The Pilot's Blog

Second Wave Coffee

The first wave of coffee made it available to people of all classes, all across the world. Then, suddenly, the gatekeepers to the land of coffee changed. The old guard was a waitress named ‘Flo’ who wandered diners with a glass Bunn pot of coffee offering to “top you off, there, hon.” In the first wave of coffee, marketing, packaging and agricultural practices brought coffee to the customer. Some might say they killed coffee’s mystique—instead of a sumptuous brew from a foreign land with a curious cognitive effect, it became an advertising jingle.

With second wave coffee, the new guard was defined by people with skills, training, and oftentimes, angst. (That last attribute is and always will be a fertile bed for artistry.) These new gatekeepers stood behind a bar stocked with impressively loud and complicated machinery. In that regard, coffee regained some of its lost enigmatic qualities. Quite literally, the average customer had to approach coffee again. The customer had to walk up to the bar and claim the beverage they ordered. Both within the café itself and in the world at large, second wave coffee flipped the tables of deliverance. First wave took coffee to every kitchen but second wave brought everyone back out into the world. You had to go to the coffee.

The change from delivery to expedition is a result of the change within coffee culture and American culture, too. Coffee became a reason to go out—much like the effect on Western Europe in the 1800’s, America realized that aesthetics and atmosphere can be reason enough leave one’s home. The combination of second wave drinks that were unattainable at home and the rise of cafés becoming cool spots to hang out led to another defining characteristic of second wave of coffee. We, as a nation, realized that catching up with old friends, dates and even job interviews could be conducted in the comforts of a coffee shop. Students could study for long periods of time in chic spots that also fueled their grades.

What perhaps most notably marks the second wave, though, is how it spread and homogenized. The foremost example of a second wave coffee shop is Starbucks. At one point in their history the Jittery Green Giant was opening a new café every business day. Branding combined with franchising made a priority out of guaranteeing a consistent experience across every Starbucks worldwide. A Caramel Macchiato in Lewiston, Maine, needed to taste almost identical to a Caramel Macchiato in Heidelberg, Germany. Though it is undeniably a good business model (their earnings speak for themselves) it has drawn them away from their roots of serving freshly roasted coffee beans. Those roots shrank over time, and after a $3.8 million takeover, Starbucks began brewing lattes and selling pre-ground coffee. These origins are arguably more 3rd wave than second, in the sense that the original focus was on quality as opposed to consistent quantity. Be it the demands of the world at the time, a brilliant example of marketing or the convenience of global franchising, Starbucks took off.

Another change with second wave coffee was the sheer level of customization that these shops afforded. In the 1960’s, if you weren’t a fan of the sometimes bitter taste or earthy tones inherent to many coffees, you simply avoided it or perhaps drank tea. By the late 90’s, you had an arsenal of milks, flavors, and syrups at your disposal. Which fit right into the American ‘Have it your way’ economy. And in terms of branding, this capacity for personalization only instilled more fondness for particular locations. People started to develop recipes for concoctions that were their drinks.  Not only did the market widen with new coffee converts, but it also instilled a sense of artistry. One wasn’t simply ordering a very large coffee with milk and artificial syrups, one was ordering with jargon and foreign phrases.

This realization, that coffee is much deeper than it might seem borrowed some from the wine industry. In the midst of the second wave of coffee consumers and baristas alike began paying attention to origins of coffee beans, growing conditions and methodology. Methodology in general became a factor as the populace came to understand all the elements of a great coffee. Everything from the steaming of the milk, to the pulling of the shots to the art in the latte itself became noticeable. And somewhere in the second-and-a-half wave of coffee, true aficionados would base their patronage on these elements or skill sets.

This new iteration of a very old drink transformed how many areas of the globe viewed coffee. Rescued from the mundane rituals of Monday morning, evolving public social spaces and even forging a new avenue for a self-expression—second wave coffee turned the coffee world on its head. As peoples’ tastes turned to more complicated drinks, those tastes brought them out of their own kitchen and into the coffee shop. Second wave coffee is still alive and well, though the past 8-10 years have given rise to the reactionary third wave.

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