What are the three waves of coffee?

You may never have heard of the three waves of coffee, but it is a very old concept that is now being heard more than ever as we are now in the midst of the third wave. To talk about the waves of coffee is to talk about the history of coffee and how it has evolved over the past centuries.

But before we get into the subject, let’s start at the beginning:

What are the three waves of coffee?

The term ‘three waves of coffee’ refers to the different phases or periods that the coffee industry has gone through throughout its history. Each of the phases or movements is motivated by some big economic, social or cultural change or rupture.

Naturally, the borderline between one and the other is quite blurred, and changes do not happen overnight, but in general terms, these three moments can be clearly identified as the three waves of coffee:

The first wave of coffee: 19th Century

The first disruptive change in the history of coffee takes place in the course of the 19th century, when the coffee goes from being a small commodity to a commodity (thus acquiring a high commercial value and economic weight) known throughout the world.

At that moment, the full economic potential of coffee came to light, and the general public began to buy it on a regular basis to consume it at home. We can say that this first coffee wave was the birth of the coffee industry as we know it today.

The most visible consequence of this first coffee wave is the appearance on the market of a host of products that are still successful today: soluble coffee, vacuum-packed coffee packets, and so on. It should be noted that until then, coffee was consumed in bulk as a raw material.

And in the wake of this economic explosion… the eyes of business and commerce began to focus on coffee as a profitable commodity.

The second wave of coffee: the 70s of the 20th century

The second wave of coffee is often linked to the emergence of Starbucks (hence the date in the 1970s) and the revolution brought about by the arrival of this American chain in the hospitality industry. At first, this change was most noticeable in the United States, but over the years and with globalisation, the consequences were seen all over the world.

And what are the consequences of the second coffee wave? Above all, the redesign of the concept of the coffee shop (which has become a meeting place, not just a place for consumption) and the effort to educate the customer in the consumption of quality coffee, where the origins and types of coffee can be highlighted more. Until then, these parameters went completely unnoticed.

The consumption of coffee beans and not so much instant coffee is also beginning to be more highly valued. It can also be said that up to this point, coffee was mainly consumed as an energiser, and from the second wave onwards, it was more appreciated for pleasure and taste.

Of course, the improvement of space and the search for higher quality coffee on a global level have brought with them an increase in price and also greater creativity when it comes to exploring new combinations and offering new proposals to an increasingly diverse public. You know, frappuccinos, pumpkin spice lattes and so on?

The third wave of coffee: the beginning of the 21st century

We can place the third wave of coffee in our time, as we are currently living it. But if we are a little stricter, we could go forward a few years and go back to the first decade of the 21st century. The key moment of rupture was when the domestic consumer, the general public, began to appreciate quality coffee, to look for it in shops and to find out about the origins and varieties to which they had access.

If we want to put a name to it, it is a question of an increase in the consumer’s profile and also of the industry itself facilitating this increase. By pampering the customer, providing information and creating a story around the grain that is being used in the production process. How was the grain processed? When was it roasted? Which farm does it come from?

Terms such as speciality coffee, roasting, bean types, aftertaste or coffee processing are also starting to become popular… which decades ago were completely unknown to the local and domestic consumer.

A summary of what the three waves of coffee were

  • First wave: coffee becomes a global commodity. 19th century.
  • Second wave: industrial coffee production. Late 20th century.
  • Third wave: the origin and properties of the bean are valued. Beginning of the 21st century.