What Are Coffee Waves?

What Are Coffee Waves?

When you hear the phrase “coffee waves,” are you immediately thinking about a tsunami of cold brew? While we wouldn’t be opposed to a caffeinated deluge, this article is actually about periods in the coffee industry.

Read on to the next section to learn what coffee waves are and some crucial details about the three waves we’ve had so far!

Second Wave

What Are Coffee Waves?

Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is a coffee wave?

The term coffee wave refers to a period in the coffee industry marked in some way by a significant change, evolution, rise, or development. There is some disagreement among experts about the exact years and causes of these monumental shifts. However, there is relative agreement about the general direction of the movements. 

The general timeline of the waves covers a few centuries, beginning in the 1800s and going up until the present. 

There have only been three waves so far, but many have speculated about the arrival of a new fourth wave in the 21st century. 

First Wave Coffee

First Coffee Wave - 18th Century

There is no specific date or year that experts and historians believe can be assigned as the beginning of first-wave coffee culture. 

The agreed-upon era that is commonly defined as the first-wave coffee era is the mid-1800s. Before this period, there was not a robust culture of coffee drinking in the United States. Most Americans do not consume coffee on a regular basis.

With the onset of the first wave, coffee became a much more available and accessible commodity. It was no longer confined to the upper classes of society or for special occasions. With the first wave, coffee became a product of the working class.

The vast majority of coffees from this era were cheap and of poor quality. It was almost impossible to purchase whole-bean coffee, as most companies only sold the beans after roasting and grinding. Brands such as Folgers, Maxwell House, Nescafe, and Green Mountain proliferated in this time period. 

In addition to being pre-ground, coffees from these brands were often available in blends with flavors. The origins of the beans were usually unknown.

Despite being known for lesser quality coffee, the first wave is a crucial era in the history and development of the entire food and beverage industry in the United States. Because companies sold a mediocre product, it could be distributed at a lower cost. 

Lower costs made coffee newly accessible to Americans who previously would not have been able to afford such a luxury. During this time, people primarily drank coffee for the caffeine benefits rather than the coffee flavor or taste. 

This was also the era of instant coffee (grounds to which you could simply add boiling water to dissolve and drink without needing to filter).

Second Wave Coffee

Second Coffee Wave - Coffee Shops and Chains

The second wave of coffee lasted around thirty years. It has its beginnings in Seattle, Washington, with a small coffee shop with a logo of a green mermaid. 

Starbucks didn’t transform from a local cafe to a global powerhouse overnight. It took a few decades, but the exponential growth and influence of this worldwide chain are the defining features of second-wave coffee.

The second wave began nearly fifty years ago, in the 1970s. Starbucks was one of the first companies to realize that the consumer population was beginning to want a different coffee experience than that of the first wave. 

In the first wave, the focus of coffee was on convenience. Instead of a luxury, it became more widely available and a staple in most Americans’ homes. This paradigm shifted in the second wave. Consumers were more interested in higher-quality coffee and wanted to know more about its origins. The quality of coffee available started to become of much greater interest.

Additionally, coffee started to evolve into a more social experience. Instead of sipping on mugs brewed at home, people wanted to enjoy their coffee out at a cafe. One could purchase a cup of coffee and take it on the go in the first wave, but there was no culture for sitting down in a coffee shop with a friend or a book to linger over lattes. 

Starbucks was the first to recognize this demand for a more communal coffee experience and atmosphere and demand for more elevated drinks, and they capitalized on it. In exchange for better quality coffee, service, and a comfortable environment to enjoy it in, Starbucks was able to start charging more for their drinks.

Starbucks also was able to innovate and create coffee-based drinks that appealed to more people, such as Frappuccinos and Afflogatos (Coffee Gelato). Peets and Howard Schultz were other companies that followed Starbucks’ path. However, no other coffee shop has as much influence as Starbucks.

Third Wave Coffee

The term “third-wave coffee” was first used in the year 2002. The chain coffee company known as Starbucks had taken over the world, but something new was coming. Although Starbucks, at first, represented a shift towards a higher quality product, the third wave was marked by consumers wanting even better cups of coffee. 

Third Wave - Online Ordering

In the third wave, there was also greater attention paid to the brewing method that would result in the best type of coffee. Specialty coffee shops with manual espresso machines and pour-over setups started popping up all over the country. Baristas started to become more valued as having a niche and artistic skill set.

Coffee lovers started developing more astute palates, and elements of coffee, such as tasting notes and different roast levels, started to become more important, as well as the origin of the beans.

Now, instead of just beans originating in a geographic area as broad as South America, consumers are able to learn and trace the specific country, province, and farm on which their beans were grown.

Another characteristic of third-wave coffee was an emphasis on sustainability in the industry. The best coffee beans grow only in specific climates, usually in the Southern Hemisphere. With climate change progressing more rapidly than ever and global weather entering new extremes, there is new concern from coffee enthusiasts about how the industry can be sustained.

In addition, programs such as the Fair Trade initiative popped up, which are there to ensure that every individual involved in the production of a cup of coffee (from the coffee farmers who grow and harvest the beans to the traders who ship them overseas to the roasters who prepare and package them) gets paid a fair and living wage.

Will There Be a Fourth Wave?

Expert opinions are split as to whether we have entered the fourth wave of coffee, we are about to begin it, or if there is one coming in the future. This section will explain some of these different opinions.

Some believe fourth-wave coffee will feature whimsical innovation within the industry, shaped by the younger generation and social media platforms such as TikTok. 

Others believe that the fourth wave is characterized by a return to brewing coffee at home, but this time with fancier equipment and investment in the quality and the sourcing of the ingredients.


There you have it! Now you know all about the major trends in coffee.

Did you enjoy learning about the three different waves of coffee? How do you think the coffee industry will evolve in the coming years? Let us know your predictions about a possible fourth wave in the comments section below! 

Leave a Comment