What Is Fourth Wave Coffee? How Gen Z Is Changing the Game

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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So-called coffee waves have been with us since the mid-20th Century. But what defines this latest edition, known as fourth-wave coffee?

So-called coffee waves have been with us since the mid-20th Century. But what defines this latest edition, known as fourth-wave coffee?

Coffee has come a long way from its discovery in Ethiopia. But millennia later, when we think we’ve reached the apex of the coffee universe, along comes fourth-wave coffee.

But what does the term “fourth wave of coffee” actually mean? What’s clear is that it’s more than just a buzzword.

Defining coffee’s fourth wave is a complete change in everyday coffee rituals and the rise of home coffee bars.

Third-wave coffee’s focus was on established coffee shops, coffee shop culture and specialty coffee. This new Generation Z-driven movement focuses on making your own specialty coffee drinks at home.

This blog post is a deep dive into this global coffee renaissance. I’ll explore the secrets of artisanal coffee beans and the rise of individual-driven coffee innovation.

Is Fourth Wave Coffee Even a Thing?

Whether or not boomers and Gen Xers care to admit it, the fourth wave of coffee is definitely a thing!

Gen Z’s distinct preference for knowing more about coffee bean production and the supply chain drives this culture. So does translating this knowledge into brewing quality coffee at home.

Textured cold coffee drinks, brewing innovations and home-sourced coffee drinks are the cornerstones of this new coffee wave. Coffee companies are also focusing on a fresh, honest coffee marketing strategy.

So, now that we’ve established it actually exists, let’s explore the key fundamentals of the fourth-wave coffee movement.

The Rise of Cold Coffee Drinks

Cold Brew Caffee

Ready-to-drink cold coffee drinks and other innovations from many third-wave coffee pioneers like Blue Bottle Coffee characterize fourth-wave coffee.

The rise of the cold coffee drink, particularly ready to drink canned or bottled cold brew is significant. Driving this trend are the 60 percent of Gen Z coffee lovers who prefer a cold coffee drink over hot brewed coffee.

This new generation of coffee drinkers innovate with textured cold coffee beverages (such as the curious sparkling coffee trend) and new cold coffee brewing techniques, such as flash brew coffee.

A Shift Toward Premium Home-Sourced Coffee Drinks

Making coffee at home is at the heart of fourth-wave coffee innovation. This is mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw mandatory stay-at-home laws and the mass closure of coffee shops.

People had no choice but to elevate their at-home coffee experience. The rise of automatic espresso machines and single-cup specialty coffee makers (think Nespresso and Keurig) gained prominence. So, too, did specialized cold brew and pour-over coffee equipment.

We live in a social media-led world. Unsurprisingly, TikTok influencers rather than coffee chains are shaping the fourth-wave coffee movement.

This is evident in the research. According to Mintel, almost half of Gen Z coffee drinkers learned all about coffee from their favorite social media influencers.

Because these influencers give workable coffee hacks, many of their followers can’t help but copy what they see. Because this bottom-up approach to coffee brewing is so easy to follow, and due to rising inflation, these trends are only set to continue.

Fringe Coffee Brands Are Emerging to Rival the Titans

Another critical characteristic of the fourth wave is the emergence of fringe or niche coffee brands. These brands are challenging established second-wave coffee giants like Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee (now JDE Peet’s).

Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Blue Bottle Coffee and Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea are among the most well-known third-wave coffee pioneers still riding high. Still, they face rising competition from edgy newcomers in cities around the world.

The Previous Waves of Coffee

First Wave Coffee

First-wave coffee defined the initial rise of coffee culture in the US during the mid-20th Century. Consumers embraced coffee consumption as the beverage became more accessible and affordable.

Mass production coffee trends defined this era. Particularly the rise of instant coffee, pre-ground coffee and bitter dark roasts. And, for the first time, consumers began brewing coffee at home using percolators and drip coffee makers.

Ninja Specialty Coffee Maker CM401 Tall Glass

Retail coffee brands like Folgers and Maxwell House thrived during this era. To drive coffee sales, they focused on brand awareness and consumer loyalty. Coffee also began to emerge as a drink over which you could socialize with family and friends.

Despite a general lack of focus on coffee quality during this era (the popularity of instant coffee says it all), the first wave of coffee played a vital role in shaping America’s coffee culture.

In fact, it certainly paved the way for the second wave of coffee. Emerging coffee companies like Starbucks and Caribou Coffee sought to improve coffee quality and consumers’ experience during this time.

Second Wave Coffee

The second coffee wave in the 1970s saw a significant shift in how coffee consumers bought and drank their cup of joe. And this meant turning their backs on the mass-produced, instant coffee culture of the 1950s.

This coffee wave saw increased awareness about specialty coffees. In particular, single-estate and single-origin coffees gained prominence. Second-wave coffee also highlighted the importance of the transparency and traceability of coffee beans in the coffee industry.

Cup of Joe Today

Coffee chains like Starbucks came into their own during this period. Espresso, espresso-based drinks like cappuccino, latte macchiato and highly-flavored coffees became prominent. So did supermarket coffee aisles, and baristas who were more passionate about the café than the bean!

