Is the 4th wave here?

Posted by Erin Plett on

First some background. What is a coffee "wave"?

A "wave" is when there have been large changes to something in such a way that it's different than before. If we want to use the transportation industry as an example we could say that first it started with walking, then with horses, then boats, trains and cars. 

It is generally generally thought in the coffee world that there have been three major waves: The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet's and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. Then the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out the unique flavours of each coffee bean rather than roasting too dark to hide the unique characteristics of each bean. [Jonathan Gold

So what has changed to make us think that we might be into the next wave?

In my personal experience I came to an appreciation of coffee directly as a result of drinking Starbucks.  Then overtime I was exposed to some great coffees from independent specialty coffee roasters where each coffee tasted different from the other and I learned that this was because of the way these companies sourced, processed and roasted the coffee.

When I went out for coffee I generally had two choices: the coffee companies that produced dark roast coffees and those who tend to prefer the light to medium roast. Well, very recently Tim Horton's started offering dark roast coffee, Starbucks started roasting lighter (first with the blonde roast and now with the Reserve coffees) and Second Cup is revolutionizing their coffee shop experience in an attempt to make it less commercial and more artisanal. Throw into the mix the independent specialty coffee shops and you can't blame consumers for having a hard time identifying what sets each one of these apart.

Where does this leave us?

For the most part the general public has re-adopted the mom & pop shop and shopping local.  As the general population's coffee knowledge is increasing they are also seeing that their local independent coffee shop is often the one doing the best job of brewing a tasty brew.  Part of this is because these small companies can be nimble and therefore can implement changes quicker than the big guys.

Also, Millennials in North America tend to want less of a corporate vibe and, along with their increase in spending power, you see big corporations starting to attempt to be more "boutique" and less cookie cutter. Instead of every McDonald's and Starbucks feeling the same and familiar in every country or neighbourhood you're in, these companies are now trying to adopt the feel of that neighbourhood so that it truly does feel like a local neighbourhood spot. I generally think this is a good move on their behalf.

What these large companies can't change is that they're corporate giants - it will be interesting to see how the knowledge that was gained from specialty coffee shops will be commercializing and mass produced while at the same time trying to be sensitive to each neighbourhood.
I see a positive trend in particular with regard to the quality of coffee being served and this is a good sign because it shows that all the hard work that the specialty coffee scene has done to pass knowledge to the consumers has worked. I also think it is good for coffee (the brewed beverage) as it there is a higher emphasis on taste quality than we've seen before from the corporate giants.

In an interesting twist of fate these large coffee companies created the culture that spawned the specialty coffee scene and now the specialty coffee scene is influencing how the large companies are moving forward.  We'll see where things go from here...