First, Second, Third, and Fourth Wave of Coffee?

19 December 2018

As one of the top-10 most consumed beverages in the world, coffee is more than just a drink; an entire culture has developed around it.

Yet, many of us are unaware of how this coffee culture has evolved over the years to what we see today.

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The Beginning of the Coffee Wave

Experts often describe these advancements as coffee “waves”. Interestingly, the advent of coffee in the west started as an act of rebellion.

When the British imposed harsh taxes, colonists of the United States had harsh taxes imposed on their tea by the English. Resultantly, drinking coffee was not only an alternative, but a bold act of rebellion.

However, unlike tea which was easy to prepare, coffee preparation was much more time-consuming because coffee beans needed grinding and roasting. This thus began the advent of coffee waves.

The First Wave: Convenience

A man scooping coffee from a kettle into a mason jug
In the early days, the process of brewing coffee was both time consuming and tedious. Photo from Clem Onoujeghuo

The first wave of coffee involved making it a staple of ordinary households. Up until now, coffee preparation was a tedious and time-consuming task.

A turning point came in 1900 with the Hills Brothers Coffee Company’s invention of vacuum packaging, which meant that ground coffee could be sealed and kept fresh for a long time. This boosted the popularity of coffee immensely by significantly reducing the amount of preparation required.

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Although many people now cringe at the thought of drinking instant coffee, the development of this process by Alphonse Allais was another milestone for coffee. It meant that coffee would become a staple during the two world wars and a crucial part of soldiers’ daily rations. It also led to the creation of iconic brands like Nestle’s Nescafe, which launched in 1938.

However, even with all this innovation, there was one fundamental problem with coffee during the first wave: taste. Coffee this period did not have the rich, sophisticated taste that we enjoy today.

The average drinker was more interested in coffee as a convenient beverage that gave them a dose of caffeine.

The Second Wave: Taste

A man tasting coffee during a coffee cupping session
As time passed by, people started to take note of how coffee tastes, smells and even the texture it left on the tongue. Photo from Battlecreek Coffee Roasters

From the mid-1960s, coffee drinkers began to place more priority on taste. Stores like Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee and Tea were among the first pioneers to promote dark roasted coffee, and really take into account the quality of beans. Coffee drinkers soon began to realise what they had been missing out on.

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This second wave gave birth to many of the coffee terms and jargon that we are so familiar with today. Terms like “baristas”, “specialty coffee” and even ways of drinking coffee such as “cappuccino” became commonly used.

Roasters also soon began refining their methods of processing and roasting coffee beans to develop better-tasting coffee. These coffee houses also made coffee into an experience, building a community around their brews and turning their stores into places where people could gather and enjoy coffee in comfort.

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However, coffee purists would later argue that these stores over-emphasised on selling experiences and by implication degraded the importance of the coffee. People began to realise that the higher prices they paid for the coffee were only because of the premiums these coffee shops added in for the “experience” they hoped to sell.

The Third Wave: Production and Education

The third wave of coffee was inspired by coffee connoisseurs who wished to bring purity back to coffee. They felt that the second wave’s overemphasis on experience took too much attention away from the sophistication and story behind coffee.

This wave stemmed from the wine industry, from where coffee enthusiasts had learned to focus on the qualities of coffee beans.

Third wave coffee companies focused on education on their production process as well as education about the origins of coffee. The movement also led to the importance being placed on sustainability in production.

With the third wave, coffee had evolved from a cheap commodity to an art form.

The Fourth Wave: Coffee in the Digital Age

A cup of coffee placed on an opened laptop
As we approach the digital age, that too will now influence coffee in a new way. Photo from Allie

Right now, experts have deemed that we have currently entered the fourth wave of coffee. This fourth wave not only coincides with the advent of the digital age but is inextricably linked to it through e-commerce.

Take the example of coffee roasters: they can promote their products and get feedback through social media and online reviews, while also use digital payment methods to sell to consumers. Consumers have greater access to products, too.

What do you think the future holds for coffee? Whatever it is, we think it would be something to behold as roasters and coffee shops alike advance towards the perfection of the bean.

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