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Defining coffee’s waves of innovation

Wave #1: Coffee gets hot

The First Wave coffee movement dates all the way back to the 19th century. Coffee itself was a pure commodity, with virtually no information on point of origin or roast.

Due to advances in packaging and brewing technologies, coffee was making its way into homes across the US, with the goal of having it available to all Americans.

This was the very beginning of retail coffee with brands like Folgers (founded 1850) and Maxwell House (founded 1892) becoming key companies.

Wave #2: New coffee varieties appear

The Second Wave is characterised by the growth of coffee houses and a more specialised view of coffee that these coffee houses provided by introducing Americans to European espresso beverages, like lattes and cappuccinos.

The prime example of Second Wave coffee is when Howard Schultz bought Starbucks in 1987 and aggressively grew the brand throughout the 90s to present day.

Coffee shops became known for their ambiance, and the coffee itself became nuanced as locations began featuring coffee from specific locations, such as Sumatran coffee and Costa Rican coffee.

The birth of single-cup, which offered brewed coffee with convenience, variety and easy preparation, also appeared during the Second Wave. Single-cup ultimately sparked the decline of instant coffees as the taste of brewed coffee largely became preferred over that of crystalised or powdered forms.

Wave #3: It’s all about the coffee

The Third Wave is all about the coffee itself as it is now, less of a commodity and often features detailed tasting notes. While Second Wave coffee may mention the country of origin, Third Wave coffee always provides the country of origin – sometimes even the specific farm – where the coffee was grown.

Third Wave coffee shops almost always serve single-origin coffee varieties that are typically either small-batch roasted or roasted on site.

Third Wave coffee is also marketed as being fair to farmers or grown using sustainable practices, falling in line with Mintel Trend Moral Brands, which notes how consumers are increasingly turning to brands that highlight their humanitarian efforts.

The Third Wave coffee movement created renewed focus on coffee brewing methods, as well. While it can be prepared in a regular drip brewer, it is often brewed via the pour-over method using a Hario V60 or Chemex.

Some artisan locations and at-home coffee connoisseurs even use laboratory-like brewing equipment such as the vacuum pot, areopress, or a moka pot.

Cold brew, nitros, and ready-to-drink (RTD) coffees available on tap also entered the space during the Third Wave, creating premiumised brewing methods for cold coffee varieties.

Wave evolution: What’s next?

Whether there is a Fourth Wave that marks the beginning of a “utopia coffee culture” – where coffee transcends above any commodity designation and is something savoured and celebrated by all – or, rather, another evolution into a more sophisticated and complex cup of coffee remains to be seen.

We find that while the beginning of the Third Wave highlights a greater emphasis on sourcing and specialty/artisan brewing methods, the next wave will bring greater attention to the treatment of the coffee bean. This includes further emphasis on sourcing, growing and work conditions for farmers, individualised craftsmanship, and complex or artisanal roasting methods, such as aging and smoking.

The nuances currently appreciated in the spirits and craft beer categories, like barrel type and age time, will also be highlighted and, in turn, will create greater complexity and more parallels between the coffee and alcoholic beverage categories.

This is not to say that innovation with coffee preparation will dissipate. The category will continue to see more experimental brewing methods wax and wane in popularity as coffee continues to ride the Third Wave, which likely brings new coffee pairings and cross-over products within both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink spaces.