Waves of Coffee

1st Wave: The Consumer

  • when: early 1900s
  • what: vacuum sealing, instant coffee, bulk coffee
  • you see: Folgers, Maxwell House, Mr. Coffee
  • you order: "a coffee"

The first wave is usually understood to refer to the first great surge in coffee culture that overtook America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many supermarket staples, like Chock Full O’ Nuts, Maxwell House, and Sanka are directly rooted in the first wave; it’s coffee that’s meant to be produced, and consumed, in bulk. [HiLine Coffee]

“The first wave is basically your average cuppa joe—no particular roast or flavor profile, nothing special or interesting or cool,” says Nick Moers of Devoción Coffee in Brooklyn, New York. “We didn’t think about where our coffee came from or who we were buying it from.” Big brands like Folgers and Maxwell House made instant coffee extremely convenient for purchase by mass production. As time went on, coffee drinks like espresso and the latte were gaining in popularity, and people wanted to know about coffee’s origin and different roast styles. [Michelin]

2nd Wave: The Experience
The second wave, which started in the late ’60’s, was spearheaded by Peet’s and Starbucks. Companies, and consumers, started to pay attention to sourcing, roasting, and brewing methods, and espresso-based coffees came to the fore. People who previously didn’t give much thought to their coffee beyond the fact that they liked it hot, thanks (and whether they wanted one lump or two) suddenly wanted to know whether their coffee came from Kona or Kenya. [HiLine Coffee]

  • when: 1960s
  • what: espresso-based drinks, sourcing (e.g. single-origin), roasting and brewing
  • you see: Starbucks, Peet's, Caribou Coffee
  • you order: a double-shot latte, French Roast

"Then, a major transition happened in the 1970s with the birth of Starbucks, a key player of wave two. “They knew the American population drank coffee, and then figured out how to capitalize on it,” adds Moers. Knowing how to market, Starbucks grew rapidly, opening over 3,000 locations by 2000. And the smaller guys offer them many thanks." 'Without them, we don’t exist as an industry,' says Paul Schlader, co-owner of NYC-based Birch Coffee." [Michelin]

3rd Wave: The Coffee

  • when: 2003, by Trish Skeie (now Rothgeb)
  • what: attention to local sourcing (e.g. farm, microlots)
  • you order: roasting (e.g. shorter roasting times to avoid "burnt" Starbucks flavor)
  • you see: Blue Bottle (Oakland), Stumptown (Portland), Intelligentsia (Chicago), Counter Culture (North Carolina), 1000 Faces (Athens)
  • you order: single-origin, micro-lot, fair-trade shade-grown pour-over

The third wave takes this a step further; sourcing is often very consciously local (the farm, rather than country or region, of origin is important), greater attention is paid to roasting (rather than the “burnt” taste that plagues Starbucks, third-wave coffee uses shorter roasting times to preserve and enhance flavor). Freshness is paramount, and the brewing processes range from slow and patient to positively arcane. [HiLine Coffee]

Third Wave references the current movement within specialty coffee that appreciates coffee as an artisan or craft beverage. Coffee, in all of its processes, from the origin of the harvested bean to the roasting and brewing process, is treated with the same reverence as fine wine and craft beer. [Craft Beverage Jobs]

To Sorenson, his zeal (he comes from a Pentecostal family) is what made Stumptown what it is. "We started Stumptown with the idea of getting to the source," he says. "That was the concept, and that excitement is what we wanted to bring to our customers." Every Stumptown bag has a card in it that describes the elevation, location, varietal and tasting notes of the beans it contains. Then you turn it over and there's a profile of the area as well as technical information ("In addition to improved cherry selection and a return to double fermentation, à la the Kenyan style, we've now installed a pre-drying stage ..."). Yes, this is coffee for coffee geeks, but the same could have been said about cheese and wine and meat 20 years ago. And you can have a Stumptown or like-minded artisanal coffee for $2, way less than a Venti Mocha Latte. (Stumptown also offers espresso drinks such as cappuccinos, macchiatos, etc.) Which brings us back to Starbucks. [Time]

[Stumptown founder Duane] Sorenson, despite being famous for his dismissal of coffee infidels, takes a more diplomatic tack: "Starbucks laid the path. They made people aware. They offered better coffee in their time than was out there. But now there's far more specialty coffee out there today, and there will be even more so five years from now that will give the consumer—Midwest, West Coast, East Coast, wherever—a lot more options than Starbucks." [Time]

Other small but mighty independent coffee companies like Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Counter Culture—whom Moers believes to be the forerunners of the third wave—started taking shape. “They have amazing products, focusing on the producers and then expanding further to the bean itself,” notes Moers. It’s this type of knowledge that gives baristas like Moers a great passion for their industry. At Devoción, Moers has a deep understanding of where his beans are sourced throughout Colombia, the only country from which the company sources. [Michelin]

Sustainability is a huge pinnacle that has brought us to the elusive fourth wave the industry is currently riding. “What I’m seeing now and the conversations that I’m apart of is climate change and how it’s impacting farmers. We need to be hyper-focused and we need to collectively understand its impact—how it’s impacting growing and what it means for our resources and long-term purchasing. In order for us to exist, we need to look at different strains of coffee that are resistant to climate change. A lot research on this is going on right now, but these things take years and years of work to build studies on. This needs to be a part of the conversation. As an industry, this is what we need to be focused on.” [Michelin]

Fourth/New Wave: The ???

  • when: 2017
  • what: ???
  • what you hear:
  • you order: Artisanal coffee in a bottle

[Trish Rothgeb, who coined the term 'Third Wave' and waves describing the history of coffee in general] begins [her Tamper Tantrum] talk by congratulating the audience on ‘completing the third wave’, but also highlights how it has become a bit of confusing term as some people think they’re stilling going through the third wave, while others feel it has been done for years. I’ll return to this point a little later. [Cafe Spaces]


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