The History and Emerging Trends of Coffee

While the history of coffee reaches back beyond the 16th century to Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula, the mass production and pervasive proliferation of coffee is much more recent. Modern coffee history is divided into waves — three or four of them, depending on whom you ask. The terminology for the waves was coined by Trish Skeie of the Roaster’s Guild in a newsletter for the guild in 2003, and is now used widely throughout the coffee industry around the world.

First Wave

The first wave of the modern coffee industry began in the late 1800s, when brands like Folgers and Maxwell House emerged and began mass-producing coffee. Between 1900 and 1901, vacuum packaging and instant coffee were both developed, allowing coffee to be shipped farther and brewed faster by the end user. The 1920s also brought on decaffeinated coffee, allowing the drink to be enjoyed by those who didn’t want a caffeine buzz.

1921 Maxwell House ad

1921 Maxwell House ad from The Corpus Christi Caller

Many industries suffered during the World Wars, but coffee certainly wasn’t one of those – instant coffee was perfect for soldiers’ rations, requiring no brewing equipment and offering much-needed energy. Another important development came at the end of the first wave, even as the second wave was picking up steam: Mr. Coffee, the first automatic drip home coffeemaker, was introduced to the market in 1972 to immediate success, due to its ability to produce better-tasting coffee than a percolator. Thanks to more widespread availability and ease of use, these innovations cemented coffee as a staple in most American households and paved the way for the second wave.

Second Wave

Second wave coffee was driven by consumers realizing that there was more to coffee than the mass-produced brands that made the drink so prevalent. Specialty coffee grew in popularity, beginning with Alfred Peet, founder of Peet’s Coffee. Two of the best-known coffee chains that popped up during the second wave are interwoven in an interesting tangle of founders and buyers.

  • 1966: Alfred Peet opens the first Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley, Calif.
  • 1971: Jerry Baldwin, Zev Seigl, and Gordon Bowker learn how to roast coffee beans at Peet’s store. With his permission, they open the first Starbuck’s, selling only freshly roasted beans.
  • 1982: Howard Schultz becomes director of marketing at Starbucks and tries to convince the owners to begin selling brewed coffee. His idea is shot down.
  • 1984: The three owners of Starbucks purchase Peet’s, where they originally learned their craft.
  • 1985: Schultz quits Starbucks to start his own coffee shop chain, Il Giornale, where he is very successful selling coffee drinks in addition to beans.
  • 1987: Having found success with his chain of coffee houses, Schultz returns to buy Starbucks from Baldwin, Seigl, and Bowker, who instead want to focus on building up Peet’s. Schultz rebrands all his Il Giornale stores as Starbucks and the company soon spreads around the world.
Starbucks founders Gordon Bowker, Zev Siegl, and Jerry Baldwin

Starbucks founders Gordon Bowker, Zev Siegl, and Jerry Baldwin

Starbucks is often pointed to as the culmination of second wave coffee, with its specialty coffee beverages that made words like ‘Americano’ and ‘latte’ commonplace. By 2006, 40 percent of all coffee sold in America was specialty coffee. Starbucks also helped make coffee a social experience, designing their shops to encourage consumers to stay while they drank. In fact, many believe that the social aspect of coffee came to overpower the drink itself, and so flavor and technique fell by the wayside. This is where the third wave steps in.

Third Wave

Skeie, who first applied the ‘wave’ term to coffee trends, pointed to Norway in 2003 as the origin of the third wave and predicted, with some accuracy, that the trends seen there would spread across the world. The main marker of the third wave is baristas as artisans, carefully crafting drinks based on their own experiences and preferences rather than going by decades-old standards. There is also often a focus on single-source beans, sustainable farming, and ethical trading practices.

We spoke with Aaron Hill, the director of coffee and manager of the upcoming west Knoxville, Tenn., location for the Honeybee Coffee Company, to take a look back at these waves of coffee, and a look forward at what new trends are emerging now.

