The Waves Of Coffee Explained

When reading up about your favourite coffee drinks, you may have noticed that certain concoctions are referred to in ‘waves’.

For example, the First Wave of coffee was when it was introduced, and is the basic drink. Third Wave coffee is what is now more commonly known as ‘speciality’ coffee, which has emerged in the last few decades and has taken coffee to another level.

What Is A ‘Wave Of Coffee’?

This essentially refers to a period of time within the coffee industry, where big changes and innovations have occurred.

Many global cultural trends have also emerged throughout the waves, from consumer drinking habits/attitudes and how the high street looks to the manufacturing and growing processes.

These changes are basically like mini Industrial Revolutions for the coffee industry, which has disrupted the norm but also made permanent changes and alterations to consumption and attitudes.

There have so far been three waves, and the term was coined by Trish Rothgeb back in 2002. In the Roasters Guild Publication, the three Coffee movements were defined as “waves”.

First Wave Coffee

This took place within the 1800s.

It is when coffee became a commodity and when consumption of coffee became a lot more regular and normal. People started to realise the benefits of the drink and bought it regularly.

The first coffee entrepreneurs emerged, who began making, selling and buying coffee at a rate to keep up with the demand. Coffee was basic, but this made it possible to be found in every household.

At this point, the caffeine kick was the most important aspect of coffee. Nobody really cared for taste, which essentially means everything was rather basic. Convenience was the aim – people didn’t care about where it had come from, and it felt more ‘factory’ than ‘farm’.

Some of the big names which emerged at this point were Maxwell House, Folgers, and Nescafé who, even now, have no strong focus on quality or sourcing transparency. 

Innovations in the 1800s include instant coffee, and vacuum packaging to keep things fresh as it was transported. Artificial flavouring was also big, and most beans were dark roasted and came pre-ground as there was little understanding (or concern) over the impact of freshness on taste.

Second Wave Coffee

This began in the 1970s, which means that it was quite a while before people started to experiment and go beyond the ‘norms’ of coffee.

People started to appreciate the drink more and wanted to go beyond just drinking it for the caffeine. Consumers became more interested in where the coffee came from, how best to drink it, and how to cater the taste to their preferences.

It was also an important time for social coffee drinking, with the likes of Starbucks and Costa Coffee emerging in 1971, in Seattle and London respectively. These cafes made speciality coffee more accessible for the consumers, too. They were able to purchase higher quality beans in bulk, which in turn meant the prices were slightly higher than ‘drink at home’ coffees but still affordable for people with money.

This gave for a luxurious attitude towards coffee. Sales of beers and spirits actually fell in the US, with people spending money in these more relaxed, daytime environments instead.

These chains also invented coffee-based drinks such as Frappuccinos, which made coffee more accessible to absolutely everyone, even if they weren’t keen on coffee. There was a heavy emphasis on flavoured drinks, to appeal to people who didn’t like the original taste.

Ordinary coffee was still fairly dark and bitter, which perhaps explains this. Consumers who wanted the social experience were happy, as were original fans who wanted the taste.

The Waves Of Coffee Guide

Third Wave Coffee

As coffee became more of a ‘norm’ drink, it left those sophisticated drinkers who were first on the scene a little behind.

So, the Third Wave began in the 1980s and is dedicated to speciality coffee which has emerged on the scene in the past two decades or so. Quality became hugely important – people wanted different tastes, and professionalism in the crafting too.

This means that roasters started experimenting with lighter roasting levels to bring out a bit more taste, and exotic flavours emerged. Sourcing also changed, with certain countries emerging as strong players in the coffee-growing world.

In 1982, the Specialty Coffee Association of America was founded, giving a platform to this new style of roasting and brewing. Coffee also emerged into the likes of Scandinavia and Australia, who brought new takes to the table. The latter is seen as being heavily influential in founding drinks such as the Flat White, for example.

We now want to look for flavour notes, such as Chocolate, Honey, Nutty, Fruity etc. There is an understanding that different beans have different profiles, and need specific attention to ensure these flavours emerge.

Traceability and origin transparency is also vital. Consumers want to know where the beans have come from, how they were grown and who by. They are also concerned about what is done with them when they arrive at the cafe or roastery, and things such as roasting and grind levels have become important.

Professionals who made the coffee drinks had been known as ‘baristas’ since the 1930s, but the term became more widely used in the 1990s, and they now have more of a role to play in the crafting of the coffee drink than previously. There is an element of knowledge there too; they learn about the beans they serve, and how best to get the flavour out of them, as opposed to just knowing how best to make the drinks as during the Second Wave.

More recently in the Third Wave, sustainability has also become a huge issue. Fair Trade Coffee came about during the struggles of Mexican coffee farmers when world coffee prices fell in 1988, and still exists today yet even more prominently.

The use of agricultural products and methods which could harm the consumer has been stopped, and the global effect of the process has been at the forefront too, with roasters building relationships with a few growers around the world, and then providing the coffee on a more local or personal scale.

Other trends which came with Third Wave coffee include latte art, Single Origin beans, and an emphasis on freshness and home grinding regarding the best flavour. Takeaway coffee has also become a huge industry in itself, as has manual slow brewing at home which is seen as the best way to maintain the flavours.

How To Make Third Wave Coffee

Instant coffee, and the basic espresso/coffee with a splash of milk, is purely First, or Second Wave at a pinch.

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

  • Sourcing – Look at companies such as Rave, Origin Coffee, Union Roasted and Pact, who use single-origin beans and are completely transparent in where they are from, and how the farmers are paid
  • Method – Milk frothers, machines which 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

How To Make Third Wave Coffee At Home

The Future Of Third Wave Coffee

Several commentators have suggested that the Third Wave may well be heading towards a Fourth.

Trish Rothgeb, who you will remember originally coined the Waves, has said that there are several things missing from Third Wave coffee, including us “being in it all together”. 

This includes women in management positions, people of colour in the industry, and coffee being accessible to everyone in terms of cost and the needs of the local communities where roasteries and cafes are based. This could include jobs, affordability and the changing look of the high street and economy.

Comments have also been made regarding the financial boom of coffee. Can names synonymous with Third Wave coffee, such as Blue Bottle, still be seen as independent roasters when interest from Wall Street investment firms and corporate investors is high? Where does that leave the smaller, high street cafes?

Trends such as coffee pods, coffee subscription boxes and people taking things into their own hands and using popcorn makers and roasting pans to roast beans at home have also been huge – is it fair to say that they haven’t been such big changes as to not deserve their own wave? 

We are going back to convenience in some ways, while others are spending their mornings crafting the perfect cup, which could suggest our relationship with coffee is more split than ever.

Rothgeb says “Third Wave isn’t dead but has just run its course”. If there is to be a Fourth Wave, it will make changes which go way beyond the taste and loom of what is in the cup.

The waves of coffee

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