Waves of Coffee Explained: What is First, Second, and Third Wave Coffee?


Alex DeCapri

Alex DeCapri is a specialty coffee roaster and curious coffee writer. He started sourcing his own green beans to roast and ship worldwide and later became the head roaster at OOP Café in Belo Horizonte. Now on a road trip from the U.S. to Brazil, Alex visits coffee farms and shares his firsthand experience from field visits.

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Are you a coffee lover who wants to know more about the fascinating history and evolution of your favorite drink? Then get ready to explore the “waves” of coffee! 

From the classic coffee blends of the First Wave to the sustainable and ethically-sourced beans of the Third Wave, each wave represents a distinct era in the history of coffee. 

In this article, I’ll take you on a journey through time, tracing the origins and development of coffee from its discovery to the present day. We’ll delve into the cultural and social contexts that shaped each wave and explore how they have influenced the way we enjoy coffee today. 

So, whether you’re a history buff, a coffee connoisseur, or simply curious about the story behind your morning cup, join me as we uncover the fascinating timeline of coffee waves.

Key Takeaways

  • Coffee has gone through three “waves”, each with its own focus and characteristics.
  • The First Wave of coffee was about production, accessibility, and convenience, and it made coffee a staple in households across the country.
  • The Second Wave of coffee focused on quality, flavor, and experience, introducing unique brewing methods and a new type of social space where people could gather and connect over a cup of coffee.
  • The Third Wave of coffee is characterized by a focus on quality, sustainability, direct trade, and ethical practices. 
  • Third Wave Coffee values single-origin, specialty-grade coffee beans and emphasizes the importance of sourcing beans directly from farmers.

Here is a quick infographic we made to explain different waves of coffee.

Waves of coffee infographic
Waves of coffee infographic

First Wave Coffee: A Historical Overview

In the early 20th century, coffee became more than just a drink – it became a symbol of American culture and modernity. The First Wave of coffee marked a significant shift in the way coffee was consumed, produced, and marketed.

First Wave Coffee: Timeline

The First Wave of coffee began in the late 1800s and lasted until the mid-20th century, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. 

During this time, coffee production and consumption underwent a massive transformation, driven by advances in technology, transportation, and marketing. The rise of industrialization and mass production led to the widespread availability and affordability of coffee, making it a staple in households across the country.

Coffee was no longer a drink reserved for the privileged. It quickly became a product that every single family had in their home.

What Characterized the 1st Wave of Coffee?

Three words come to mind when talking about 1st Wave Coffee: production, accessibility, and convenience

Coffee companies like Folgers, Maxwell House, and Hills Bros. introduced pre-ground coffee, instant coffee, and vacuum-sealed packaging to appeal to busy, modern consumers. Coffee shops and diners also became popular gathering places, serving coffee and baked goods to customers who wanted a quick, affordable meal.

The focus during this time was to appeal to the growing middle class by making cheap coffee that could be brewed in the shortest amount of time.

The use of advertising and marketing campaigns helped Folgers and Maxwell House build brand recognition and loyalty, further solidifying their dominance in the coffee industry, even today.


The Impact of First Wave Coffee

The First Wave of coffee had a significant impact on American culture and society. It made coffee an accessible and affordable commodity, paving the way for the coffee culture we know today. 

However, it also contributed to the commodification of coffee, emphasizing quantity over quality and sacrificing flavor for convenience. This would eventually lead to a backlash against industrial coffee and a new movement that valued artisanal, high-quality coffee.

instant coffee we tested

Second Wave Coffee: A New Approach

This wave was characterized by a focus on higher-quality coffee, branding, and unique brewing methods that emphasized flavor and quality.

Second Wave Coffee: Timeline

The Second Wave of coffee began in the 1960s and lasted until the early 2000s. It was a period of experimentation and innovation, driven by a desire to elevate the coffee experience and create a more unique coffee culture. 

During this wave, coffee shops and roasters emerged as key players in the industry, offering customers a unique and personalized coffee experience. Consumers began to move away from pre-ground, instant coffee for their daily fix.