Still, roast profiles began to define drip coffee, improving matters somewhat.

Some critics claim that the second coffee wave led to the commodification of coffee. Remember that scene where Paulie Gaultieri tries to order ”just coffee” at a coffee shop in The Sopranos? Besides being hilarious, it encapsulates coffee’s commodification perfectly!

Still, I believe this era did much good for coffee enthusiasts. For the first time, sustainability, ethical sourcing from coffee farmers and Fairtrade certification graced coffee circles.

And while first-wave coffee consumers saw coffee as a convenience product, second-wave consumers began to view the beverage as an experience. This wave saw the emergence of unique bean flavors, roast profiles and specialty brewingequipment.

This period paved the way for the third-wave coffee movement, which further ensured the appreciation of coffee as a regionally distinct, artisanal product.

Third Wave Coffee

As the 21st Century approached, so did the rise of the third-wave coffee movement, the most important so far. Coffee lovers made drastic changes in how they sourced, prepared and consumed their bean juice.

A strong focus on coffee origins took hold. Direct trade, sourcing relationships, lighter roasts and meticulous brewing methods were also brought to the fore.

Beyond Starbucks, independent curated coffee bars elevated the art of brewing coffee, driving retail coffee sales. They focused on quality, craftsmanship and aesthetics.

Third-wave coffee shops also promoted a minimalist approach to the beverage. Consumers abandoned highly flavored coffee full of coffee additives like syrups. Commercialized drinks synonymous with the second coffee wave also lost popularity.

Hario V60 in Use

This was the era of lighter roast profiles, manual brewing techniques (French presses, pour-overs, siphon coffee makers), pure brews and latte art!

Best of all, third-wave coffee represented a movement toward coffee as a specialty and artisanal product. Coffee shops and roasters began educating consumers on the complexities of the coffee chain (from bean to cup).

For the first time, coffee tastings were no longer the preserve of industry specialists. This openness allowed consumers to appreciate the unique flavors of coffee from various coffee market regions of the world. As a result, more people saw the value in specialty coffee and were prepared to pay a premium for this luxury product.

Of all the coffee waves, third-wave coffee has had a profound impact on the coffee industry. It influenced how coffee brands produced and marketed their coffee to drive retail coffee sales. Who can forget all the Instagramable specialty coffee drinks influencers posted!

And, with the rise of these online trending drinks on Instagram and later TikTok, the fourth wave of coffee arose. Coffee lovers began to challenge coffee shop culture by becoming their own at-home baristas.

What’s Next for Fourth Wave Coffee? The Future Is Exciting!

So, what does this next wave of coffee mean for coffee brands and consumers? For starters, the growing consumer demand for premium at-home coffee experiences creates exciting opportunities for coffee brands to innovate.

Cold coffee beverages like cold brew and nitro brew, as well as cold coffee brewing techniques, have gained popularity. Functional ready-to-drink coffees from vending machines, including frozen and iced coffees, are also a hit with Millennials and Gen Zers.

Iced Matcha Coffee

Interestingly, as they continue visiting coffee shops, these new coffee lovers are also brewing their coffee at home. Cold brew, French press, pour-over and flash brew coffees are taking center stage.

So, too, are the online trending coffee drinks like matcha, turmeric and chai lattes that grace so many feeds on TikTok and Instagram.

To thrive, retail coffee manufacturers and brands must keep up with coffee-related discussions on social media. Doing so will help them step up to the plate and deliver what their younger, fashion-forward consumers crave.

And that means embracing all or at least some of the following ideas:

  • Produce snap-chilled canned coffees that emphasize flavor and convenience.

  • Elevate the cold coffee drink by coming up with new flavors of iced coffee, cold brew, nitro brew and flash brew coffee.

  • Introduce “health-coffees” with vitamin, mineral, collagen, medicinal mushroom and brain-enhancing nootropics.

  • Incorporate healthy ingredients into delicious espresso blends. These include turmeric, green tea, ginger, cinnamon and non-dairy milk.

  • Create unique coffee blends for keto or weight-loss practitioners, e.g., MCT oil-laden bulletproof coffees and enzyme coffees.

  • Introduce anxiety-reducing coffee brews into the coffee market. These incorporate medicinal mushrooms into dark roast coffee beans to form delicious, nutty brews.

Final Thoughts: The Fourth Wave Makes Coffee Personal

We’ve seen how higher-quality coffee and at-home brewing methods have defined fourth-wave coffee. Every caffeinated sip is an unforgettable taste experience in this most exciting of emerging coffee trends.

I’m sure you’re wondering how to incorporate this emerging trend into your coffee routine, as it can be overwhelming. My advice – pick those elements you love and make them your own to continue enjoying this beverage of the gods.

Here’s to the fourth wave! May it continue to elevate coffee culture and make coffee aficionados of us all!

What are your thoughts on the fourth wave of coffee? Has it had any impact on how you brew and drink coffee? Feel free to share your views in our comments section below!

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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