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What is the Fourth Wave of Coffee?

Written by Phil

A coffee enthusiast and traveler, Phil primarily spends his days thinking and writing about coffee. He also writes for HittingEject.com where he explores ideas of culture, psychology, and travel, and occasionally dabbles in horror.

Time for some coffee history! Coffee moved from being a commodity to an experience. Though there is some overlap, each wave has its own unique characteristics. The question on many people’s lips: What direction is the 4th wave of coffee going to take us?

Waves of the coffee movement are defined by how consumers relate to coffee. 3rd wave prioritizes equity, memorable experiences, taste quality, unique regional flavors, precision, and barista skill. The 4th wave is still far off, but it will likely evolve from these 3rd wave features.

Coffee tech mostly hasn’t changed over 100 years, but our ability to use these tools has. Espresso machine (1884), Percolator (1880), the original stovetop boiling have spawned variations, but the core technology that drives these devices has remained unchanged. Moka pots are a derivative of espresso machines; French presses are a derivative of boiled coffee; drip machines are a more convenient percolator; and so on.

What has changed is the perspective of the public, the ability to wield these machines, and the nuanced approaches to growing, roasting, and all the other stages of processing. There is one notable leap forward in tech which spawned the 3rd wave, but I’ll get to that in the relevant section.

Let’s start at the beginning, hm?

1st Wave

1800s-1960s

Available and Cheap

Brands: Folgers, Maxwell House, and Nestle

Popularized

  • Coffee.

This era feels like it’s ripe with retrofuturism. Think 1950s, Mother’s Little Helpers, Leave it to Beaver, and all that jazz. The goal was not for good coffee, but to merely get a tin of pre-ground stuff into every household and to allow the public to grow accustomed to a cup of joe with their morning.

It was a new commodity that was emerging. Many companies were excited to get a piece of that, most notably Folgers, Maxwell House, and Nestle – which is partially why these brands of coffee are nearly synonymous with cheap, garbage coffee. It was a period when nobody distinguished between origin, beverage type, or quality, for that matter. 

1/10, do not buy!

They also invented instant coffee, provided coffee in both tin and vacuum packaging, and it was almost exclusively pre-ground. People didn’t see the point in having grinders – what difference could it make, right?

If they did, it’d be a blade grinder, but even that is unlikely.

As implied above, coffee of this time would be known for being bitter, bland, and weak. Truly an acquired taste. It’s easy to see why the practice of adding cream and sugar was near-universal.

Don’t fret if you want to visit yesteryear – these coffees can still be found today! Just flip on cable TV, and whenever a coffee commercial comes on for the coffee, not fast-food coffee (like for Dunkin’ Donuts), then you know it’s probably 1st wave. Have at it!

Disparage this wave all you like (and I am), but it is the forerunner and was a necessary stage for coffee to pass through in order to advance to what we have today.

Where you can find it

Your local grocery store, your grandma’s cupboard, at truck stops, and at diners (yes, I’m recycling that Twin Peaks clip).

2nd Wave

1960s-2000s

Consistent and Cheap (mostly)

Brands: Peet’s Coffee and Tea; Starbucks

Popularized

  • Espresso-based beverages; 
  • Roasts, especially dark ones; 
  • Syrups; 
  • Barista and other now-commonplace coffee terms; 
  • Latte art;
  • Bigger, sweeter, and more customizable beverages.

“Better” Coffee

As waves go, the 2nd offered better coffee – compared to the previous wave, at least. 

They took the French approach to roasting – very dark, mostly to hide inferior quality and flaws but also to provide consistency. They mainly improved the enjoyment of these coffees through creams, syrups, and other additives to make it appealing to the masses.

Available

While the 1st wave was making sure there was a chicken in every pot, so to speak, the 2nd wave was more concerned with how it was produced and the introduction of Italian style coffee – thatmon is, espresso-based beverages.

This is why Starbucks and Peet’s became a thing. While 1st was simply coffee for the most people, 2nd could be seen as coffee that pleases the most people (source of that simplification). 

Starbucks’ success is attributed to giving higher-quality coffee (again, compared to 1st wave) with happy employees who would interact jovially with the customer. They wanted to provide an experience that would keep you coming back. This emphasis on experience may be a newer innovation that could count as 3rd wave. It’s unclear, however.

Mass Appeal and Consistency

The 2nd wave was also the introduction and popularization of of syrups. The goal was to appeal to American sensibilities, as well as the use of more milk. The assumption being that Americans like things large and sugary.

Again, it’s about making the beverage even more appealing so that ever more people would buy. Frappuccinos, iced cappuccinos, and other highly-sweetened beverages emerged during this period to appeal to people of all ages.

It also allowed for further customization, leading to plenty of pre-caffeine morning decisions. See this clip for a rather concise summary of the 2nd wave. Your morning coffee could even come to define you as a person.

