Three Waves of Coffee: A Short History

Folgers, Starbucks, and Beyond

As a coffee appreciator, you may have heard of the three waves of coffee.

Not sure what it means?

Take that nice coffee shop down the street that makes pour overs with sustainably sourced coffee from Peru. That’s third wave coffee. In other words: coffee as an artisanal commodity.

Now you might be wondering: What are first and second waves then?

Good question.

The Skinny on the Three Waves of Coffee

  • First wave: Folgers
  • Second wave: Starbucks
  • Third wave: The hip café/roaster down the street

But that’s dumbing down the complex and interesting story behind coffee.

Let’s dive into the three waves of coffee and what the future looks like for everyone’s favorite global beverage.

First Wave Coffee

Dates vary, but first wave coffee is considered to have started in the 1800s. The highly valued commodity became a mass market product thanks to companies such as Folgers, Maxwell House, and Eight O’Clock. Consumers were drinking coffee made from poor quality beans produced by slave labor. Most of this came from Brazil, the #1 coffee-producing country in the world at the time. Slavery was a common practice on Brazilian coffee farms in the 1800s and 1900s. Even to this day there are still concerns about abusive labor practices. Though first of the three waves of coffee is looked back on with hefty criticism, it is what made coffee so widely available today.

Second Wave Coffee

By the 1960s, coffee lovers were demanding a better cup of coffee. It’s generally believed that Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Starbucks are the grandparents of second wave coffee. Peet’s was founded in Berkely, CA by Netherlands-born Alfred Peet in 1966. Starbucks was started by two teachers and a writer in 1971 out of Seattle, WA. Both of these companies introduced higher quality, direct trade coffee to America, and America has never looked back. This was life-changing not only for coffee drinkers, but for coffee farmers as well. Peet’s, Starbucks, and Allegro Coffee have spent millions of dollars empowering farmers to grow sustainable coffee in an ethical environment.

Third Wave Coffee

Not everyone loves Starbucks, but the reality is: Peet’s and Starbucks changed the way we think about and consume coffee. They paved the way for third wave coffee roasters such as Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Counter Culture, and other local coffee roasters. The emphasis on third wave coffee is buying direct, single origin or sustainable. This era of coffee has not only made being a barista a hip career choice—it’s also improved coffee farmers’ lives. There is a demand for sustainable, ethical coffee. In fact, a recent study found that having Fair Trade on the label helped increase sales. Buying sustainable coffee helps support coffee-growing communities.

Fourth Wave Coffee & Beyond

There is a lot of speculation over what the fourth wave of coffee will be. In fact, many believe we’re already in the fourth wave. Some theorize the industry will shift its focus to climate change and how it affects coffee farming, while others believe we’ll start highlighting the actual farmers. Sprudge, the well-known coffee journalism website, hopes it means the end to “suboptimal/wasteful/expensive pods.” The Gothamist fears that big companies will “gobble up all your precious indie coffee shops.”

Either way, it’s an exciting time in coffee history. Consumers are able more than ever to try unique coffee from all over the world, while many in the coffee trade—from farmers to distributors to baristas—are enjoying the benefits of coffee’s popularity.