The term coffee wave is commonly attributed to Trish Rothgeb, owner, green coffee buyer, and roastmaster of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, when she coined the term for an article in 2002. However, coffee waves have been rising and receding since the 1800s. Coffee waves are simply the trends that get picked up by coffee consumers and greatly influence the industry. Most coffee industry viewers would say that we are currently under the third wave, but new trends are being implemented every day and we may soon see a move into the fourth wave.
What are the Waves?
As with most long-lasting industries, the coffee industry responds to changes in technology and consumer preferences. The coffee waves represent significant evolutions in the coffee industry, in the same vein as the Industrial Revolution signifies the transition from hand production to machine-assisted manufacturing.The timeline generally agreed upon for the waves has been mid-1800s to 1970s for the first wave, 1970s to 2000 for the second wave, and from the end of the second wave until now for the third.
The first wave of coffee is characterized as the increased consumption and popularity of coffee in the mass market. Folgers and Maxwell House pushed that movement by producing cheap, ready-to-make coffee. The invention of vacuum packaging was another huge factor in making coffee a staple in American kitchens. Vacuum packaging is as much as it sounds: it sucks all of the air out of coffee tins (now bags) to keep the beans fresher for longer.
Along with practical packaging, Americans needed machines to make home coffee-brewing easier. The Mr. Coffee® brewing machine was introduced in the early 1970s. It was the first drip coffee machine readily available to coffee consumers and soon replaced percolators as the favored in-home brewing appliance. This coffee-making convenience led quickly to another, and instant coffee also gained in popularity among busy consumers.
The process for instant coffee originated in the early 1900s from the system used to dehydrate tea leaves. Since it didn’t require any brewing equipment, it was ideal for soldier rations. By the late 1930s, Nestlé became the primary supplier of instant coffee, known as Nescafé, especially marketing it to soldiers in WWII. The modern American loved the easy and quick service that instant coffee brought about. Nevertheless, by the 1970s, consumers complained that coffee abundance was hurting coffee quality. Enter: the second coffee wave.
As much as the first wave was about quick at-home brewing, the second wave was about creating a community of coffee consumers and improving the quality of coffee products. Beginning in the 1970s, coffee became more of an experience and conversation, rather than a quick boost to get through the day. This idea was implemented by the creation of more brick-and-mortar coffee shops to provide a sociable environment for coffee drinkers, most famously encapsulated by Starbucks.
Starbucks is one of the most prevalent coffee chains across the world. The stores sought to offer more unique coffee variations, to answer the question -- “Why not just stay at home and make my own coffee?” -- and a cozy atmosphere to encourage the consumer to stick around and learn more about their coffee. However, as specialized coffee became more available through large, corporate coffee shops like Starbucks, people started to care more and more about how that coffee tastes and where it came from. As a response, small, local coffee shops focused on custom roasts and sustainable growing practices have opened, leading to the third wave.
Starting around 2000, the tide once again changed, and coffee consumers desired not just a sociable environment, but transparency of the coffee industry. In the current wave, consumers want to know what regions the beans come from, how they are roasted, and how sustainable the farming practices are.
From this need for transparency came the designation of “fair trade coffee.” Fair trade coffee is the designation given companies that work almost directly with coffee farmers to promote better conditions for trading, more environmentally sustainable farming practices, and a prohibition of child labor. Included in environmental sustainability is the label “bird friendly.” Many birds’ habitats and migratory patterns have traditionally been disrupted by coffee farms; however, the trends of the third wave have encouraged growers to be conscious of their impact.
A new technology that emerged during the third wave: single serve coffee pods. Originally created by Keurig, these small, completely enclosed coffee pods have swept the coffee industry. However, even though this is a machine invented during the third wave, its purpose fits better into the first wave, and indeed, such pods and brewers are just a more sophisticated version of drip coffee makers. The prevelance of these K-cups® are also a hallmark of the first wave’s intent to make coffee convenient and widely-accessible to consumers in their homes. Therefore, as much as it is a recent invention, the personality of the Keurig and K-cups® make them belong to the first wave.
As consumers’ tastes become even more refined, what could be the future of coffee?
There is not a widely held consensus yet on what the fourth wave will entail or if we may already be in it. However, there have been some recent trends in the coffee world that do not completely fit the trends found in any of the previous waves. The most widely followed trend is an exploration of new brewing techniques, whether revitalizing old ones or adopting techniques from other countries.
First, a technique from another country: the French press, a small pitcher-like device, ideal for at-home brewing. This technique is not novel in the United States; however, coffee shops started serving coffee brewed in a French press relatively recently. A revitalized method is the vacuum or siphon coffee maker made of two vertically-stacked and connected chambers. In the top chamberare the coffee grounds, and water is in the lower. As the water in the bottom is heated, the water is pushed between the two chambers, brewing the beans. This has become a common (and impressive looking) brewing process; there is even a coffee shop in Houston that specializes in this brewing technique.
“Nitro coffee” is a new brewing technique. This cold brewed coffee is combined with nitrogen and pulled into a pressurized tap, very similar to a beer tap in a bar. In fact, the coffee is poured out bubbly and is served in a tall glass, making it look almost exactly like a pint of beer. Along those lines, new technology may be a large factor in the new fourth wave in general, not just in brewing techniques.
Designer hand-made espresso machines are a recent advancement in luxury coffee making. These computerized espresso machines come in various finishes and designs, making them both attractive and technologically sophisticated. In response to customers’ focus on flavor, the machine allows the barista to program specific water pressures and pouring times, even in mid-shot.
Not only is the espresso shot itself getting more sophisticated, but the latte art on top of the beverage is getting an upgrade through 3D printing. 3D printing has been aggressively evolving in recent years, going from making small trinkets to human organs, so it is natural that it would find its way into the coffee world. There are several devices now that utilize 3D printing ink-jet mechanisms to print words or images onto a customer’s coffee. With some machines, the customer can even use an app on their smart phone to upload their own image to be printed.
Where the fourth wave is heading, or if we’re in it now, is still up for speculation. However, no one can deny that coffee has changed drastically in the past century and a half. From mass-produced coffee that consumers make at home to cold brewed coffee that is poured out of a tap with your face printed on the top, the coffee industry will continue to amaze.
Ed. Note: Bridget McGee has served a fall internship at the GHPB. She graduates this month from the University of Houston and will be moving on to new opportunities. We wish her much success!
- Date November 24, 2015
- Tags December 2015