I'm seeing a lot of hype around the fourth wave recently. Some corners of this industry want to believe they're almost there, or want you to believe they're so ahead of the curve they get a whole new increment.
I'd like to convince you they're jumping the gun.
Thing is, for all that there's a lot of people very excited to herald or declare or discover "the fourth wave" - most of those people are using things unrelated to how waves one, two, and three were decided and demarcated. Most of these are, ultimately, self-serving at best and downright misleading at worst. I don't want to vaguely throw shade, but I also don't want to provide directed calling-out, I just want to prompt a chat about whether labelling anything "fourth wave" is really useful.
Speaking generally, "waves" define the consumers' relationship with coffee as a product - not business models, roasting style, hardware setup, or how much moustache is permitted or required on your baristas. The term was coined by coffee historian Timothy Castle to describe the cultural growth of "craft" coffee in North America, and the term caught on with the industry.
Each eave represents a relatively fundamental change in the relationship between product and consumer.
The first wave occurred ~1900 and describes the adoption of coffee into the American lifestyle en-masse. This is Folgers' era, the time when everyone served Folgers and everyone else claimed to. Coffee wasn't good, wasn't even really particularly differentiated, and generally awful by modern standards. But they didn't care - drinking coffee was American, and if that was what coffee was like, they'd enjoy it that way.
Second wave is the era of Starbucks', but started long before Starbucks did, in the 1960s or so when substantial brand differentiation entered the domestic market and "going out for coffee" was adopted into culture just as ubiquitously as coffee itself was 60 or so years prior. The rise of the cafe brought into style "Italian-style" coffees, and thus the espresso bar, the chain cafe ... Coffee was recognized as having quality and taste differences, and the public developed preferences.
Third wave is ... now, plus probably another 30 or so years. Coffee as an artisanal luxury product, something bearing consideration similar to wine, or existing in a culture of connoisseurship. People are exploring and developing the "craft" associated, the over the top people have way over the top ways to explore their fascination; the average consumer has clear and well-understood preferences that span multiple brands, and has the awareness to select something they believe they will like from a range of unfamiliar brands.
But put simply, the three waves are just the labels for each era in the fairly easily trisected history of coffee in North America, with lines drawn based on how the average consumer saw their coffee.
Hopefully you're able to immediately and easily recognize that these are not unanimous collective shifts - they're a matter of 'average' values and I'm sure most coffee professionals can bring to mind one or two first wave consumers and a whole lot of customers that fit far better into second wave values than third - even if they themselves identify as a "third wave" establishment. For most coffee businesses, the bulk of customers are coming from second wave values rather than third. In short, we haven't finished the third wave yet, we're still starting it. From "inside" the specialty coffee community it can be relatively easy to fall for the echo chamber and buy into "we're done with the third wave, it's time to move on!", there's a sense of impatience that there must be something to move on to, some new movement or identity to define this or that aspect of what we do that we don't feel fits into traditional goals.
Waves, in their historical non-marketing-buzzword sense, are incredibly useful to the two big "coffee things" I do.
As product dev & QA for Pistol & Burnes, having a set of categories I can roughly buttonhole consumers' values from makes planning stock and offerings ... if not easy, easier. I can aim segments of the coffee we make at second-wave consumers because we value their business and they are the biggest coffee-consuming demographic we have access to. We can similarly target coffee at third wave consumers, understanding that that needs to be marketed and sold differently to a very different audience.
As a mod and member of /r/coffee, coffee evangelism, or more specifically third-wave evangelism, is a huge part of what we do. Most of the people who come to our community are, at first, second-wave consumers. Understanding their approach and their values as they relate to coffee is fundamental to persuading them to stick around long enough to be converted. "Third-wave coffee has something for you, it's delicious and it doesn't demand that you enjoy hyper-light roasts off a V60 at 184.7°F, it's not about facial hair or espresso or $12 cups of coffee - it's just about doing coffee better, and we can do something that's 'better' by your standards." And waves are a really great model for explaining how and why their values differ from ours, as well. For instance, understanding that a typical second-wave consumer both enjoys and has pride and affection vested in their morning cuppa is important - too often the third wave uses inherently judgemental language in telling second wave consumers about the benefits of upgrading and in doing so alienates someone who wanted to become a convert.
From the business side, though, from the inside: your "wave" isn't about you, it's about the type of customer you're attempting to cater and appeal to. Speaking very broadly and generally, a second wave cafe is appealing much more as a "cafe" and a "cafe experience" than it is on the basis of the coffee they serve. Similarly broadly, the third wave cafe is appealing based on it's scope of offerings and performed dedication to quality. If there aren't fourth-wave customers, you can cater to them all you want but it's probably not going to be a successful business.
The most fundamental value of The Third Wave is that of conoisseurship - the idea that coffee is something to be appreciated and enjoyed, with clear quality and experiential differences existing between different origins, brew methods, and serving styles. There is depth of enjoyment and preference to be explored, always room for improvement, and "quality" serves as an ultimate abstract goal.
Sound familiar? This is how pretty much everyone in the modern coffee industry thinks. We may not all agree, we may not like sharing a label with this or that business we don't consider "up to muster" but we're all still trying to do coffee better at the end of the day. It doesn't matter if this is shifting to batch brew over pourover, or trying to get portion packed coffee out of the terrible rep its earned, or trying for fully automated brewing to better focus on raw customer experience ... It's still rooted in the core value of "there is space to improve this".
To become a "Fourth Wave" establishment requires catering to a consumer value set that abandons connoisseurship entirely - without "backsliding" into either first or second wave values - you still have to be going somewhere new, but it has to be new enough that you're leaving a focus on notions of quality or excellence behind.
But as long as you're trying to provide a better something - experience, coffee, etc - you're still doing third wave stuff. The third wave is defined by a culture of conoisseurship, and as long as practices play into that, nothing has changed. And that's not bad. Third wave is good. Wine is *still* in its third wave, and has been for 200 years or so. There's nothing wrong with a focus on providing and seeking subjective quality. And that is the focus that has to change before we're moving on to a fourth wave. To transition into a fourth wave, we need a fundamental relationship shift between consumers and product on the scale of "america started drinking coffee" or "america realized there is more to good coffee than having a preferred brand". In short, consumers need to stop caring about quality entirely.
...And the only way that's likely to happen is if quality is something we're able to take for granted. Once the average consumer is confident that they don't need to seek quality intentionally, because *all* coffee is quality coffee, then we're ready for a shift in consumer relationships big enough to herald a fourth wave. Not before.
Once each and every question of "quality" is solved, when there's nothing more to learn or explore - sure, we can move on to a fourth wave. But how does a connoisseur leave behind connoisseurship - without backsliding? Coffee growing needs to be so good, so known and plotted, that there are no "bad" coffees coming to market - each coffee is equivalently excellent, and differences in terroir and processing are only relevant to personal preference, not quality. Roasting needs to be similarly solved - the optimal way to roast any given bean needs to become a known quantity, the difference between how I roast a bean and how you roast a bean needs to result in solely preferential differences, not quality. Purchasing needs to have lost its guesswork, labels are honest and straightforward, consumers understand them, and everyone can be unquestioningly confident that they will receive what the bag claims. Brewing, too, must be in a sort of ideal state; there's no opportunity cost in swapping hardware or method, achieving a perfect brew is so trivial that selecting a method is again simple preference, not practice and expertise.
In short, the connoisseur hangs up his hat when his expertise is no longer needed. The fourth wave can happen when all of the magic, the adventure, the learning, and the challenge has gone out of coffee - solely leaving behind the delicious.