The Three Waves of the Coffee Phenomena

A woman holding a cup of coffee


Coffee wasn’t always known as a delicious beverage to help kickstart someone’s day. In fact, most Western countries have only been consuming the beverage, en masse, for the last 200 or so years; a fairly recent trend considering the beverage’s 15th-century origins in Yemen. The popularity of the beverage is in debt to the efforts taken to promote the product to a thirsty market. These efforts are seen as three distinct movements, also known as the First Wave, Second Wave and Third Wave. Here’s a quick rundown on the waves that have established coffee to be what it is today.

First Wave

The origins of the first wave coffee movement go back to the 1800s. Savvy businessmen saw an opportunity to make coffee more convenient and affordable. By harnessing the benefits of mass production, entrepreneurs were able to apply the invention of Satori Kato - of expanding the tea dehydration process to coffee - resulting in what is now known as ‘instant coffee’. Soon after, brands such as Folgers, Maxwell House and Nescafe, began producing and marketing instant coffee to Western consumers. As we all know, instant coffee is a quick and easy solution to making a cup of coffee without requiring any brewing equipment. Instant coffee was favoured amongst the soldiers in WWI and housewives in kitchens, as the drink was able to provide a quick ‘caffeine kick’, as opposed to providing a rich and flavourful experience.

While the First Wave is criticised for focusing on convenience rather than flavour, it does deserve the credit for making coffee widely accessible and favoured in many countries. The mass-marketed initiatives of the first wave movement were pivotal for establishing the coffee flavour, beverage and industry as a contending force for the future.

Second Wave

The first wave coffee movement succeeded in familiarising the commoner with the flavour of the coffee. But, what followed was a reaction to the bad coffee that was marketed under the first wave. In addition, consumers started seeing coffee as something more than just a beverage. They started to see it as an experience. What followed from this reaction, is known as the ‘Second Wave’ of coffee. 

Businesses started to notice this particular preference amongst consumers. Soon, businesses such as Starbucks began leveraging this preference by offering consumers a coffee product superior to that of instant coffee, combined with a social dining experience. Coffee establishments began investing in their dining interiors and facilities, so as to make their premises more comfortable and attractive to patrons. Coffee establishments also began broadening their product offering, as menus started including other coffee-based beverages (such as iced coffee and frappuccinos), on top of their usual offering of lattes, flat whites and cappuccinos.

Third Wave

The third (and most recent) coffee movement saw a reaction against its predecessor; a reaction against the promotion of inferior coffee promoted by franchise companies such as Starbucks. With that being said, the focus of the third wave movement is not so much on the customer (i.e. the focus of the first wave), nor the marketing (i.e. the focus of the second wave). The focus of the third wave is on the product; the product that we now know as ‘specialty coffee’.

The developments of the third wave movement have opened up a rich avenue of information about specialty coffee; information that is accessible to the consumer. By learning about the growing conditions of the coffee (such as soil, altitude and climate), along with the processing methods, consumers can come to understand and appreciate coffee in a much more sophisticated manner. The emphasis on origin also increases the interest and transparency of the sourcing. This means that farmers are being valued and supported in a new and exciting way. 

The third wave of coffee can also be described as the decentralisation of coffee establishments. Rather than purchasing coffee from a chain, consumers can now explore and discover a swathe of small, independent cafes and roasters. While being ubiquitous in cities such as Melbourne (Australia), Portland (USA) and Berlin (Germany), the Third Wave coffee movement is still establishing itself across the globe. This means that there is still an ever-growing number of roasters and cafes that coffee lovers can endeavour to discover.