Country of Origin

There was also the beginning of introducing origins and roasts to the audience through establishments like Starbucks. They didn’t go to any real length or effort to educate, but they at least had the labels up. Again, they used dark roasts, which would downplay the differences between regions

Some argue that this feature would be entirely 3rd wave, but the lines in these movements are blurry at best, and the emphasis on origins wasn’t as evolved.

2nd wave also engaged in organic, direct/fair trade practices, and engaged in campaigns to help various causes, including the treatment of farmers. However, this was far from universal and required personal research to see exactly how any particular company operated.

Where you can find it

Large coffee chains, many Facebook coffee forums, and in both grocery and convenience stores in pre-made bottles (e.g., Starbucks Frappuccinos in bottles).

3rd Wave

2000s to Now?

Great and Ethical

Brands: Stumptown (Portland, OR); Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea (Chicago, IL); Counter Culture Coffee (Durham, NC)

Popularized

  • Local roasters and roastery cafés;
  • Single-origin;
  • Cupping (tasting technique);
  • Broader ranges of roasts, from Light to Dark; 
  • “Specialty coffee”.

Specialty Coffee

I will acknowledge that the term “3rd wave” has apparently fallen out of favor for the more marketing-friendly, “Specialty Coffee”. Call it what you will, it is the 3rd and certainly not final wave, so I’m going to stick with calling it the 3rd.

As well, Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry (Thurston, 2014) goes into excruciating detail about what “specialty coffee” can be considered, and the definition is not clear.

Here are a few excerpts, not in consecutive order, but all are from Chapter (all of which can apparently be found on this site):

“There are a few characteristics basic to specialty coffee: transparency, sustainability, equity, and quality…”

“Specialty coffee will be defined by the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean, or prepared beverage, and the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all of those involved in the cultivation, preparation, and degustation. Unfortunately, [they] did not differentiate how a specialty coffee tastes different from a non-specialty coffee, known as commercial coffee.”

“Any person foolish enough to attempt a definition, including this author, recognizes that the task is impossible even before it begins. […] Specialty coffee continued to define itself as “other”, a significantly amorphous construct that allowed specialty coffee to be an umbrella term for anything that was different. […] The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) … can and should categorize the amorphous world of specialty coffee.”

“In 2009… [the SCAA defined specialty coffee] as meeting a minimum cupping score of 80, based on its cupping protocol and assessment scheme.”

Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry (Thurston, 2014)

The system is out of 100 points, and the author goes out of his way to say that most coffees, so long as they don’t taste moldy or sour, can likely achieve a score of at least 80. 

As well, he goes on to talk about how it gets even blurrier. Hardcore specialty coffee enthusiasts believe that you can only have specialty coffee if it is served black. The marketplace, however, is full of products that qualify as being labeled specialty, but do not conform to this.

This begs obvious questions: what if you take a specialty coffee and combine it with something else, like milk or sugars? If you add flavors to beans that are above the 80-point mark, is it no longer considered specialty

At its core, there is a lot of disagreement with what one can call “specialty coffee”, but it is a large part of the 3rd wave movement. As such, I feel justified in continuing to refer to it as “3rd wave” and not “specialty coffee” as a movement.

Local Roasters

Roasting on-site wasn’t popular before this wave, and for good reason. 

Imagine living next to a roastery; smoke emitted all hours of the day that didn’t smell like the coffee you love, containing a whack of CO2 alongside noxious chemicals. Wonderful, right?

Clearly not, which is why local roasters in urban environments weren’t a thing. 

Along come two Canadians: Jaromir Friedrich and Raymond Lemaire. They invented the closed-loop fluidized bed roaster, with their patent registered March 31st, 1999. Fun fact: the patent expired in March 2020.

This new roaster could produce quality coffee with only 5% of the energy needed and only 15% of the emissions. To compare, Jim Townley describes the benefits of this technology in this video. The old technology, as Townley puts it, would be like running 10 barbeques on high with the lids open.

Experience is Foremost

In the 3rd wave, they can often prioritize experience – both of the staff at making the coffee and of the customer when inside the café.

They very much want their staff to be knowledgeable, friendly, and capable. The ambiance of each café is also of utmost importance, as they know that most people will come for a good environment, even if the coffee is mediocre.

While there is an increasing number of coffee-obsessed customers that are being catered to in this environment, there is still a large chunk that just enjoys a nice place to sit. That being said, the connoisseurs are increasing. The 3rd wave is like the craft beer movement, putting more value on expertise and fine-tuning. You could describe it as artisanal coffee.

Roasts

Light roasting, more flavor expression, refined technique – you can’t hide impurities or low-quality beans in conditions like these. 

