If #betterofficecoffee has taken you down the rabbit hole that is the speciality coffee world, then you’ve likely heard talk of the ‘third wave’ or ‘fourth wave’ of coffee. Are you wondering what on earth waves have got to do with coffee?
I thought, this week, we’d take an etymological journey into the meaning of the four waves of coffee. Let’s clear something up before we begin, too. It’s got nothing to do with my reoccurring dream about an ocean of coffee…. (am I drinking too much? It’s surprising I sleep at all, or is it? When is the Right Time of Day to Drink Coffee?)
So lets take a journey back in time, and look at the evolution of speciality coffee through it’s four eras, the four waves of coffee…
The First Wave
We’ll skip quite quickly over the first wave of coffee, which gave us mass-marketed, instant coffee, freeze-dried joe and all that we here at the column are trying to steer away from! It did bring coffee into popular consumption as a caffeine boost and a exciting new beverage to enjoy with friends and at work.
“Juan Valdez, “good to the last drop” and “gourmet coffee” are all remnants of the First Wave of coffee culture.”
The Second Wave
The second wave can be credited with the rise of artisanally roasted coffee and high-street coffee chains like Starbucks, which started as independent coffee shops but grew to meet a new demand for Italian-style, barista-made espresso. Unfortunately, as these companies grew from indy coffee shops into corporate giants, they became homogenised, their quality fell and coffee lovers began to call for a movement away from their capitalistic, homogenous and poor quality offering, a third wave…
The Third Wave
“letting coffee speak for itself…the Third Wave is about enjoying coffee for what it is.”
The third wave of coffee is the era most people associate today’s independent, artisan, speciality coffee houses and roasters with. Professional baristas and roasters select, roast, extract and cup high quality, ethical coffee to bring out its optimum taste. They work directly with farmers to guarantee the origin and quality of their beans. There is not a syrup or can of whipped cream in sight. These are purists, dedicated coffee aficionados who’ve created their own carefully-crafted, artisan subculture.
The Fourth Wave
“The 4th wave is about people”
Much of the literature you read about the progression of speciality coffee will stop with the third wave. But I’ll let you in on a secret…there are a group of dedicated coffee professionals taking coffee into its fourth wave. One of them is Mat North, owner of my number one coffee shop in the UK (not in London), FCP Coffee. He says: “the 4th wave isn’t about the coffee, or agronomics, or espresso machines, or superstar baristas, these are all 3rd wave concepts. The 4th wave is about people”
The third wave of coffee was a massive step forward into appreciating coffee for it’s true potential and celebrating the art and craft of those who brewed it. As a result, though, speciality coffee became shrouded in a veil of mystery and, to some people, was a little confusing and intimidating. The fourth wave rose to address this issue in speciality coffee, to engage the customer, any customer with the ‘why’s of barista craft, to encourage them to ask questions and grow their knowledge of coffee. It’s the third wave, for all. It’s not just in coffee shops, either. Home and office baristas are seeking information that will help them to enjoy better coffee at home or at work. Like each one of you!
“Think of it less as the 4th wave, but more as the Information Age of coffee”
So next time you walk into a speciality coffee shop, have a conversation with your barista. Don’t worry, there is no such thing as a stupid question. The foot soldiers of the fourth wave want to share their love of coffee with you.