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The Fourth Wave Of Coffee Is...Not Coming.
We talk about different periods of activity in coffee as waves, and numerous publications seem to believe the fourth wave is here. But is it?
In addition to my work at Boss Barista and as a freelance writer, I’m also the editor of a coffee trade publication called Fresh Cup. Every week, I work with Fionn Pooler of The Pourover to publish a newsletter called Coffee News Club. (If you’re interested, we send it every Monday morning; you can sign up here.)
To put together the newsletter, Fionn sifts through press releases, breaking news articles, and think pieces, summarizing the most salient stories into one- or two-paragraph synopses. Sometimes, we’ll pause to chat about a particularly ridiculous news item (like Nespresso’s announcement that it will launch a new campaign with its longtime spokesperson, George Clooney, to highlight climate change—Fionn breaks down why this is absurd here, if you’re interested). One of the recent pieces we spent a long time discussing was a new study from global research firm Mintel, which claims the fourth wave of coffee is coming.
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What’s the fourth wave, you might ask? What are we even talking about when we talk about waves? Why did I get over 60 messages on Instagram when I asked folks what they thought about the alleged “fourth wave of coffee”?
Whoa nelly, we’re about to step into some dicey waters.
Coffee’s Three Waves
Like any intrepid reporter, I started my research on the topic of coffee waves on Wikipedia. I was surprised by the first line in the entry about “third-wave coffee” (there’s no page for the first or second waves): “Third-wave coffee is a movement in coffee marketing emphasizing high quality.” This idea struck me: Before we try to understand what waves are, we should begin with the idea that waves are a marketing term—not an irrefutable fact of nature.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that fact. “When I talked about it, it wasn’t supposed to be shorthand for the industry to engage with itself, but a way to bring consumers into our world and help them engage with us,” Trish Rothgeb told the Los Angeles Times in 2019. Trish coined the term “third wave” in a piece she wrote in 2002 for the Roasters Guild newsletter, borrowing from the way we define the waves of feminism. Rather than describing the industry, the term was intended to make coffee more understandable to consumers.
But if there’s a third wave, what came before, you might ask? Very broadly speaking (and you should read Trish’s article for the Roasters Guild for more details on the different waves), the first wave is thought of as diner coffee and aluminum cans of ground beans—basically, coffee as something easy, affordable, and functional. The second wave is Starbucks; coffee houses as hangout spots (think of Central Perk in the television show “Friends”); freshly ground beans; and the reason we know what lattes are. And, as Wikipedia kindly informs us, the third wave is uniquely quality-focused, coffee as the province of small, artisanal shops and roasters.
What The Data Folks Have To Say
That brings us to Mintel’s report: “Coffee’s Fourth Wave: What It Means for Retail and Foodservice Coffee Brands.”
In the report, author Caleb Bryant boldly claims: “The US coffee market is now entering its fourth wave, marked by Gen Z’s unique coffee preferences and the growth of at-home specialty coffee drinks.” Bryant describes a lot of vital trends and essential shifts in consumer preferences, including:
There is a new focus on the home, as evidenced by the fact that “a third of remote workers own a single-cup specialty coffee brewer.”
At-home equipment brands are exploding in popularity—and investment backing.
TikTok is making an impact: “According to Mintel research, 49% of Gen Z consumers learn about coffee and coffee topics on TikTok.”
Younger coffee drinkers are moving towards cold drinks, with “more than three in five Gen Z consumers order[ing] a cold coffee drink from a foodservice location in the first half of 2022 compared to a third who ordered a hot coffee drink.”
I don’t think these observations are wrong or misguided. In fact, I think they’re highly informative. But do they amount to a coherent fourth wave?
Part of my skepticism is the fact that we’ve heard others claim the fourth wave is looming before—and that those claims have characterized it in many different ways:
In 2019, this outlet stated the fourth wave would emphasize “local roasting and a new generation of clients who want these artisan coffees for their employees.”
In 2016, the coffee publication Sprudge probably wrote one of the most interesting articles about the supposed “fourth wave.” They discuss essential shifts in coffee culture, like increased equity among women and people of color, and changes in power and accessibility. But they stop short of naming the current period of transition the “fourth wave,” instead electing to call it the “New Wave” (and making a very compelling, long-form metaphor with music).
In 2011, the New Yorker seemed to admonish coffee businesses that “sell out” but are still “too hipster” when Stumptown announced it had acquired its first prominent investor, TSG Consumer Partners. However, in an ominous prediction of what was yet to come, the article predicts that the fourth wave would include more acquisitions (the TSG acquisition was one of the first big moves by private equity in the coffee space, which I go into more depth about here).
Just last month, the New York Times wrote a really, really compelling piece about Blank Street Coffee’s sudden ubiquity on city streets, writing, “The fourth wave may reflect the technology-driven quest to brew the perfect drink, or the justice-driven quest to procure beans that sustain both the planet and the people involved in coffee’s long trip from bean to cup.”
Also from last month, this article assumes the fourth wave is already here by dropping the term casually. I thought it was interesting that, in some spaces, “fourth wave” is already so normalized as to not require definition or explanation.
All these articles make compelling points—even the one that assumes the “fourth wave” is here, which speaks to how messy these conventions are getting. But I keep coming back to that little Wikipedia definition. If the idea of waves is a marketing term, publishing outlets should use the term “fourth wave” to present something novel. It sounds big, right? If there have only been three waves of coffee, the fourth must signal something seismic, a clear and visible paradigm shift.
