If you have ever taken a gender studies class, you are probably familiar with the Three Waves of Feminism, each characterized by different time periods and the varying causes that were fought for. Something you’re probably less familiar with are the Three Waves of Coffee… that is unless you are one of those people who exclusively drink deconstructed lattes and can’t help themselves from sighing loudly at the mention of “Starbucks.”
But within these “what-do-you-mean-you-don’t-have-a-local-roaster” circles, the history and development of coffee during different time periods is defined by its distribution and consumption at the time. The term to describe these stages — “waves” — was first coined by Trish Rothgeb in a 2002 newsletter to the Speciality Coffee Association of America about the third phase of coffee (rumor has it that members of this trade guild burst into flames upon simply looking at a Starbucks logo). The phrase became incredibly popular and was used by culinary publications across the nations to assert a type of chronology. However, there was still wide disagreement as to what constituted the first two waves of coffee. Whereas some argue that the first goes as far back as the ruthless British colonial schemes in the 1800s that brought coffee to the West, others simply define the waves by the U.S. consumption in more recent times. John Gold, one of the most acclaimed and decorated food critics currently writing for the Los Angeles Times, described the waves as following:
“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 Peete’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”
However, this was all back in 2008, and much has happened in the coffee scene since. After a decade and a half of espresso concoctions gradually becoming more elaborate, is it possible that we’re at the dawn of a new wave? Only time will tell, but, for now, let’s play around with some of the emerging trends in the culinary and cocktail worlds and see what they may mean for the future of coffee. Could any of these emerging trends be used to predict what the Fourth Wave might be?
One of the trends that has changed the landscape of the entire market is the “health fad.” Although this trend has been around for decades, it has morphed into iterations of itself every couple of years. The ‘90s were all about throwing a pack of carcinogenic Splenda® into your morning coffee before grabbing your Walkman and rollerblading to work. Around 2005, the organic trend began meddling its way into the coffee industry. Consumers became increasingly concerned with coffee bean farming methods, insisting that the pesticides used by mass-producing farms were dangerous (which is ironic, given that most of them wouldn’t think twice about downing five cups of jo feat. our favorite nerve toxin -caffeine). However, “superfoods” and “functional foods” — foods packed with myriad nutritional benefits such as Acai berries or Spirulina — have been booming in recent years; every week there appears to be a new type of “ancient seeds” on the shelves of Whole Foods. Some say that this trend has already found its way into coffee as well, with the most notable example being bulletproof coffee: coffee mixed with melted butter and different food oils (MCT, coconut etc.). Supposedly, the lipids form a protective layer over the stomach lining that shields it from the acidic properties of the coffee beans. But, like many health fads, you are not going to find any evidence of this in a scientific journal. However, founder Dave Asprey assures us that bulletproof coffee can boost cognitive performance (mainly alertness) and weight loss efforts.
It is also entirely possible for coffee to take a turn in the opposite direction and capitalize on its role as an indulgence. The glamorization of coffee brought about by the third wave and its lavish, artisanal creations transformed coffee from a simple commodity that helped you stay alert during the day to an indulgence consumed during wind-down occasions. The often-ridiculed habit (yet one of the most defining aspects of millennial Internet usage) is the practice of posting a picture of your latte art on Instagram. There are currently close to three million photos with that specific hashtag. As coffee consumption becomes more of a voyeuristic practice, it also becomes more experiential; customers are constantly searching for new and exciting options. Enter stage right: hybrid coffee. Hybrid food took the pastry and restaurant world by storm a few years ago and brought us exciting inventions such as the Ramen Burger and the Cronut®. Are there any indicators of this trend now manifesting itself in the coffee industry? Well, Koppi coffee roaster in Helsingborg created a “coffee-tail” using espresso and tonic water to create a rather bitter and bubbly drink. It has taken the world by storm and can even be found in Providence at Bolt Coffee!
But maybe finding the perfect combination of seemingly unconventional ingredients is about more than just unstructured experimentation. In an increasingly data-driven world, consumers want hard numbers and facts to support any sort of claim. This is where the idea of using “science” to search for optimal flavors becomes appealing. Many of the top restaurants around the world — such as Alinea in Chicago, noma in Copenhagen, and, most notably, the now closed elBulli outside Barcelona — employ methods of molecular gastronomy. This allows them to create futuristic dishes and weave together the most unexpected flavours into unimaginable dishes. In the barista world, Nitro coffee is another interesting advancement: the baristas combine cold brew coffee with Nitrogen gas! It is served from a tap, much like beer. As expected, the nitrogen gives the coffee a creamy and somewhat fizzy flavor that is reminiscent of a glass full of Guinness (not just in taste but also in appearance).
Popular techniques such as spherification or foam-ification are also within the realm of reality when it comes to engineering tomorrow’s coffee.
The driving force behind these trends is the constant search for something new: an innate desire of consumers to explore untasted territory and to be ahead of the curve. However, this means that the coffee markets move quickly. What is thriving today may be totally obsolete three months from now, and something incomprehensible today could be on your local roaster’s menu a year from now.
Photographs by: Shivani Nishar