“These terms are definitely used every day, because it really helps describe the difference between companies and how you define yourself [and] where your emphasis is as a company,” says Hill. “We would describe ourselves as third wave, because we do a modern roast for our coffees, know about origin, and care [about] the farmers. People have only really started caring about the taste and quality of coffee for the last 10 years, so it’s still very new in a sense. Coffee sodas and coffee cocktails are really cool, and there’s so much potential there for creativity.”

The third wave of coffee and the new way consumers are coming to view the drink have led to a newfound popularity of the locally owned coffee shop. Of course, Starbucks is still nearly ubiquitous, but small businesses with a focus on quality are seeing a comeback by targeting customers who value quality over speed. Small-scale roasters like Stumptown Coffee in Portland, Ore., and Counter Culture in Durham, N.C., are rising in popularity, and Intelligentsia, another well-known third wave coffee shop, has recently been purchased by the second-wave giant Peet’s.

Fourth Wave… Maybe

The great debate now in the coffee industry seems to be over whether or not a fourth wave is upon us. Some industry professionals seem to think that on-demand roasts made available by the internet are a sign of the fourth wave, while others claim it’s been here since 2010, when advanced espresso machines opened up new options for baristas. Some businesses are using ‘fourth wave’ as a marketing term for their innovative coffee-based products that are well outside the bounds of what would usually be sold in a coffee shop. Others, like Honeybee Coffee Company, prefer to define the fourth wave by a growing focus on communication between barista and consumer.

“We are trying to move beyond third wave with our customer service, which is where we believe third wave has lacked,” says Hill. “People are the most important to us.”

Today has been amazing, thank you Knoxville! We'll be here until 9! 🐝☕

A photo posted by Honeybee Coffee Company (@honeybeecoffeeco) on

To add to the confusion, some deny that we’re anywhere near a fourth wave, instead attributing recent trends to a “New Wave”. The term is borrowed from the music movement of the 70s and 80s that combined old ideas with new technology, which is what some believe is happening in the coffee industry. And of course, there are those who reject the wave terminology altogether.

Current Coffee Trends

Keeping an eye on coffee trends can help boost coffee sales, no matter which ‘wave’ your business falls in. After acquiring Intelligentsia, for example, Peet’s wasted no time in testing out third-wave techniques by opening a slow bar, which is a coffee shop setup that allows customers to select their roasts and watch the baristas brew the coffee. These baristas often use time-consuming brewing methods that give the slow bar its name, carefully heating water to a specific temperature and manually pouring the water over grounds in a filter suspended over a mug. While slow bars have been around in small coffee shops for a few years, we may begin to see those on a larger scale if Peet’s sees success with its endeavor.

Cold-brew coffee is a trending process in which coffee is brewed with little to no heat, resulting in a smoother flavor. Another related trend, embraced in 2016 by Starbucks, is nitro cold brew coffee, where coffee is stored in kegs and infused with nitrogen as it is dispensed through taps, much like beer. This process affects the taste and texture of the coffee, making the final product a little creamier and sweeter, and adding a beer-like head of foam to the top.

These are the current trends playing out in the coffee market, but looking ahead is especially important if you want to set your coffee shop apart from the crowd.

“We listen to a lot of coffee podcasts and blogs, like Sprudge,” says Hill. “I also subscribe to the Barista Hustle newsletter. It’s really easy to stay informed right now because there’s something new every day.”

Coffee Competitions

A great place to spot upcoming trends and creative techniques in the coffee world is at coffee championships. Honeybee Coffee is hosting one of two regional 2017 U.S. Coffee Championship qualifying competitions, taking place January 21-22 at the Knoxville Convention Center.

“Barista competitions are really unique – basically you have a timed presentation where you prepare an espresso, a cappuccino, and a special drink, and the whole time you are basically giving a speech. It’s very cool, people train really hard and a long time for these competitions,” says Hill. “We are super excited to be a part of this event!”

While helping plan and host the upcoming competition, Honeybee Coffee is also working on opening a new location and keeping its coffee trailer and South Knoxville location operating.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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