March 14, 2022, Jos Algra
The third wave and specialty coffee
The third wave is closely associated with specialty coffee, although the latter predates it by 20 years. Specialty coffee is a concept coined by Emma Knutsen in 1974. There is also talk of gourmet coffee, a high-quality coffee that is distinguished from standard coffees treated as commodities.
In the 1980s in the United States, a small group of roasters began to experiment with new types of coffee and lighter roasts to bring out more of the nuances in flavours and aromas, which are lost in the dark roast. It became a movement that quickly spread to many countries in Europe, Asia and Oceania.
The movement developed fairs such as SCA (formerly the Specialty Coffee Association of America SCAA, founded in 1982, and SCAE, its equal in Europe), where buyers and producers meet and quality competitions are held, such as the Cup of Excellence, and competitions of baristas, who turn their profession into an art, beyond cappuccinos.
Originally specialty coffee was defined as coffee with a cup of 80 or better. This narrow definition is rarely used now, not only because an 80 cup is no longer considered as that special, but also because it is not only about the cup quality of the coffee.
The concept of the third wave was launched by Trish Rothgeb in 2002, although Timothy Castle had already used it in an article in 1999. The concept is in analogy with the 3 waves that are distinguished in the history of feminism. Really, until the third wave, analysts began to talk about the first and second waves, analysing history backwards.
Rothgeb, is originally from the San Francisco Bay area, where the second wave with Peet’s Coffee was born. She works as a barista and roaster and was the first female certified Q grader (created in 1996). When she left for Norway some 20 years ago, to roast coffee at a business run by the first world champion barista, she was surprised that young baristas worked much more seriously and intensely with coffee quality than in California. Rothgeb’s way of roasting coffee, less dark roast to rescue the nuances that characterize each coffee, intrigued the Norwegian community.
The second wave highlighted the countries of origin and the different types of coffee they produce, unlike the first wave with blends of standard qualities. The third wave goes further at the farm and producer level. Against the 80–84 rate capsules of large roasters like Nespresso and Keurig Dr. Pepper, the third wave focuses more on the attributes of coffees, often cup 85 and better, and on the artisanal process of small roasters who treat good coffee like good wine.
To understand what is special about a high-quality coffee, you have to understand the entire process, from production to how you prepare and drink the coffee. It is not only about the coffee itself, but also about the people who produce it and the conditions in which they produce. To the traceability of the coffee is added the interest in the transparency and sustainability of the process.
The micro-level approach has disadvantages: the focus is almost exclusively on washed arabica coffees, leaving Robusta aside, within the washed arabica coffees the finest coffees are sought, there is no room for low-lying producers, microlots can be very attractive for individual producers, but they are not an answer for the sector, this coffee is expensive and consumers are mostly white people with a good income and time to seek these experiences. Minorities hardly participate in this movement.
The fourth wave: science, inclusivity or scale?
With the fourth wave begins the controversy in the analysis of trends in the coffee industry with the focus on waves. Does it exist? And if there is, what is it? The fourth wave, if it exists, is still developing and it is difficult to define the characteristics of a process that has not crystallized well yet. There are different versions of what the fourth wave is, which have in common to overcome the disadvantages of the third wave.
Fourth wave 1
According to some analysts, the fourth wave is defined by a more scientific and less romantic approach. The aim is to understand in greater depth the different processes that coffee goes through from production to consumption and to measure and control them. The hours of fermentation, with or without oxygen, how it influences the cup profile. Analyse the chemical composition of coffee, how acidity, aroma, flavour, etc. differ. State-of-the-art technology in roasting, software to control roasting in detail and synchronize remote roasting between supplier and roaster. Recyclable and biodegradable packaging to reduce the environmental footprint. COVID-19, with the closure of many businesses and the boom in online sales, is accelerating the development of this new wave.
It is about instilling in the consumer a much deeper knowledge about coffee, the region where it comes from, the type of process, the cup profile and other important factors to make a decision about which coffee to drink. The information can be provided for example by means of a QR code on the packaging.
Fourth wave 2
A very different analysis of what is being developed in the fourth wave is the focus on inclusiveness. If the third wave is dominated by a limited group of privileged people, the fourth wave wants to make the world of good coffee accessible to everyone, from the producer to the consumer, and all the professionals involved in the process, regardless of origin, race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
Workers in the cafe deserve a minimum wage that allows them to live a decent life. Women must have the same opportunities as men and a safe work environment, both at origin (women’s coffee) and in the producing countries. Discrimination against people of colour occurs in many places and the promoters of the fourth wave identify a lot with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Instead of being passive consumers who adapt to industry standards, they seek ways to actively involve the consumers to contribute their own experiences, step by step, to create a new consumer culture. Coffee businesses interact with the communities in which they are embedded, to adapt to local needs and preferences. It may involve using more affordable cafes to accommodate the purchasing power of the local population.
Fourth wave 3
A third analysis of what is unfolding with the fourth wave emphasizes another weakness of the third wave: lack of scale. If you want to transform the industry, create a solution for millions of producers and workers, and reach millions of consumers, so that they change their attitude towards coffee, some economy of scale is needed.
It somewhat contradicts the first analysis with a growing scientific approach. Over sophistication alienates the common consumer. What has to be done is to rescue the good of the third wave and bring special coffee to the masses, “democratize” the consumption of good coffee and not only in consuming countries, but also in producing countries, so that the standard of the industry becomes quality coffee.
To achieve this, it is necessary to leave the “ghetto” of the snobs and make the promotion of specialty coffees more commercial to attract more consumers. An example is iced coffee and Ready to Drink coffee, which can pull consumers of soft drinks and energy drinks (a segment lost in the first wave) towards the consumption of good coffee.
Third wave roasters and coffee shops can invest in growing their businesses, to reach more customers. Big brands can launch quality coffee lines at affordable prices for the general public.
Producers will be able to benefit more from increasing the marketing of quality coffees than from selling small volumes of very high-quality coffees from a few producers. For that they need to invest in quality and organize themselves to create economies of scale and be able to supply the demand.
The fifth wave: excellence
On the fourth wave there is no consensus if it exists and what it is, but Allegra World Coffee Portal has already launched the fifth wave concept, which looks a bit like a fusion of the first and third versions of the fourth wave and combines elements of the other waves.
It’s not just limited to coffee. These are very ambitious and commercial business models of constant innovation, seeking excellence, quality on a larger scale than the third wave, taking advantage of advances in technology. It interacts with each consumer to find out their preferences, creating market niches. It could be a third wave artisan roaster investing in technology and in growing the business through a chain of “boutique” coffee shops. It can be a large brand creating a new product designed for a specific segment of consumers.
Some already announce the sixth wave that would have a focus on the connectivity between producer and consumer, an exchange mediated by the roaster. In this way the consumer gains an understanding of how production and the supply chain work, a personalized product can be offered and the basis for true sustainability is created. Sounds good, we’ll see.
The waves and the future
The analysis of trends in the coffee industry using the concept of waves has its value, but also its limitations. To begin with, it applies to the Western world and particularly the United States, it is not necessarily representative for the rest of the world. Then, the analysis has a bias towards coffee shops, since the second wave, while the largest amount of coffee is consumed at home.
There is no hierarchy between the waves, they exist in parallel and none have ended, but deficiencies in a trend give rise to changes that can eventually generate a new trend or wave. On the first three waves there is more or less consensus, but as for the fourth and fifth there is not even consensus if they exist, much less what they consist of, largely because we are in the midst of a process that has not crystallized well yet.
The important thing about the analysis is that it shows that the coffee industry is in constant movement and that one has to keep track of the changes in order to know the best way to participate in the market and get the most out of it. The second wave has shown that it is possible to get out of the corset of supplying coffee as a commodity and sell a product that is distinguished by its quality. The third wave has generated interest in the entire process, from the producer to the consumer, in the people behind the coffee and in sustainability, in order to offer a quality product in the future as well.
The challenge is to expand these advances to the general public and generate a response for producers that allows them to live a decent life and offer a perspective for the new generation. For that, it is necessary that one actively participate in shaping the fourth / fifth wave, directly with clients and collectively, advocating for greater transparency and sustainability in the business, in exchange for a quality product. The waves are not events that just happen to us, they are movements in which we participate and that we can help shape.
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