Legend holds that coffee was discovered by a goat herder in the ancient coffee forests of Ethiopia in the 11th century.
However, the story of the four waves of coffee begins centuries later in the early 1900s. That was when the modern coffee industry first took off, and the “waves of coffee”—a phrase coined by historian Timothy Castle to describe the evolution of the industry—began.
With the fourth wave of coffee upon us, we wanted to compare the coffee industry and culture throughout the different waves. In the article below, we’ll walk through each wave of the four coffee waves—from the mass-marketed diner coffee of the early 20th century to the artisanal, direct trade brews of today.
The first wave of coffee kicked off when mass-produced coffee first hit the shelves in the grocery stores of North America. This was when major food brands like Folgers and Maxwell House first introduced instant coffee to the American household. During the first wave, coffee was primarily served at home—and maybe by waitresses roaming around diners with glass pots.
First-wave coffee can be described as your average “cup of joe” without any roast or special flavor profile (a.k.a the stuff you can buy in a tin can with a plastic lid). First-wave beans were average-to-low quality and produced from any source that could grow at scale. First-wave coffee came with minimal socioeconomic implications, with relationships between distributors and sources remaining largely transactional.
Things began brewing in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This is right around when Starbucks and Peets—both major players in the second wave of coffee—were born. Inspired by the cafés of Europe, these coffee shops changed the North American coffee experience into a social one.
By the second wave of coffee, many consumers had become weary of low-quality, boring drinks and would soon develop a taste for specialty coffee drinks. With better-tasting beans and upgrades like milk, sweeteners, and flavors, the market expanded with coffee converts. Terms like “latte” and “French press” were introduced to the common vernacular. No longer a mundane weekday morning ritual, coffee started to inspire a sense of artistry and become an avenue for self-expression.
In addition to the methodology of how coffee drinks were made, we began to pay a little more attention to the origin of coffee beans during the second wave. Slowly but surely, coffee professionals and consumers were becoming more interested in where their coffee was coming from. As distributors started to recognize the opportunity for using coffee as an agent for global change, we started to see more direct, fair-trade, and organic beans during this wave—setting the stage for the next wave.
With the third wave of coffee came an increase in quality, creative brew methods, and lighter roast profiles, in addition to a greater emphasis on fair trade practices.
Eschewing sugary drinks and beans with murky origins, third-generation coffee professionals began paying attention to factors like genetics and diversifications. Quickly, coffee tasting and valuing began catching up with foods like wine and cheese.
The third-wave coffee movement was also defined by an emphasis on visual aesthetics, with more and more cafés intentionally selecting architecture and design that set them apart. Perhaps most importantly, the third wave brought a new focus on traceability and social responsibility.
Coffee distributors, cafés, and consumers alike began to understand and take responsibility for their role as end receivers in a massive industry that was often characterized by poor labor conditions and low wages. During the third wave, we started to hear the story behind the cup—a story created not only by baristas and coffee companies but by growers and farms.
This brings us to the present day: the dawn of the fourth wave of coffee. The latest wave is still taking shape, but it is clear that sustainability will play a major part. Increasingly, the focus is turning to the impact of climate change on coffee growing and coffee farmers around the world.
We believe that fourth-wave coffee will be a direct trade product with a direct reinvestment to farmers and their communities. Already, we are seeing more high-end roasters and coffee companies forming partnerships with farmers and committing themselves to working with certain farms in specific regions.
At Lifeafar, we’re excited to be a part of the budding fourth wave. Our partnership with the Green Coffee Company, based in the iconic coffee-growing region of Salgar, Colombia, is a unique operation that oversees and ensures stability across the entire coffee chain—from growing through processing to direct trade.
Committed to sustainability, the Green Coffee Company also minimizes its environmental impact through initiatives like reforestation, erosion control, and turning a large portion of organic waste matter into a nutrient-rich compost. This holistic approach and commitment to the environment not only improves the quality of the coffee but also the world around it.