Explained: Coffee Waves That The World Has Seen
Image Credit: Pixabay. The different coffee waves are identified by how consumers relate to coffee as a product.

The world may be divided into tea and coffee drinkers but that influence that coffee has had on the lives of people is undeniable. Over the last 50 years, there has been a substantial increase in the consumer demand for coffee. Be it Nescafe or Starbucks, every coffee brand has had its own era of sorts, with the current times being dominated by independent, artisanal brands. Major turning points in the history of coffee culture are referred to as “waves”, just like feminism and the industrial revolution have their waves. 

The different coffee waves are identified by how consumers relate to coffee as a product. This pattern of relating to coffee has changed significantly and simultaneously with other trends around the world. Three main coffee waves have been identified, focusing on how coffee has been appreciated and accessed. 

The first wave

The first coffee wave represents how coffee began to be viewed as a commodity rather than a novelty. It coincides with the first wave of the industrial revolution, which was defined by an increase in mass-produced consumable goods worldwide. Before this wave, only the privileged and the elite could access coffee. Leaving aside coffee farmers, the average person had no access to coffee before the industrial revolution made its manufacture commonplace. 

However, it still took a while for coffee to become an accessible and affordable commodity: companies like Maxwell House and Folgers produced inexpensive coffee and made it widely available at grocery stores by the mid 1950s. Even with coffee having become a common fixture on supermarket shelves, consumers were not informed about the intricacies of coffee-making, like country of origin, tasting notes or an understanding of the supply chain. 

The end of this wave was marked by affordability and easy access to coffee. 

The second wave

Gradually, consumers began to ask questions about the brews they were drinking. Although mass-produced coffee was easy to find and affordable, it ended prioritising quantity over quality. The second coffee wave signalled a change in what consumers wanted out of their cup. Coffee had succeeded in becoming a staple, but consumers began to demand better quality by the 1990s.  

Popular culture—including TV shows like Friends—is a good marker of this period. Places like ‘Central Perk’, although fictitious, propagated the idea of a ‘third place’ or cafes and coffee shops that encouraged socialising over coffee. These places were meant to be a refreshing change from the home or office environment. Earlier the prerogative of bars, the idea of casual socialisation began to be associated with coffee, especially with companies like Starbucks that capitalised on the demand for specialty coffee. And so, the ‘third place’ became an important part of coffee culture.

This wave was responsible for consumers developing a wider palate. Instead of black coffee being served with cream and sugar, the idea of steamed milk and the espresso emerged. Cappuccinos, lattes and other coffee preparations were popularised by brands like Starbucks and local cafes adopted them too. 

The third wave

In the 2000s, a rift between industrial-scale coffee companies and local, artisanal coffee shops was seen. It continued to widen as consumers swapped store-bought coffee for cappuccinos and lattes. This compelled consumers to reflect on where their coffee was being made.  

During the third wave, consumers began to think about the origins and flavours of their coffee, much like wine connoisseurs are informed about grape varieties and fermentation. Coffee brewing equipment like home grinders and espresso machines started becoming affordable and people invested in them to be able to enjoy cafe-like coffee at home. This was an important transition, from commercial coffee to at-home specialty coffee. This trend of a demand for specialty coffee marked the beginning of the third coffee wave.  

There was also an increased appreciation for the work that coffee roasters and professional baristas did. Ethical issues like the mistreatment of farm workers by coffee giants became a primary concern for consumers who wanted sustainably sourced coffee. 

The fourth wave

Some experts claim that we are currently in the fourth coffee wave, but there hasn’t been a consensus and it hasn’t been clearly identified yet. It has been estimated that the trend is inclined towards high quality and coffee that is more ethically sourced.