Coffee Wave, Coffee Waves, and Differences Between Them

Coffee wave is one of the terms every serious coffee aficionado has to know. Or use it as a weapon to scoff on coffee amateurs. Let’s get you right on track with this article. After reading, you will be able to preach about coffee waves and earn respect (or be ghosted) from your friends and family. 

What are coffee waves?

Coffee waves or waves of coffee is a name for a period in the coffee industry. So far, there’s been three major coffee waves, and the list will go on. Eventually. The term Coffee wave was forged by Trish Rothgeb. The first appearance of this term was in Roasters Guild Publication in 2002.

Each wave represents something new, some significant change in the coffee universe. Just think of it as differences between industrial revolutions. Yes, they are that different.

First wave coffee (the 1800s)

Just gimme the caffeine. No question asked.

The 1800s are the start of massive coffee consumption around the world. People (finally) started liking coffee. Be it for the taste or caffeine, never mind. But yes, it was mostly the caffeine kick then. Most people back then didn’t know that coffee was a plant! Can’t blame them, tho. They just wanted something to keep them going. And the first coffee brands gave them just that. Fuel for the day.

In the first wave, coffee became an essential item in most households, like milk, tea or bread. The innovations, like vacuum packaging and instant coffee, made everything easier. But the coffee itself wasn’t anything you will drink or pay for today. Pre-ground, dark and bitter as hell. People would buy it in supermarkets or grocery shops, and the packaging would scream phrases like Premium or Gourmet coffee

Some of the coffee markets are still stuck in that first wave. Finland is a great example. Although lately, they have some pretty neat innovations that could change coffee as we know it.

Nescafe - first coffee wave
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Second wave coffee (1970)

What exactly am I drinking and paying for?

The second wave of coffee is marked by the taste of the coffee. Having just a caffeine kick wasn’t enough. You can always take caffeine pills for that. People wanted to truly taste coffee, as well as taste new flavours. 

Also, this is the time when coffee origin started to appear on the packaging. It didn’t mean much to the customers, as the coffee companies didn’t bother to go into details. Markin your coffee as Colombian, Kenyan or something else was more a matter of marketing.

The second wave of coffee is when coffee shops and chains appeared, led by Starbucks. The interior of cafes became more comfortable and customer-centred. Of course, the coffee price rose, as the consumers now had access to top-quality coffee, as well as a cosy place to enjoy it. So-called third place, somewhere outside of the usual home-job-home circle.

Also, this was the golden era of coffee innovations. A plain black cup of Joe wasn’t enough to attract the younger generations. Starbucks set the example by its unmatched offer of frappuccinos, lattes and other coffee-based drinks. Mixing coffee with syrups and adding different toppings and flavours was at its peak.

Let’s not forget that the first automatic filter brew machine appeared in the second wave. It was Mr Coffee, pride and joy of US industry.

Mr. Coffee - second coffee wave
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Third-wave coffee (the 2000s)

I want my coffee tasty, my environment protected, and my farmer happy.

The third wave of coffee is all about specialty coffee, micro-roasteries and lighter roasts. Coffee became like wine in terms of tasting, aromas and subtle nuances. No defects, no black muddy water full of caffeine. The baristas ceased to be just coffee-makers/servers and became artists. Barista education and skill became more and more important. Only trained baristas can pull out all the hidden aromas from the coffee beans. 

In the third wave, many pubs and wine houses recorded profit losses, as customers switched to coffee houses. Coffee became a drink to enjoy, not something you just shove down your throat. 

Knowing where your beans came from has become a vital part of the process. Single-origin beans and beans with origin transparency were (and still are) the top sellers. Fairtrade coffee, sustainable growing and care for the environment became an international issue. The third wave of coffee started positive changes on a global level. 

Is there a fourth or fifth coffee wave?

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Some claim that the fourth wave started in 2010, with detailed studying of coffee properties, accurate measures, processes behind, water quality and others. However, those changes are not that significant to be called a separate wave. They are more like evolution steps in rounding up the third wave. Our two cents. The fifth wave is still an idea, not a business practice. At least not yet.


There you have it. All three (five?) coffee waves explained. And remember, we are in the third one, most of Finland is still in the first one, and gourmet coffee is not the same as specialty coffee. Simple as that. Enjoy.

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