought in a new passion for coffee that drove people to study and approach it more as a science and an art, rather than simply an enjoyable pastime.
Surprisingly, though, while people became more serious about their coffee, it did not diminish the fun in having a cup of joe but increased it instead.
Coffee has become a passion for more and more people. So much so that what started as a niche group has now grown into a global community.
Better coffee growing and trade practices
Another important aspect of the third wave is the pursuit of fair trade and fair working practices in coffee farms. This shift also pushed for sustainable farming methods that ensured the least environmental impact.
There is now a huge spotlight on the entire supply chain after decades of coffee farmers and farms being virtually unknown to consumers.
Characteristics of third wave coffee
When you buy a bag of specialty coffee, you can expect to be informed about the origin of the beans.
They are usually single-origin or single-estate beans with light roast profiles and roasted just before brewing. Flavor notes are also easier to distinguish in third-wave coffee.
Coffee has gone through many changes and developments over the years, and we’re all the better for it!
While many speculate about a fourth coffee wave, we’re pretty happy with where coffee is at the moment.
You can check out some great in-depth coffee brewing guides below if you’re interested in learning more about coffee brewing: