ASK TONX: The "Waves" of Coffee and is there a Fourth Wave?

close up of a glass of brewed coffee above the blue and white floor tile of Intelligentsia Silver Lake

Your coffee questions answered by our co-founder.

By Tony


October 5, 2022

Coffee Blog

Fionn Pooler who writes the excellent coffee industry news roundup The Pourover recently asked: “If the second wave was Peet’s and Starbucks, and the third wave was (is?) specialty and single origin, what do you envisage the fourth wave of coffee being? And what would you like it to be in an ideal world?”

My answer to Fionn was longer and more rant-y than they were probably looking for, so I thought I would adapt it for a proper blog post…

First, What is First Wave Coffee?

We can think of the “first wave” as the big national brands that exploded into giants in the early to mid 20th century when US per capita coffee consumption was very high.

A&P, Hills Brothers, Maxwell House, Folgers—many still-familiar brands found coast to coast distribution on growing grocery shelves as coffee became an industrialized consumer good. This is also the era of diner coffee, free refills, the ubiquitous office coffee break. All of this is covered really well in Mark Pendergrast’s book Uncommon Grounds.

Coffee’s Second Wave

The second wave of coffee is the emergence of a more “gourmet” category that would come to distinguish itself as the “Specialty Coffee” industry, led by dedicated retailers, regional brands, and emerging chains. Peet's coffee, started by Alfred Peet in Berkeley California, is widely acknowledged as the pioneer here while Starbucks is clearly the apotheosis.

This second wave brought in products differentiated by freshness, varied roast styles, distinctions around countries of origin, and expanding retail drink menus beyond drip coffee.

What is Third Wave Coffee?

The term was coined by our friend Trish Rothgeb in 2002 borrowing from discourse about the third wave movement in feminism. It’s become a useful enough shorthand to have earned a wikipedia page

To me the “third wave” is about the craft of roasting, brewing, and presenting the best possible coffee in the service of the growers and mills that produce it. Working to incubate and grow a niche that captures more value, equity, and price premiums for those producers and distinguishes itself from the industrialized, commodified, and exploitative waves that preceded it. Freshness, farmgate traceability, craftsmanship, authentic quality, a focus on the vast spectrum of intrinsic flavors—strongly, loudly, and proudly differentiated from what came before. A movement.

It’s also fair to simply say the Third Wave is (or more accurately was) a coming together of a new generation of coffee professionals and enthusiasts, enabled by the internet. A sometimes unruly, cross-disciplinary discourse attempting to reshape a small corner of a vast industry. Nerds, visionaries, dilettantes, artisans, unabashed coffee snobs, and weirdos.

The people, roasting companies, and seminal shops that generally get lumped into the third wave have certainly had impact and success. It is remarkable to reflect on how much the landscape has evolved in just a couple decades from farms to supply chains to coffee bars to kitchens.

Is There a “Fourth Wave" of Coffee?

Some of what people include on their overly broad third wave checklists is stuff that was already getting checked off in the second, and a lot of what gets heralded as the fourth wave smells a lot like the third.

The latest declaration of coffee’s fourth wave comes from market research firm Mintel. It claims in a new report that this new wave is about people making coffee at home (a trend we of course love) and a supposed preference among Gen Z towards white-label influencer brands, cold coffee beverages, and TikTok recipes. I guess you can't write anything in 2022 that doesn't reference the cultural supremacy of TikTok (follow us!).

While we can agree that there’s a necessary corrective backlash against some of the excesses, pretense and long lines of third wave coffeebar culture, home brewing doesn’t represent something new. Buying great coffee and brewing it yourself is the apex of the third wave movement. Honest, accessible connoisseurship and not just a surplus of fancy, lookalike, beige coffeebars was always the goal.

Maybe this is just splitting hairs, but I think there’s a value to at least shaking a broom at these ideas, if not actively gatekeeping. A second wave mindset has been co-opting its way into the third wave for awhile. Peet’s (and the German private equity juggernaut that owns them) bought a couple third wave’s pioneers, Stumptown and Intelligentsia. Nestle owns the Bay Area’s Blue Bottle. Their ludicrously overpriced capsule brand Nespresso bought its way into sponsoring our compromised conferences and keynote stages.

Everywhere companies are trying to invent the next K-cup, canned beverage, surveillance scale, or digital rights management brewing contraption. And most of these unhelpful attempts at disruptive innovation are being marketed toward the consumers and industry people who stand on the front lines of the still growing niche of legit third wave coffee. It’s like we’re a bunch of small artisan bakers attending and organizing trade shows to promote Hostess, Little Debbie, and Wonder Bread. I don’t get it.

So what will be the Fourth Wave?

If the Fourth Wave isn’t just mediocre white-labeled coffee from YouTube celebrities and sports stars, then what will it be? What do I wish it would be?

There are new big problems facing coffee farmers on top of the many old problems to contend with. Climate change threatens everything (this recent Bloomberg video on the fight to save coffee does a great job digging into this). New varieties could help, but they could also open doors to new forms of industrial scale production that increase inequality and cause other problems.

Whatever the next wave is, I hope it promotes the thriving of small scale farming and sustainable stewardship of the land. Farm level innovations in agronomy, processing, and quality control are encouraging. Any wave that doesn’t uplift small producers is not one we should be excited about.

On the consumer side I’m mostly biased against innovation. There’s no new machine or pourover gizmo that’s going to make coffee much better or easier than it is now. Making the “perfect cup” is already as easy as making buttered toast. I don’t imagine future waves will do much to improve on that.

Surf's still very much up on the third wave and we're always happy to provide lessons if you want to grab your board.



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