The Fifth Wave of Coffee

3 minute read


American coffee has progressed through a series of waves. Each wave is defined by common trends in the coffee industry. The consensus is that there have been three waves so far, and we are in the early stages of the fourth wave. The purpose of this article is to give a -very- brief summary of each wave, followed by speculation about what the fifth wave and beyond may be.


As I said in the abstract, I’ll keep this brief. There are lots of existing articles about the history of coffee and the waves of coffee in America. Others do a better job of explaining the history, so I will give summarize and give plenty of links.

The First Wave

The first wave of coffee took place from the mid 1800’s to the mid 1900’s, and is defined by the industry bringing coffee to the masses. Innovations in packaging and preparing made this possible, including vacuum packaging and instant coffee.

Before the first wave, cafe culture was established in Europe. The substitution of coffee for beer even helped fuel the Age of Enlightenment.

The Second Wave

The second wave of coffee is identified by a few key trends both from consumers and industry.

First, consumers desired to know where their coffee came from and how it was prepared. The first wave had provided coffee conveniently, but with little to no transparently. The second wave of coffee was marked by consumers’ desire to understand the processes by which coffee had arrived in their cup.

The second wave was also marked by the proliferation of cafe culture. Where before coffee was primarily sold in grocery stores and taken in the home, coffee was now being sold and prepared in coffee shops. Starbucks can be considered the poster child for this wave of coffee. Coffee was no longer a convenient pick me up in the home but a drink to be enjoyed with friends and taken more for the experience of drinking coffee. The social aspect of coffee played a prominent role.

The Third Wave

The third wave of coffee is marked by the industry’s emphasis on the artisan nature of coffee. Where in the second wave you might see a label on a bag of coffee such as “Sumatra Dark Roast,” in the third wave you would see a label like this:

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In the third wave, coffee roasters are not content with three simple levels of “Light,” “Medium,” and “Dark” roasts. There is the need to describe as well the tasting notes of the coffee. Roasters put an emphasis on roasting each coffee uniquely to best highlight the flavor profile of the coffee.

The third wave is certainly characterized by the aggressive push in the industry towards transparency, in all phases of coffee production. Roasters share with customers the relationship they have with the farmers, cafes share with customers their relationship with roasters (if the two are different), and cafes offer a wider range of brewing options to their customers. In the Starbucks era, would you ever considering asking for a hot cup of Siphon Coffee (also known as vacuum-pot coffee).

Note: I say “would” as if the third wave of coffee has ended. At the time of writing, I don’t believe it is completely in the past, rather we are somewhere in the grey middle ground between the third and fourth waves. Change takes time, and the lines are blurry. Bear with me.

The Fifth Wave and Beyond

In short, the fifth wave of coffee in America will be to come to terms with the bitterness of espresso. In an ideal world, I also would like to see espresso prices go down.