Each time there is a large shift in the coffee landscape it’s generally referred to as a “wave”. Some experts say we are now in the 4th of these coffee waves as the way we grow, buy, and consume coffee has shifted dramatically thanks, in part, to TikTok (yes, really).
Fourth wave coffee doesn’t have a singular definition. Instead, coffee experts debate between two main themes. Either it’s been triggered by the increase in ready-to-drink and iced coffees. Or, 4th wave coffee refers to an increase in social consciousness around the way coffee is grown and the treatment of those who grow it.
Whether someone focuses on the first or second definition mostly depends on whether they’re trying to promote coffee drinks or sell you coffee beans. So, as someone who started working in the industry not long after the third wave of coffee hit its stride, I’m going to walk you through all the changes we’re seeing. I’ll break down all the things that have coffee nerds excitedly talking about this new wave.
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There is a lot of debate about whether there even is a fourth wave of coffee. But, assuming there is one (which we tend to agree with), the waters get even murkier when pinning down exactly what it means.
One thing is for certain though: coffee is in a period of change.
The International Trade Centre’s Alliances for Action sums up fourth wave coffee as “commercializing specialty”. In their 2021 report titled ‘The Coffee Guide’, they said:
[Fourth wave coffee] means moving away from the ‘passion project’ characteristic of the third wave and towards a more commercial focus that can yield long-term profit.International Trade Centre
In other words, it’s about combining the commercialization aspects of the second wave with the sustainability concepts that came about in the third wave.
This includes expanding the sales of specialty coffee to much of the global south and under-developed world instead of it being almost exclusively a “South to North” trade. The aim is to develop consumer markets for high-quality specialty coffee in the countries where it’s grown.
The movement is also trying to make specialty coffee more accessible. Essentially removing the stigma of it being “pretentious” (or “wanky” as I would say) and making it mainstream.
Responsible Coffee Drinking
Thanks to the vast amount of information available at our fingertips, there is greater awareness of our impact on the environment and coffee-growing communities. This focus on quality and sustainability started in third-wave coffee and, thankfully, is becoming more widespread.
Coffee growers are being increasingly adversely affected by climate change. It has the potential to decimate the global coffee supply if the social and environmental impact of our coffee choices aren’t taken into consideration.
So transparency within the supply chain will only become more and more important in the coming years.
Cold Coffee Juggernaut
Cold coffee drinks are hot business these days, with Gen Z leading the charge.
According to Starbucks, 75% of all their sales in Q3 2023 were cold drinks. This is a huge uptake of 13% year over year.
This surge in popularity of cold coffee drinks is another aspect of the 4th wave of coffee. We are seeing soft drink consumers transformed into coffee consumers.
It’s not just at coffee shops and global coffee chains either. Ready-to-drink coffee products such as canned lattes and espresso are increasingly popular too.
The Rise of CoffeeTok
Love it or hate it, social media has the power to touch just about every part of our lives. And coffee is no different.
The coffee landscape is dramatically changing thanks to social media. According to Mintel, 60% of Gen Z consumers take to TikTok to learn about coffee. Just do a quick search for #CoffeeTok and you’ll see the overwhelming popularity of this genre of content.
It’s an exciting time as it shows a bottom-up approach to trends where individual influencers and content creators shape the future of coffee rather than the big corporations.
Influencers on Instagram and TikTok share easy coffee hacks and unique recipes for their followers to make at home or order from big chains like Starbucks. (The latter being the more popular version.) They’re usually sweet cold coffee beverages with a few, or sometimes a lot, of add-ons to create unique flavor or color profiles.
As a former barista, I have nothing but sympathy for the employees who have to make these custom drinks. Sometimes they’ll have as many as 20 changes from the coffee listed on the menu.
But I do love how easy and accessible it’s making home coffee brewing.
Home Coffee Brewing
When the pandemic hit, many of us were forced to stay at home without access to our beloved coffee shops. So lockdown became a prime opportunity to learn how to make high-quality coffee at home – a key factor of the fourth wave coffee movement.
Whether it was a super-automatic espresso machine, a single-serve (like Keurig and Nespresso), or specialty pour-over/ cold brew equipment, being able to get your coffee fix at home became imperative.
Even now, many people haven’t returned to the office at all or are now on hybrid working patterns. This shift towards home coffee brewing isn’t going away any time soon.
The first wave of coffee dates back to the 1700s and runs all the way to the 1970s.
During this period of coffee’s history, it spread as a global commodity and as a drink accessible to all. Previously, it was only consumed by intellectuals and the wealthy but this period took coffee into households and offices, becoming part of people’s daily routine.
After the Europeans were introduced to coffee by the Ottomans coffee houses started springing up all over Europe.
Big commercial coffee brands like Folger’s, Maxwell House, and Nescafe emerged.
But the commercialization of coffee during this time had zero interest in quality. It was about mass-produced, mass-market products that were affordable. So filter and instant coffee were the most popular forms – espresso wasn’t even invented until the 1940s.
Second wave coffee started in the 1970s with coffee firmly established as a household staple.
Now, people were looking for quality coffee and were willing to explore different flavor profiles. Consumers were willing to pay more to purchase ethically sourced coffee.
Coffee chains like Starbucks and Peets spearheaded this movement in the US.
They took the previous coffee house model and tried to automate it. This moved the coffee house away from students and intellectuals into the mainstream.
They focused on two main areas:
Firstly, they developed unique drinks using syrups and flavored creams in addition to espresso.
Secondly, they prioritized being able to drink your coffee in a comfortable environment. This turned coffee into an enjoyable social experience to be savored (plus it encouraged people to stay longer!)
It was also during this time that the phrase ‘specialty coffee’ first appeared and the Specialty Coffee Association of America was founded.
The third wave of coffee is when the focus started to shift to the fine details of coffee: the origin, the roast, the unique flavors, and different profiles of beans from unique single origins. It became about the craft – from the way the beans were grown to the skill of the barista.
This was a 21st-century movement that defines the coffee industry as we know it today.
Transparency and traceability became increasingly important.
Artisanal coffee roasters started to put the kind of information on the packaging that we’re used to seeing now. Details like the individual farms, towns, or regions that the coffee beans come from along with the specific coffee varieties used and processing methods.
With the amount of knowledge readily available on the internet, education about coffee soared so consumers now know what these details mean.
The brewing methods changed too:
AeroPress and pour over (like V60 and Chemex) became hugely popular as these styles of coffee makers can highlight the distinct flavors in various coffees.
Lighter roasts also became more popular as the regional variation in coffee flavors is more apparent than with dark roast coffee. Plus, there were fewer syrups and additives used, instead celebrating the natural flavor of the coffee.
Whether you believe there’s a fourth wave coffee movement or not, it’s clear that the industry is seeing some pretty big changes. These changes focus most heavily on two themes:
Firstly, that coffee is a more personal experience. Whether it’s tailoring your home setup for that perfect espresso, pour over, French press, or cold brew or buying a custom drink from a large coffee chain.
Coffee that is perfectly suited to you is the order of the day.
Secondly, there’s an increased awareness of our collective responsibility towards coffee growers and the environment. Understanding our role in the coffee supply chain will only become more important as climate change has a greater effect on the coffee belt and producers.
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