Imagine taking a slice of freshly baked artisanal bread and a slice of wonderbread: if you toast them both until they are very crispy, you’ll hardly notice a difference. But fresh or lightly toasted? It’ll be a world of difference. (Metaphor from this guy)

Differentiating from the 2nd Wave

Some think that the 3rd wave is just a more refined, smarter version of what the 2nd was already doing – introducing higher quality coffee to a wider audience. 

You’d be forgiven if you think that the line between 2nd and 3rd is blurry; I also find some of the differences to be splitting hairs, but it seems that one primary difference is in consumers’ expectations of the quality of the coffee itself and less on making it appealing through adulterations.

In simpler words: they want to make coffee that doesn’t need anything added to be enjoyed.

Old Giants

As well, Starbucks, the crowned king of the 2nd wave, has also moved further into the 3rd wave by opening up its own roasteries, including tasting rooms and events. The world’s formerly largest was in Shanghai, but now that title belongs to another Starbucks Roastery in Chicago. Another notable one was built in Seattle (aka Starbucks’ origin). 

Though they break with the rest of the 3rd wave by having automated espresso machines; the other leaders rely on the skill of the baristas.

Fun fact: years ago, I went to the very first Starbucks location – Pike’s place, Seattle. Much to my disappointment, they had absolutely nothing in terms of fanfare or even a plaque to commemorate the significance of this location. Seems like a lost opportunity to me.

Another: I’m no fan of Starbucks, but when I was in Shanghai, I made a point to visit the world’s then-largest roastery. This location was notable, bustling, had a warm ambiance, and they even had some of the more creative uses of coffee I’ve witnessed. I expect their other notable roastery/tasting rooms are likely equally interesting. Worth a visit!

Supply Chain

The chain of production, from “farm to table” as they say, is also something that’s being considered. Fairtrade practices, giving more power to farmers, and arguably shade-grown coffee (which I go into more detail in the 4th wave section) are all important pieces to the 3rd wave.

It values sustainability and the differences between origins and the regional terroir (please forgive the pretentiousness of that word) that lends itself to the final outcome.

Like with the 2nd wave, there is often an effort put into fair trade, organic coffee. It still isn’t universal, but is more common than in the 2nd wave.

Tasting

The 3rd wave places importance on the skill of the barista and the human element to draw people in. Cupping, as a tasting practice, has become a thing, and some cafés will even hold coffee tastings, like wine.

The goal is to recognize and celebrate the varieties that can be produced from different regions and growing practices. Where 2nd wave was about providing a consistent, pleasurable experience, 3rd wave is more interested in providing notable and unique experiences that you will remember.

Wikipedia’s Summary

Distinct from the first two waves, the 3rd wave of coffee disrupts the more commodity-focused trade of coffee and prioritizes taste quality, unique flavors, and equitable relationships over low prices and standardizations in flavor.

Wikipedia

Where you can find it 

Local roasters, locally-owned coffee shops, Reddit.

4th Wave

Now? Soon? Who’s to say.

Scientific, Mechanized, and Sustainable?

Experimental, still not clearly defined, and some say we’re already there. Others think we’re in transition, while still others believe that everything I’m about to ascribe to the 4th wave is actually just advanced 3rd in disguise.

The 4th wave has prematurely been announced many times. The announcements, however, are almost exclusively brands and products trying to sell things – not an actual movement on the coffee scene from either consumers or cafés. 

Be that as it may, it seems to me that coffee and its fans will continue to evolve. Based on what I’ve read, anyone talking about 4th wave is just marketing themselves as “the future”, but not actually different from 3rd wave. That being said, these are my predictions from what I could gather:

  • More quality coffee, fewer adulterations (sugar, milk, etc.)
  • For adulterations, they may evolve to introduce things currently considered strange, such as salt or lemon. The goal of these adulterations may be to further bring out the flavor of the coffee or different nuances, unlike 2nd wave, which meant to mask the coffee, and further from 3rd, which intends to pull out the flavor through technique and cultivation alone.
  • Further refinement of the understanding of water and coffee chemistry.
  • Precise equipment that will allow for all adjustments to be made independent of user skill (on the market, for home use, in cafés – not competition).
  • Barista competitions may combine people’s skill to design and tweak their own equipment, becoming more like research teams presenting their latest designs and schematics. Maybe like tasty tech demos with robots and AI? 
  • Further scientific measurement, controlling all variables in a similar fashion to a chemistry lab, possibly incorporating even more elements from a laboratory setting.
  • My more outlandish guess could be something like this. Admittedly, not as insane as what they present, but it’s possible they could start pushing the envelope. 
  • I’d be curious to see if you could make a “coffee bar” similar to a chocolate bar. Milk Coffee bar? Latte in candy bar form? Who knows. It’s just something I’ve considered researching and trying.

