What is the third wave of coffee?

Let's get started clarifying what are these waves of coffee. Essentially, waves of the coffee movement are defined by how consumers relate to coffee.

Coffee beans and coffee tech mostly have not changed over the last 100 years, but our ability to use them has. The Espresso Machine was invented in 1884, the Percolator wasn't invented until 1880, and whereas the original stovetop boiling has spawned some variations over time, the core technology that drives these devices has remained completely unchanged. Moka pots are a derivative of espresso machines, french presses are a derivative of boiled coffee, drip machines are a more convenient percolator, and on it goes the list.

roasting coffee


What has changed is the perspective of both the public and manufacturers, the ability and knowledge to wield these machines, and the nuanced approaches to roasting, brewing, and all the other stages of processing.

So let me walk you through how all of this has been changing, so we can understand where we are now, and where it is likely to go.


1st Wave of Coffee (1800 - 1960)

This coffee era could simply be summarised as the time when coffee was widely introduced to the public.

You could say that nowadays every household has some coffee in it. We kind of take for granted that most people start their mornings drinking a cup of coffee. And that is true for almost any country on earth.

Coffee has been extraordinarily mainstream in the last century. Historically speaking, that's kind of unusual because it hasn't always been like that. In ancient times people would wash down their breakfast with milk, ale, wine, or just plain water. Other regions would drink some sort of tea and yes, some people would drink coffee. But the vast majority of the planet didn't even know coffee existed. 

The first wave of coffee arrived to change all of that. People started to know the existence of coffee, they learned their effects and realized they might like this beverage. Companies quickly discovered they could make huge money if they were capable of introducing a new product to be consumed everywhere daily. Brands like Nestle, Maxwell House, or Folgers started mass-producing cheap and accessible coffee. Something that everyone could afford and drink every day of their lives. 

old coffee cans


Of course, to produce anything at such a large scale and maintain a low price, the quality needed to be affected. Coffee produced on the first wave was bitter, plain, and with no nuanced after taste. It was kind of inevitable that everyone would start adding milk, cream, and sugar to their coffees.


2nd Wave of Coffee (1960 - 2010)

If we have summarised the first wave of coffee as the transition that brought mediocre, tasteless coffee on everyone’s kitchen, the second wave can be summarised as the movement that introduced flavours to that coffee. You can think of it as the moment brands like Starbucks started to kick off.

extremely flavoured coffee

One of the characteristics of the low-quality coffee that was mainstream during the first wave, is that it was bland and flavourless.

That is an obvious problem for coffee brands, particularly in a society with a growing interest in strong shocking flavours that was starting to add sauces and spices everywhere. The cheapest way to take low-quality bland coffee and make it taste like something is to roast it coal-black. It might taste like ashes but at least it tastes like something.

To balance that bitterness, everyone started to add even more sweet stuff; and some brands got popular by adding tons of sugar, heavy cream, syrups and exotic flavours to balance heavily burnt roasted coffee.

And before we could even notice it, we were riding over the second wave of coffee. Whereas the first wave made coffee available to everyone, the second wave made coffee enjoyable for everyone. Yet there's one thing that has been overly present in both waves: all produced coffee is cheap and of the lowest quality.


3rd Wave of Coffee (2010 - Present)

The bright side of indulging decades of charred coffee sunk in sugary creams is that coffee as a beverage became extremely popular. Not only as a cheap way to buzz you up every morning but also as an experience worth enjoying. 

Waves of people sitting down to appreciate the flavour of their coffee inevitably lead to the discovery of a more sophisticated public. A public that was not content anymore with just any dark coffee whose bitterness gets drowned in syrups. Coffee drinkers started stripping the beverage from those sweet additives and discovering the actual flavour that good beans can produce.

Of course, all this lead to the increase in popularity of what is known as Specialty Coffee

We all know that drinking wine is considered a sophisticated consumption experience that can be enhanced by knowledge of the product. Even beer has its niche of artisanal connoisseurs that appreciate the subtleties of different brewing methods. Similarly, the third wave of coffee is popularising the enjoyment of drinking coffee as a rich sensory experience beyond just a cup of coffee. 

This era now appreciates the subtleties of producing high-quality coffee. Consumers now want to know the type of beans they buy, the geography of their farms and roasting practices used. It makes an art of brewing methods, and drinking coffee becomes a cosmopolitan experience.

Where the second wave was about providing a consistent, pleasurable experience, the third is more interested in providing curated and unique experiences that you will remember.


third wave of coffee


Of course, there are many companies out there using the terms Specialty Coffee or Third Wave of Coffee as marketing buzzwords. Instead of the typical "Our product is the best in the world". And I have even found brands claiming to spearhead the Fourth Wave of Coffee, as a branding trick, because their coffee is just "so much better".


Despite pesky marketing tricks, the 3rd wave of coffee is a thing. It's great that now the public wants to be aware of the origin of a product, to ensure it has been cultivated sustainably. Appealing brands don't only have random words with no meaning. They have a mission and a purpose, beyond just selling that product. 


And that's why I started The Whale Coffee. Because I believe it's possible to have a product that it's both of the highest quality while its production is sustainable and fair. I also believe in brands with a mission, and that's why The Whale Coffee is not a random name. Part of the profits generated will go directly to adopt endangered whales.