Photo by Nick Hillier

What Characterized the 2nd Wave of Coffee?

A focus on branding, specialty beverages, and unique brewing methods characterized the Second Wave of coffee. Coffee companies like Peet’s and Starbucks introduced espresso-based drinks like cappuccinos, lattes, and mochas, offering customers a new way to experience coffee. 

Before this, most people had been drinking black drip coffee in their homes made from pre-ground coffee that they bought in the grocery store.

Coffee shops also became more focused on creating a unique ambiance and experience, with comfortable seating, free Wi-Fi, and a variety of menu options. 

Before I became more into specialty coffee and buying directly from roasters, I frequented Starbucks quite often for what I perceived as a “higher-quality” beverage. Little did I know then how dark-roasted and borderline-burnt most of Starbucks’ roasts were. But hey, the free wifi was nice!


While Peet’s was a bit more focused on the roast, both companies emerged as two of the most popular coffee brands in the world. Marketing and branding were also major factors for success in the Second Wave of coffee.

The Impact of Second Wave Coffee

The Second Wave of coffee had a profound impact on the industry and coffee culture. It introduced a new approach to coffee that focused on quality, flavor, and experience, paving the way for a more artisanal coffee movement. 

It also contributed to the growth of the coffee shop industry, creating a new type of social space where people could gather, work, and connect over a cup of coffee.

Essentially the Second Wave of coffee introduced more quality and brought the culture of drinking coffee out of the home and into shared spaces.

Third Wave Coffee: Quality and Sustainability

The Third Wave of coffee is the latest and most current wave in the coffee industry, although some may argue we are now entering a Fourth Wave. Third Wave coffee is characterized by a focus on quality, sustainability, direct trade, and ethical practices. 

Third Wave Coffee: Timeline

The Third Wave of coffee started in the late 1990s or early 2000s (depending on who you ask) as a reaction to the mass production and low-quality coffee of the previous waves. Quality, traceability, and sustainability are the main players of this wave, stressing the importance of ethical practices throughout the entire supply chain. 

Third Wave coffee roasters aim to showcase the unique flavors and characteristics of each coffee bean, emphasizing the importance of origin, processing, and roasting on the final cup.

You have much more to explore in the coffee world, check out this comprehensive coffee beans guide you’ll find more details.


What Characterizes the 3rd Wave of Coffee?

The Third Wave of coffee is all about a focus on high-quality coffee, single-origin beans, direct trade, and sustainable practices. Third Wave coffee roasters prioritize transparency and traceability, sharing information about the origin and processing of each bean, as well as the roasting profile. 

Coffee shops also became more focused on creating a unique and high-quality coffee experience, employing manual brewing methods like the Chemex, AeroPress, and V60 to showcase the nuanced flavors of the coffee beans.

It’s important to note that, while Third Wave coffee often uses specialty coffee beans, they are not interchangeable phrases.

The Third Wave of coffee is a movement focusing on higher-quality coffee beans, how they’re grown, and roasting them to perfection. Quite often, roasters will buy specialty coffee to do just this. However, coffee that qualifies as “specialty” is a very specific type of green coffee bean that scores 80+ points on a 100-point scale from the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). (1)

The SCA created an international, standardized grading system used to distinguish specialty coffee from non-specialty coffee. It’s important to remember that Third Wave coffee roasters don’t always use specialty coffee, even if the coffee they sustainably source is organic, roasted well, and brewed using a hip method like a V60 (my favorite). 


The Big Three of Third Wave Coffee

Counter Culture Coffee, Intelligentsia Coffee, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters are known as the “Big Three” of the Third Wave coffee movement by many coffee enthusiasts. They have been credited with starting this wave and committing to direct trade practices, perfecting lighter roasts, and focusing on consumer education and service.

