What’s Next? Fourth Wave Coffee

When we talk about the evolution of coffee, we often speak of advances happening in waves. One wave of coffee follows, consumes, and builds upon the waves before it, so before we can understand what Fourth Wave coffee is, we have to understand what the first three waves are.

Wave 1: A Mass Produced Home Staple

The first wave of coffee was all about the widespread adoption of coffee in homes worldwide – it’s a volume game. Companies such as Folgers and Maxwell House use a cheap price point to get into grocery stores and homes quickly. To keep the supply chain full, they don’t go after the highest quality coffee, just the highest volume. Coffee like this is for people who are more concerned about a good caffeine buzz cheap. If you are bigger fan of flavored creamer than the taste of coffee, this might be the wave you are surfing.

One downside to this wave is that the the growers get commoditized. Companies that own large farms in many countries with cheap, efficient labor and supply chains can make a lot of money. Small, family growers focusing on quality beans have a hard time competing as the larger companies can set the trade price of coffee lower than the cost of production for smaller companies.

There is little concern for origins, flavor profiles, or unique beans.

Coffee is something you enjoy at home and is an expected hospitality.

Wave 2: The Specialty Coffee Shop

Think Starbucks. Maybe the biggest shift in mindset between wave 1 and 2 is the expectation that you “go out” for coffee. Coffee shops became more of a destination, not just a convenient caffeine buzz as your are running out the door to work in the morning. I think I wrote most of my college term papers in coffee shops, and just about any time I got together with friends, we sought out the local Starbucks. It is as much “location, location, location” as product.

When you peruse the coffee selection, you can see a difference as well. They can tell you a little more about where the beans came from and you get some variety in flavor due to bean selection (not just added flavoring). I learned about peaberries for the first time in a Starbucks. There is also more emphasis on espresso, and specialty drinks.

As for social concern, there is more emphasis on fair trade in recognition that smaller farmers were being squeezed out of existence, threatening the coffee supply chain. These efforts made a difference, but there was still a lot of abuse in this system (listen to part 2 of my interview with coffee grower Ashley Williams).

Wave 3: Coffee is a Luxury Experience

Wave 3 coffee is more than anything a shift in the way we look at the product itself. We all have family members or friends that are snobs about their wine or bourbon (I’m in Louisville, KY after all). Well 3rd wave coffee is about the coffee snob. It is about sourcing really high quality, often small, or even hand selected lots of coffee and experiencing the nuanced flavors hidden inside of each bean. Beans from the same farm can change in flavor from year to year depending on the growing season. It is about enjoying the experience of new flavor profiles and developing your own pallet and preferences.

3rd Wave names you might be familiar with are Intelligensia, Blue Bottle, or Stumptown. If you are in Louisville, think Sunergos, Heine Brothers (the pioneer of 3rd Wave in Louisville), Quills, and other independent coffee shops and roasters.

If you are a 3rd wave person, you probably own at least a few different manual coffee brews as well as a fancy kettle and grinder. You also have an above average likelihood of being a hipster.

Wave 4: A Swelling, Not Yet Cresting Wave

At last we come to 4th Wave Coffee. What is it? Has the 4th Wave crashed upon the beach of the coffee industry at large yet? It is hard to say, so the answer is likely no. There are a number of different ideas about what the 4th Wave looks like, so I think it is safe to say, as different as these ideas are from one another, that the 4th Wave has yet to crest.

Let’s take a look at the ideas definitions that are out there:

  1. Social consciousness
    According to District Roasters, “Fourth wave means that a coffee is a direct and fair trade, organic product with a direct reinvestment to specific farmers and their families. The fourth wave worldview is one of partnership from source to sip and back to the source.” With this definition, the line between 3rd Wave and 4th Wave coffee can be very thin as there are lots of 3rd Wave companies that try to give back to the farmers. The difference seems to be an emphasis on cutting out as many middle-men as possible and dealing with the farmers directly so they too can have a sustainable future in coffee. The goal is not only great coffee, but to “eradicate economic, physical, and spiritual poverty around the world.”
  2. 3rd Wave proliferation
    Another view is that the 4th Wave is just the popularization of 3rd Wave coffee. Imagine picking up a bag of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe in Target (one of my favorites), or getting specialty instant coffee. Cold brew is already taking over supermarkets, and you can pick up a back of Intelligentsia coffee in Kroger, so maybe the 4th Wave is already crashing down upon us!
  3. SuperStar Baristas
    Boomtown Coffee envisions a future where Baristas have their own signature drinks, curated coffee lists, and a devoted following while working in close relation to the growers. Just as Guy Fieri can put his name on a restaurant and be filled to capacity on day 1, so these baristas will have such brand recognition to be in demand wherever they go.
  4. A Taste of History
    This definition is very exciting to me. According to Coco Cinnamon, the 4th Wave “includes learning about the cultures, languages, and places of the people who grown and harvest the coffee.” It is about experiencing high quality coffee while learning and experiencing a bit about the cultures they come from. You have to gain different perspectives on the coffee and understand what coffee means in other cultures and countries. Traveling and experiencing coffee in unique contexts will provide a unique depth of perspective and enjoyment.
  5. Technological Revolution
    “Fourth wave will mean the end of point-of-sale, and will auger the dawn of avocado toast in pill form, under the counter grinders, timers that don’t beep but vibrate, condiment bars that have cinnamon again, and female World Champions for every last coffee competition (without it really being that big of a deal)” according to Sprudge. According to this perspective, we are not actually that close to the 4th wave. We will not experience the 4th wave until the tech revolution takes over the coffee trade. There is still passion for better farmer pay, but combined with environmental consciousness, and maybe even drone delivery! Anyone else thinking of the McDonald’s coffee burn lawsuit?
  6. Cafe as City Center
    Others want to expand the reach and impact of the cafe – “Our vision is to bring local businesses together to transform our city into something invigorating and new. Bradenton craves a collective hub for artists, entrepreneurs, students, and more to come together. We aim to fill that need by partnering with small businesses, artists, and renowned roasters to bring an entirely new experience to our city.” What is a cafe by day may sell craft cocktails, wines, beer by night, bringing in all sorts of clientele and laying down multiple layers of community.
  7. Home Roasting
    The ultimate in fresh coffee! This is my personal favorite version of the 4th wave, as expressed by Coffee Truther. The best coffee is the freshest coffee. You can have the best grinders, fancy espresso machines, all the gear, but without fresh coffee, your experience will be hampered. My favorite supplier is Sweet Maria’s (see my interview with Maria). From simple air popcorn poppers, to Frankensteined gas grills roasters, to multi-thousand dollar sample roasters, home roasting is fun and provides a superb coffee experience!

Thanks for reading. Please like, comment, and share! Please stop by my online coffee shop and pick up some beans!

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