Like many of our consumer preferences and trends, changes in waves of the coffee scene have coincided with major changes in industrial revolution trends or social wants and preferences. When describing coffee “waves” we are referring to segments of coffee history. So far we have experienced three different waves, from a commodity to a refined beverage with complexity likened to wine tasting.
A warning, we’re going to walk through this long history at a very quick pace (the internet likes to keep these under a 5-minute read!). Everyone who enjoys coffee should be encouraged to explore it in much more detail but hopefully, this sets you on your way, so let’s begin!
The First Wave
The first wave of coffee coincides with the first signs of globalisation, somewhere between the 1700 & the 1800s. As seafarers came back with many wonders from all over the world, coffee, arguably, was the wonder that spread to the masses quickest.
This first wave saw coffee become something more than just what the elite could enjoy and became a commodity to fuel the growing industrial world. Coffee taverns began to take over tea houses and even drew customers away from their favored ale houses. These taverns were seen as somewhere people could stimulate their minds with caffeine, do business and socialise without the slurring speech and outbreak of flying fists!
In the latter parts of this wave, from 1900 onwards, we started to see coffee innovations such as instant coffee and vacuum packaging. The world was on the move and coffee could be no different. Satori Kato was the man behind instant coffee. After making a successful dehydration process for tea he did the same for coffee and created its patent in 1903. Instant coffee became so important it fuelled soldiers on the war fields of WWI & WWII.
At this point, you may be wondering “well when are we going to talk about the quality & taste?”… erm… we’re not! This is the largest pitfall of the first wave, quality was not on anyone’s radar and transparency was beyond grey. The objective was consumption, quantity over quality at all costs. This meant that producers were left very much out of the picture and were taken advantage of greatly. Some look back at this wave and see it as dark and bitter as the coffee that was produced.
The Second Wave
During the second wave, many of the pitfalls from the first began to become unwound. Sometime between the 1950s and 70s people began to fall out with bad-tasting coffee and more importantly from consuming a product they know nothing about – where it’s from, what’s the variety etc.
In its pursuit of customers and their hard-earned cash, businesses followed this need and began to accommodate. Consumers were able to learn more about their coffee origins and businesses took more care to pick out quality beans. But quality beans should be enjoyed in a quality setting? Enter the café and the “Friends effect” (Central Perk… If I even have to clarify!).
This marked the beginning of the end. Social settings became front and center of enjoying good coffee. The refinement of coffee drinks spurred on the popularity of cafes. Baristas propelled the importance of espressos by using some combination of shot with foamed milk and voila we got ourselves a cappuccino, flat white & latte! Everything was going so well, the origins and intricate tastes of coffee were being prioritised and cafés were people-focused.
Sadly, although the second wave started with good intentions it lost it’s way to the marketing machine. People were drawn more to the café experience and what kind of concoction was the most talked about at that stage. Chains like Starbucks capitalised on this growth and dominated high street coffee consumption!
The Third Wave
Funnily enough, only at the third wave did the world begin referring to coffee history in waves. Trish Rothgeb coined the phrase “waves” in 2002 and described the new incoming third wave as “…in many ways, a reaction. It is just as much a reply to bad coffee as it is a movement toward good coffee.”
During this stage, those that enjoyed specialty coffee became obsessed with every aspect of it. This obsession put incredible pressure and demand for transparency. Similar to, but on a smaller scale, privately owned roasters started to pop up like Starbucks cafes in the second wave. Contrary to those cafés, the roasters of the third wave put production and marketing on the back seat and put the coffee bean as the main event.
Great detail was shared about the coffee being poured – its origin, the variety of the cherry, the altitude it was grown at, the family that owns the farm, the list really goes on. Great baristas were distinguished not only by being able to pour a great espresso but by knowing each stage of that particular coffee’s journey. How the green beans were picked, why that roast profile was used, and finally why it is best enjoyed as a V60 as opposed to a French press.
This level of knowledge was not exclusive to just trained baristas, people began to liken coffee tasting as similar to wine tasting. Great effort was taken to map out the different taste profiles of coffee. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) did a huge amount of work in the background of this scene to promote better industry practices and standardise the tasting process for coffee.
During the third wave, people saw the way we enjoy coffee do a 180-degree turn. Brewing gadgets became more plentiful and available, allowing good coffee to be brewed at home and not just in cafes. This helped make the process of enjoying coffee in your home an even more personalised and unique experience. One that is truly intimate and enjoyed only with friends and family.
All Waves Crash
When exploring waves of coffee many people tend to look down on the history of coffee, almost with sympathy for the simplicity of those consumers! But it’s not about picking which wave is “better” or “superior” – each wave has paved the way to lead to the next. Instant coffee would put a look of terror on the faces of many specialty coffee drinkers today but arguably without it, coffee may not be as popular as it is now and spurred people to explore the specialty world. It’s an exciting time for coffee and it looks like we are finally on the right path to making this a more sustainable and transparent industry with a high-quality product. We can take guesses at what the fourth wave may look like or whether it has already begun but we’ll save that for another day.
About the author
Daumantas is the founder of Perc Box, the UAE’s first coffee subscription service. FLTR told the story of this exciting new entrant into the local specialty coffee industry here. Follow Perc on instagram here and subscribe here.