Is that where we are? Or are we plastering “fourth wave” over a collection of small shifts in order to convince each other that a bigger change is happening (or has already happened)?
What Coffee Folks Have To Say
When Fionn first asked me what I thought about the Mintel report and the idea of the “fourth wave,” I thought about it for a while—and realized I have absolutely no idea if the fourth wave is coming, is here, or is very far away.
Initially, I thought, “Not much about coffee has changed—not enough to signal a new wave.” In previous waves, the changes must have been more visible, more obvious.I tried to imagine being a 1950s coffee consumer, buying my first-wave aluminum can of pre-ground coffee. Could I even have conceptualized a world where I could buy whole beans? Would I have known what they looked like, what to do with them?
Then, I imagined being a 1970s Seattle resident, going to Pike Place Market to buy freshly roasted beans from Starbucks, a store that was only supposed to sell whole-bean coffee before Howard Schultz changed the direction of the store drastically. (Even this example signals how much can change within the confines of a single wave—within the second wave, Starbucks went from selling only roasted coffee when it opened in 1971 to being the version we recognize now, hawking lattes and cappuccinos in endlessly iterative coffee shops.) Back then, could I have imagined that there would be hundreds of small, independent roasters all across the globe, that I could get amazing coffee almost anywhere? Could I have fathomed knowing so much about where my coffee was from?
To me, these shifts seem so huge that the change from third to fourth surely has to be something of a similar magnitude, something the current me can hardly fathom. I joked with Fionn that it’d be comparable to making coffee on the moon. But I’m not sure if that’s right: One friend sent me an article about building codes and argued that lower rents and more retail spaces are primarily responsible for the supposedly era-defining plenitude of coffee shops and roasteries.
Optimistically, I’ve heard many of my coffee friends talk about how the fourth wave should be about equity and fair wages. I believe that is an urgent and pressing issue (and is much of what I write about here), but that feels more like a failing of the past than a revolutionary tenet of the future. We should have always had these rights. I also think fair wages aren’t unique to coffee, and speak to the larger labor movement, which is exciting because that gives the issue more universal appeal and understanding—but I don’t think it’s a new approach. It shouldn’t be new to pay people appropriately.
So I did the thing I always do. I asked social media:
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten as many responses to a question I’ve asked on Instagram as I did this one. Folks both reflected thoughts I’ve had about the fourth wave, and offered new ones:
“I think if we’re pointing at anything, it’s workers rights at the barista level.”
“We’re not there yet.”
“Already on the 5th.”
“Not to be bleak, but I think the fourth wave will be coffee navigating the climate crisis.”
“I feel like the fourth wave is all about the essence of giving power to the people.”
“Future market consolidation will prime the next big shift perhaps?”
Ultimately, it seems like there’s no agreement on what “fourth wave” means, let alone if it’s here or not. Perhaps even by writing this, I’m giving a silly gimmick too much credence. But the term “fourth wave” remains a powerful marketing tool, and the idea of waves has helped define how many people, both within and outside of coffee, see themselves and the beverages they consume. I think it’s worth trying to at least outline its parameters for ourselves.
What Do I Think?
So: Do I think we’re in coffee’s fourth wave? No—I don’t think enough has changed about the way we consume coffee. And as I read Mintel’s report, I was struck by one observation the author made: “Fourth-wave coffee may represent a backlash to the overly craft (borderline pretentious) nature of third-wave coffee.”
I don’t think a backlash to a current movement constitutes a wholly new wave. The waves of coffee have built off one another—for better or for worse, we’d have no independent shops without Starbucks, no consumer market without pre-ground cans making coffee broadly accessible. Mintel’s reporting feels like we’re talking about fashion trends rather than new eras, and while their observations are vital (I could write an essay about how we’re not paying enough attention to the fact that Starbucks sells more cold drinks than hot—a fact that will absolutely change how people order coffee), I don’t think they signal a total transformation in the way we should think about coffee.
Instead, where I see glimmers of the fourth wave is internationally: I see coffee changing as we focus on growing specialty coffee consumption outside of colonizing countries. Vera Espíndola Rafael—whose work I reference often, and who was a guest on the show—wrote a paper on this topic, “A Business Case to Increase Specialty Coffee Consumption in Producing Countries.” As she notes, only 10% of the value generated by the coffee market stays within coffee-producing countries, and she argues that more of the value of coffee stays within producing countries when they have strong in-country consumption habits.
For so long, coffee has been a commodity extracted from one part of the world for the pleasure of another. Shifting that paradigm would signal real change, an upending of how coffee has been consumed for centuries.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Ultimately, though, I understand the appeal of these conversations—and I do think it’s worth trying to figure out what’s coming next, because I believe we are at a precipice. We’re confronting the looming issues facing coffee (like climate change and the unignorable specter of coffee’s colonial past), and finally beginning to understand the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
And then there are personal observations. My partner—a person who is truly passionate about coffee—left the industry for good a few weeks ago. I’ve seen champion baristas leave coffee behind altogether. It does feel like something beneath us is shifting, and that this is the moment we get to decide what we want to keep and what stays behind. Contemplating coffee’s potential future might help us codify the lessons we’ve learned from the past, build on what we have today, and ensure tomorrow’s cup is better than the day before. At least, that’s what I hope coffee’s fourth wave will be founded on.
Fionn will also be chatting about the fourth wave on his newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss it.