June 17, 2024

The History of Second-Wave Coffee

Coffee lovers and people in the coffee industry refer to three (and four) “waves of coffee” that denote changes in coffee drinking throughout North American history. There is “first wave coffee” and “second wave coffee.” Comparing the waves provides interesting insight into the rising standards of coffee, which were only possible when different coffees became available in more areas.

Each wave, from the first to the (possibly) emerging fourth wave, sheds light on the times. The waves are interesting because they’re formed by changes to many different levers affecting people in society. From farming, processing and supply chain tendencies to the culture, zeitgeist and consumer demands of the day, many factors are involved. A wave of coffee showcases the dynamic relationship between coffee drinkers and the individuals and organizations seeking to meet their needs.

A previous post illustrated the first wave of coffee, with its wide timeline. The second wave of coffee is more easily corralled into a certain period. Enthusiasm, energy and trendiness make the second wave fun and dynamic—which is great because we believe coffee’s history should be all jazzed up when possible!

What is a Wave of Coffee?

A wave of coffee defines the characteristics of the multi-faceted relationship between coffee drinkers and the coffee available to them. It answers several questions about this relationship. The first is: “in what form(s) can people purchase coffee?” This differentiates between green beans, roasted beans, grounds, instant or brewed coffee. In recent decades, the answer also includes already crafted flavored coffee drinks. In addition, a coffee wave may have characteristics that answer these questions:

  • How uniform is the coffee?
  • What preferences were consumers able to demand?
  • How did people and organizations selling coffee alter people’s preferences?
  • How transparent to the customer are the links in the supply chain delivering the coffee?
  • How transparent are the growing conditions the coffee experienced?

However, a question may not apply to a certain wave of coffee, especially the first and earliest wave. Nevertheless, this list of questions helps us accentuate the characteristics of coffee during each wave.

History of the First Wave

From the revolution to the late 1800s, most Americans didn’t have access to a steady supply of consistent-tasting, roasted coffee. So the first wave of coffee occurred over many decades. Much of the history of coffee deals with getting uniform coffee to rural areas consistently. A surprising amount of coffee’s American history dealt with the West in particular.

By the mid-twentieth century, people across the nation were drinking coffee out of big tins made by big-brand coffee companies, many of which still inhabit the bottom shelves of grocery stores. No one cared much about the beans’ origin. Since coffee doesn’t grow in the continental US, coffee was from far-off Latin countries that Americans didn’t know much about. What was the difference between coffee from Honduras, and say, Colombia? To most Americans, either country was simply “way down south.” 

Brand loyalty was the major force at that time. It kept customers from desiring or pushing for more diverse coffees. Customers couldn’t care much about the coffee’s origins. Overall, the first wave was characterized by consumers’ desire for consistent coffee in large quantities that could deliver a uniform taste. 

The Second Wave of Coffee

Second-wave coffee started developing after the first wave’s goals of uniformity and consistent supply had been achieved. Some say it started as early as the 1960s, while most date the second wave to the end of the twentieth century. In any case, most agree that the second wave brought an increased focus on taste. Before they could care about taste, people needed access to a consistent supply of coffee. Rural and remote areas’ coffee access lagged. Without the first wave’s accomplishments of dispersing coffee throughout a huge and largely rural country, taste preferences could only matter in cities. 

The second wave is characterized by consumers’ desire for better-tasting coffee. First-wave coffee was bitter and dark. Another important element of second-wave coffee was the coffeehouse and the experiences it offered. Having a coffee served to you and sitting to drink it, alone or with company, became popular. Baristas grew more important and provided these experiences. 

Peet’s Coffee and Tea

The first notable coffee shop that expanded the coffee house experience was Peet’s in Berkeley, California. A Dutchman who couldn’t believe the low quality of bitter American coffee, he sought to create better-tasting coffees, akin to those available in European cafés. He was also inspired by rich Indonesian coffee. His hallmarks were dark roast coffee, freshness and minimizing the distance between harvest and consumption. The Berkeley location also helped tie American coffee houses to thought, stimulating conversation and coffee. He trained the future founder of what would become the Seattle giant Starbucks. Eventually, he sold Peet’s Coffee and Tea to them.

The Coffee House and Espresso-based Dominance

The Peet-trained trio went on to open that famous first location in Pike Place Market in 1971. However, the first Seattle locations only sold equipment and whole beans. A decade later, the fifth location began selling already-brewed coffee. After a trip to Milan, one of the heads decided to offer a variety of espresso-based drinks. As locations cropped up, they spread the trend of hanging out in coffee houses. Espresso drinks flavored with hazelnut, chocolate and additional syrups invited in people of a widening age pool for the coffee house experience.

Caribou from the North

While the two formerly mentioned coffeehouse operations, along with brands like Seattle’s Best, seemed to put the epicenter of American coffee on the West Coast, Caribou Coffee opened coffee houses in the central north of the US beginning in 1992. Minnesotans also needed steaming pick-me-ups from long, dark winters. This company helped spread the coffee house experience in the northern Midwest. Today they have over 700 locations. They’re mostly in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and North Carolina.

Café Culture and Coffeehouse Coolness

While the term “café culture” dates back centuries in Europe, in the US, a sort of coffeehouse renaissance occurred at the end of the twentieth century. The Berkeley and Seattle coffee shops had set the tone in the west, then Caribou created coffeehouse-based cultural experiences in the northern central US.  

Starting in 1994, the uber-popular TV show Friends showed the fun good-looking twenty-somethings were having at the coffee shop Central Perk in New York City. All different friends would pop in and out of the shop. They’d sit on the couch and launch jokes about life after maybe ordering…a coffee or something. Although not technically a coffee shop, Seinfeld also had an NYC diner meeting spot to shoot the breeze. Characters often comically talked “about nothing” over coffee and food. 

All of these influences contributed to a new coffeehouse culture that began in the 1990s. It made going out for coffee a cool (and inexpensive) social activity. Overall, the second wave focused on taste, espresso drinks and the coffeehouse experience. Preferences for specifics like high-altitude coffee eventually became feasible. Likewise, choosing coffee from a specific country, like Honduran coffee brands, along with more specific beans like Honduras arabica or bourbon, became possible.

The Power to Choose Powerful Coffee

Customer choices in coffee experiences, taste and quality have now evolved far beyond second-wave coffee. Since most Americans must import their coffee, they can support coffee organizations with great missions. Instead of coffee lovers’ purchases just being a drop in the corporate bucket, people can choose a coffee that helps enrich the lives of others. Subida Coffee Co. is a non-profit whose proceeds educate teenagers in Santa Rosa de Copán Honduras. Delicious single-origin, sustainable coffee roasted to medium or dark roasts can arrive at your doorstep to delight your palate for a good cause. If you enjoyed the history of second-wave coffee, you may also like to learn about the history of Western Honduras, Copán coffee. Also, the ethical progress pushed forward by some coffee organizations is reversing the dark history of Central American crops destined for international sale.

The coffee of Subida Coffee Co. is grown by the team at the Moses Project, a 120-acre commercial farm and agriculture training center in a small community outside of Santa Rosa de Copán.
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