fourth wave of coffee

What should the fourth wave of coffee focus on?

Jordan Montgomery speaks with Vladyslav Demonenko of Fjord Coffee Roasters about what the fourth wave of coffee will look like – and whether it is heading in the right direction.

In the context of coffee, “wave” is a somewhat elusive term. Typically used to distinguish between specific eras, each “wave” can be defined by key features, priorities, and market trends that characterised the coffee industry at that time.

Most agree that we are currently experiencing a third wave, which is generally regarded as the period from the late 1980s to the present day. Within this wave, there has been an increased focus on several factors, including:

  • Direct trade, traceability, and sustainability
  • Innovative brewing methods
  • Technological advancement
  • A wider understanding of regional determiners of coffee quality like origin and terroir

The third wave has also facilitated the emergence of specialised coffee competitions, boutique and independent coffee roasters, and scores of coffee shops offering premium products. As Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood describes in The Coffee Dictionary, it’s a time of “higher culinary appreciation of coffee and all that it entails; a focus on subtleties of flavour, provenance, and process.”

However, the third wave has not been all about the coffee: in the fourth edition of its Coffee Guide report, the International Trade Center defined the third wave as “experience”. Essentially, specialty coffee is a product served within that experience.

Now that the third wave is well and truly established – and has arguably entered the mainstream – the focus is on the next era of coffee and what it will involve.

blue bottle coffee rtd cans fourth wave

Early signs of the fourth wave of coffee

Debate about what a fourth wave of coffee will look like has raged for years – and some believe it has already arrived.

Vladyslav Demonenko is head roaster of Fjord Coffee Roasters in Berlin and came second at the 2022 World Coffee in Good Spirits Championship. He believes that the fourth wave of coffee will see the focus shift away from highly specialised products and services in venues, and more towards their availability in easier-to-drink formats – a transition that is already underway for many third-wave pioneers, such as Blue Bottle Coffee.

“I think that it will be more focused on the availability of high-quality products, such as coffee beans, cold brew, instant coffee, and capsules,” Vladyslav says. “It will be more about high standards, the industrialisation of coffee and professional factories, and less about craft and ‘hand-made’ coffee.”

While the third wave is often described as both a reaction to bad coffee and a push for craftsmanship, the high specialisation and specificity of this wave have caused problems for both businesses and consumers.

For example, businesses now face challenges with scalability, while some consumers may be intimidated by the continuous sophistication of a consumable product. The fourth wave of coffee, Vladyslav says, will see many businesses rise to meet these challenges.

“For me, the fourth wave is more about the market of coffee,” he explains. “Some of the big commercial companies understand that the specialty coffee market is growing fast and they are trying to adapt their products.”

Specifically, they will strive to create more specialty products that are easier to produce and scale, while also simplifying the preparation and consumption of coffee for the consumer.

“Roasters and coffee shops have started production of high-quality ready-to-drink (RTD) products such as coffee in cans, as well as products like instant coffee, drip bags, and more for the mass market,” he adds.

For others, this shift in product development is only one feature of the fourth wave of coffee. Some maintain that the hallmark of coffee’s next wave will be determined both by where consumers drink coffee and how they relate to different brands.

The second and third waves of coffee were largely centred on the out-of-home experience of specialised coffee products, predominately in coffee shops. As the next wave of coffee emerges, many believe that we will see not only a simplification of specialty coffee products, but its penetration into the home.

Caleb Bryant, Mintel’s associate director of food & drink, writes that changes in consumer behaviour in recent years are the largest indicators of this paradigm shift, as many consumers upgraded their home coffee setups during the pandemic. He also notes that the fourth wave may represent a backlash to the “overly craft (borderline pretentious) nature” of the third wave.

“Quality will certainly remain important to consumers, and coffee enthusiasts will still treat themselves to pour-over coffee,” he says in an article for Mintel. “However, expect to see more brands take a less serious approach to coffee.”

coffee farmer fourth wave of coffee

What should be the fourth wave’s priorities?

Broadly speaking, the first, second, and third waves of coffee were responses to accessibility and consumer demand. It would, therefore, seem safe to assume that the fourth wave will follow a similar path.

However, this time, many coffee industry leaders are calling for the next wave to prioritise being purposeful and radical, rather than reactionary. One of the leading arguments is for the coffee sector to redefine sustainability, with a renewed focus on financial sustainability in coffee-producing countries.

In a presentation at the Re:co Symposium 2022, Catalina Eikenberg of Neumann Kaffee Gruppe suggested that sustainability be reconsidered to incorporate the concept of a living income. She cited research indicating that 44% of the world’s coffee farmers do not make a living income at all.

Others are calling for the future of coffee to end poverty fetishisation. They argue that the third wave of coffee perpetuates this by using depictions of impoverished coffee-producing communities as a marketing tool or narrative for their products.

Without acknowledging and actively trying to halt poverty fetishisation and inequitable practices in the coffee industry, many believe that the fourth wave may simply exacerbate such problems.

Other movements for the fourth wave seek to empower underrepresented groups within the coffee sector. These include minority ethnic groups, women, and those displaced or affected by climate change.

Some professionals may simply aspire toward a renewed connection with the consumer – one that isn’t forgotten and left behind in a rapidly growing and changing industry.

“In my opinion, the focus should not only be on innovation, but on quality and connection with human beings,” Vladyslav says. “I’m scared that this connection that we have between people in cafés can be lost during the growing market. So, as an industry, we should be more focused on sharing our experience and knowledge – not only our products.”

What should the fourth wave of coffee focus on?

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