Scientific

The very evidence of roasting competitions, blending competitions, barista competitions, and people like myself or James Hoffman, show that we’re moving toward precision and ironing out the subtleties. A lot of it seems pedantic and obsessive – which it is – but this is just the process that needs to be taken to reach the pinnacle of our current technology.

It’s possible that more chemistry equipment may be introduced into the more cutting edge coffee shops, or that equipment will reach a level of refinement that the human element will be removed. I believe this is what may differentiate the 4th wave from the 3rd.

3rd wave places a lot of importance on the entire experience. It values the skill of the barista, but this is a double-edged sword: if you have good baristas, great! If you don’t… well…

And in a coffee shop that pays minimum wage, it’ll be difficult to keep anyone skillful for long. Economic pressures will definitely push toward automated equipment that can rival human performance.

Sure, there will be plenty of people/Neo-Luddites who balk at the previous paragraph. Impossible! They may shout, Machines will never compare with human craftsmanship!

But it sounds to me like we’re just facing the modern coffee equivalent to the Steel-drivin’ man himself, John Henry. Eventually, machines will catch up and quickly surpass what can be done reliably, expediently, and well by human hand. Such is the march of progress and technology.

This clip from Breaking Bad seems to me like it borders the edge between 3rd and 4th wave coffee. Again, some will argue this is pure 3rd wave.

Ethical

Let’s take a look at what one company uses for its claim of being 4th wave:

“[…] Our entire mission deals with a commitment to fighting to eradicate economic, physical, and spiritual poverty around the world. Recognizing that coffee is the world’s second-largest commodity, we found a golden opportunity by becoming a 4th wave coffee roaster.”

-DISTRICT Roasters

Pedants and coffee lovers alike will see this and say, “but wait, isn’t that what’s important to 3rd wave already?”

Yes. It’s admirable that they’re pushing in this direction, but technically it is still entirely in-line with the 3rd wave. Where I see it going is possibly providing more value chain adjustments, which I will address in a section further down. 

Arguably, this is all still 3rd wave.

Shade-Grown Coffee

When people hear “ethical”, they think that it’s about treating people fairly, but the aspect that can often be overlooked is that ethical production can actually improve the quality, as well. For instance, shade-grown coffee may seem redundant or indulgent. 

From Wikipedia:

Shade-grown coffee is a form of the beverage produced from coffee plants grown under a canopy of trees. A canopy of assorted types of shade trees is created to cultivate shade-grown coffee. 

By doing this, less pesticides are needed because local bird species are more abundant and diverse, allowing them to naturally feed on what would normally require pesticides. As well, the increased biodiversity could arguably help with yields over the long run, as the land will not be stripped of nutrients or abused by unsustainable farming practices. Monocropping no bueno

Arguably, shade-grown coffee isn’t a 3rd-wave element because it has actually been reduced since 1996 by 20%. This means that, of the land that is used to make coffee, 20% less of it is dedicated to shade-grown coffee practices.

Be that as it may, it seems that sustainability is where many practices need to move, however begrudgingly and haltingly, which is why I’m including it under the 4th gen. 

Automation

Since this movement seems to be moving toward more scientific, precise preparation, it is possible that the 4th wave may introduce more machinery that is automated and will allow for users to dial in the specifications, then step back. Yes, like the Jetsons, only for coffee. Hell, we already have robots that are edging into the fast-food industry.

Perhaps AI and increasingly small differences in brewing and roasting procedures can make significant differences. If these tiny adjustments are undetectable to the human barista, they may get crowded out by more sensitive equipment.

Value Chain Shifts

As the chain currently exists, much of the value is added upon arrival in the destination country. Some seem to believe that a shift toward more value being added at the location of production will be the future, which would allow farmers to reap more rewards from their efforts and to give them more economic power and prosperity. While this will drive up prices in purchasing countries, it could also allow for more sophisticated cultivation techniques, further increasing quality.

It could be a hard pill to swallow because it will significantly increase prices and reduce shelf-life, depending on the route and speed of transportation. Remember: coffee’s freshness rapidly begins to decay after roasting (see this post).

Too Long; Didn’t Read (TL;DR)

1st Wave

  • Available and Cheap
  • Coffee for all!

2nd Wave

  • Consistent and Cheap
  • Appealing Beverages for All! (emphasis on cream and sugar)

3rd Wave / Specialty Coffee

  • Great and Ethical
  • Appealing Coffee for all! (emphasis on quality coffee flavors)

4th Wave: (my prediction)

  • Automated and Sustainable 
  • Even better coffee that is consistently made by machines/computers and sustainable for growers, both economically and environmentally.

Each has far more defining them, but I’m not going to spill further virtual ink repeating myself.

If you feel I was wrong about something or missed an important feature, please let me know! I am always striving to provide the best information available on everything coffee!

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