If you have heard some of the more common jargon in the coffee industry, you’ve likely come across the phrase first wave, second wave, or third wave—or maybe all three. For some, it may bring up fond memories of Johnny Utah crushing some sweet swells in Point Break, but I assure you it has nothing to do with surfing or Keanu Reeves (though I could likely come up with a few parallels if I really tried).
Coffee “waves” are like generations, or eras, in the evolution of modern coffee. Each wave has been meaningfully different from the previous one, with notable variations in traceability, quality, and roast profiles. You can think of each wave as being a kind of reaction to the one preceding it.
The first wave was part of an exponential growth in coffee consumption. Generally considered to have occured between 1900 and the 1970s, the focus was primarily on commoditization and efficiency. Think of Nescafe instant coffee or Folgers. Inferior quality coffees became commonplace, with many roasters using Robusta or even cheap fillers like chicory. These coffees established the often harsh profile that many Americans grew to love or at least consider normal.
The second wave was a reaction to the poor quality of the first wave and the desire for a more artisanal product. The most well known company of second wave coffee is none other than Starbucks. Traceability was certainly not at its peak during this period, but it was moving in the right direction. The main focus was on roast profiles, notably full city, Vienna, French Roast, and the infamous Italian roast (essentially light, medium, dark, and super dark.) Espresso drinks also became more popular during the second wave.
In 2002, the term third wave was coined in a Roasters Guild publication, Flame Keeper, written by Trish Rothgeb of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters. The evolution of coffee from first to third wave has given the consumer the opportunity to not only know the country or region the coffee comes from, but the producer, processing method, and even the specific lot where the coffee was grown. A good way to think about the third wave is that, more than just roast level, quality becomes more an outcome of maximizing the terroir, variety, and other natural attributes of the coffee.