Some of the best-roasted coffee that I have tasted to this day has been from Stumptown. These guys really know what they are doing. After all, they’ve been around since 1999 when they started in Portland, Oregon, one of the world’s top cities for specialty coffee.

stumptown coffee

Intelligentsia and Counter Culture were both founded in 1995 in Chicago, Illinois, and Durham, North Carolina, respectively. They also have the mission to create a sustainable coffee supply chain that benefits everyone involved, from the farmer to the consumer. 

These three brands were some of the first coffee companies to focus on single-origin coffee and direct trade. They are pioneers in the specialty coffee industry.

Predictions for Future Waves of Coffee

As the specialty coffee industry continues to evolve and grow, many coffee experts are looking towards the future and predicting what the next waves of coffee may bring. I believe that we are already in the midst of the Fourth Wave of coffee, while others believe that it has yet to fully emerge.

The Fourth Wave of coffee is often described as a focus on the individual experience, with an emphasis on customization and personalization. This includes new brewing methods and equipment, such as precision brewers and automated systems that can produce customized coffee drinks on demand. 

Artificial intelligence and automation may also play a larger role in the industry, potentially leading to greater consistency and efficiency in the production process.


As a specialty coffee roaster, I already see this happening within my community.

Aillio – a roasting machine manufacturer – is set to release its smart AI coffee roaster later this year. This automated, induction-powered specialty coffee roaster will roast up to 2 kg of coffee at a time and require no supervision, revolutionizing the specialty coffee industry. (2)

Other experts predict that the next wave of coffee will focus on sustainability and ethical practices, building on the foundations laid by the Third Wave. This could include a greater emphasis on regenerative agriculture, carbon neutrality, and fair trade coffee practices throughout the entire supply chain.

I saw a lot of this happening between roasters and coffee farmers in Brazil during my time working there. The 2019 Coffee of the Year during the International Week of Coffee (Semana Internacional do Café) was awarded to Sítio Recanto dos Tucanos, a farm that uses agroforestry and regenerative agriculture. (3)


Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the future of coffee will likely be shaped by a combination of technological innovation, changing consumer preferences, and a continued emphasis on sustainability and ethical practices. 

As coffee continues to be one of the most popular beverages around the world, it’s sure to remain a vibrant and constantly evolving industry for years to come. 

Now that you know all about the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd waves of coffee, do you appreciate your daily cup a little more? I know I do!

What do you think is next for the coffee world?

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the meaning of waves of coffee?

“Waves of coffee” refers to the three distinct phases of development that the coffee industry has gone through since the mid-20th century, each marked by changes in the way coffee is produced, marketed, and consumed.

What are the 3 waves of coffee?

The three waves of coffee are the First Wave, which saw the widespread availability of pre-ground coffee and instant coffee; the Second Wave, which was marked by the emergence of coffee shops and the popularization of espresso-based drinks; and the Third Wave, which emphasizes the quality and sourcing of coffee beans and focuses on direct trade and sustainability, oftentimes involving specialty-grade coffee.

What is meant by third-wave coffee?

Third-wave coffee refers to a movement within the coffee world that began in the late 1990s and early 2000s that emphasizes the craft and quality of coffee over convenience and quantity. It also focuses on ethical and sustainable practices throughout the entire coffee supply chain. A third-wave coffee shop typically uses single-origin coffee beans and manual brewing methods to highlight the unique flavor profiles of each coffee.


  1. SCA Coffee Standards – https://sca.coffee/research/coffee-standards 
  2. https://aillio.com/?page_id=31830 
  3. https://alexdecapri.com/sic/ 
Photo of author

Alex DeCapri

Alex DeCapri is a specialty coffee roaster and curious coffee writer. During his time living in Brazil, he spent months learning directly from producers how to pick and process coffee the right way. One thing led to the next, and he started sourcing his own green beans to roast and ship worldwide and later became the head roaster at OOP Café in Belo Horizonte. Currently, Alex is traveling slowly from the United States to Brazil in his self-converted camper van, trying to visit as many coffee farms as possible along the way. If you see him on the road, be sure to say hi!