Talking about coffee in the context of trends carries with it a certain irony. Coffee itself is hardly a trend – it’s been around since the dawn of humanity.

Legend has it that the savory, buzz-inducing beverage began its journey to mass consumption in the ancient forests of the Ethiopian plateau sometime during the 10th century. So the story goes, a goat herder named Kaldi noted the magical powers of the brown little beans when his goats chewed so hard on them that they couldn’t sleep. Of course, being the devout man he was, Kaldi reported his findings to the abbot of a monastery, who daringly made a drink from the beans, and found it allowed him to stay awake all night praying. Word spread, and some 1000 years later, here we are, still sipping from the bounty of the beans, using it to kickstart our morning, get us through the mid day hump, or push through our late night shift.

As you may already know, coffee in our modern era has changed forms vastly in the past few decades. Many roasters and industry aficionados look at coffee’s progress in three waves:

1st Wave: Mass marketers made it their mission to increase coffee consumption, making it a staple in modern day households and, some would say, imperative to early mornings. Airtight cans and the phrase “good to the last drop” emerged from this early consumer coffee era.


Second Wave: In a word: Starbucks. In a few more, espresso, mocha latte, frappuccino, and branding consistency. This homogeneity, this sameness, is in fact what prompted a consumer rebellion which resulted in our current coffee era.


Third Wave: Today’s era started in the early 2000s, and “is marked by small roasters working directly with specific farmers and producers, chemically analyzing beans, and giving deep scrutiny to methodologies, all in pursuit of the most ideal form of espresso or pour. The shops themselves have reflected this pivot to emphasize the bean and its devoted disciples. Whether they feature modern color-blocked interiors or reclaimed wood and roasting equipment, Third Wave coffee shops emphasize the barista, beans and cashier above all else. The exalted coffee, and the efficiency or spectacle of making it, are what the spaces highlight.”

We’re in an era of coffee connoisseurship, one that necessitates the same attention a wine maker gives to an aging barrel, or a craft brewer gives to their choice of hops. Unlike wide legged pants, vertical stripes, and cowboy boots, trends in the coffee industry aren’t fleeting or cyclical – they’re building; they’re progressive; and they’re all leading consumers to the fourth wave of coffee. Coffee shops, restaurants, and hospitality alike will be affected. Not just in the coffee they offer, but where they buy their beans and the experience they offer consumers. So what are the latest and greatest trends hitting the coffee shop floor, the counter, and customer? In this guide, we discuss everything from taste, to practices, to experience, so you can get an idea of how this beloved energizer is changing shape as we ride the third wave.


Cold brew: A trend that’s here to stay, the cold brew first percolated into existence around 2010 in roasting towns like Seattle and San Francisco. It has become a fanciful treat, now packaged for take away, available everywhere from high end grocery stores to coffee shops.

The cold brew concept is pretty simple: coffee is brewed over a long period of time without heat. The outcome is supposed to be cold coffee, with the same energetic benefits of your old staple, but with a smoother, less acidic taste. Originally touted as a passing trend, it looks like cold brew is not going anywhere. As the CEO of La Colombe said, “I’m just going to say it…the Fourth Wave of coffee is cold. People are finding new and better ways to brew coffee without heat, and it’s exciting. The cold brew craze of the last couple years is just the beginning, and that’s why I wanted to get moving on my Draft Latte — an iced latte with textured milk and cold brewed coffee served from a tap. No heat involved. With the response we’ve seen to the Draft Latte, I guarantee we’re going to see a major shift in the industry towards cold coffee drinks.”

Nitro: Speaking of coffee on tap, nitro coffee has all the characteristics of a Guinness – the smooth creamy taste, the cascading bubbles, the frothiness of nitrogen – but it’s coffee. It’s normally stored in a keg, pressurized and poured from a tap. Nitro is a step beyond cold brew, and while its future as a passing trend or old faithful is still yet to be determined, it has been popping up across an increasing number of North American coffee shops over the last two years.

Flat white: You’ve likely seen images of a flat white before, but confused it with a cappuccino. It’s one of those pretty frothy bevvies that baristas so delicately trace hearts into, but it’s also a new take on the old latte. The flat white entails an extra espresso shot and a delicate steaming process that requires that milk be swirled and folded over itself to create velvet microfilm – very tiny bubbles. The milk should be velvety, not frothy. It’s in-between a latte – which has a lot of steamed milk and no bubbles, and a cappuccino – which has a lot of bubbles but no liquid milk.

Matcha: Bye bye run-of-the-mill green tea and hello matcha! Not to stray too far from our beloved bean, but there’s something to be said about matcha. Praised as the purest form of green tea, matcha is touted for its health benefits as well as its potential to energize: according to, matcha has 6.2 times antioxidizing power of Goji berries, 17 times that of wild blueberries and 60.5 times that of spinach. It’s also been known to boost memory and concentration, increase energy and endurance, detoxify the body, improve the immune system, and burn calories. Well, hot damn.

Tea infused coffee, coffee infused tea: With matcha tea on the mind, the old standard coffee is now being superfood-ified, often in the form of tea. Javazen, for example, is a blend of “Peruvian light-roast coffee, Japanese ceremonial matcha green tea, organic raw cacao, Ceylon cinnamon, and vanilla from Madagascar.” The combination is supposed to create a concoction that has all the energizing benefits of coffee, with a better taste and without jitters or dehydration. There’s also green tea infused coffee, for those who can’t decide between the two, and tea lattes, for those who can’t live without a bit of froth. For those in select states, there’s even cannabis infused coffee. What will they think of next?!

Flavored coffee: While this slightly diverges from the philosophy of third wave purists who believe in “letting the coffee speak for itself”, flavored coffee is still tickling taste buds everywhere. It’s a friendly entry to the bitter coffee world for the newly converted. When coffee isn’t enough, or when you’re sick of the season’s old favorites (just say no to pumpkin spice!) there are more creative flavors hitting the shelves: maple walnut, honey cinnamon and red velvet, to name a few. Essentially, if there’s an ice cream flavor, you can bet it can be reincarnated as a coffee.

Cultural coffee: Move over Americano. Variations of Vietnamese coffee made with condensed milk are coming in hot – and cold – they’re accompanied by Thai iced tea. In the face of leaf rust that’s been affecting many coffee centric countries in Central America, new bean varieties from Taiwan, Thailand, and Australia are entering the market, which brings us to our next trend…

Single origin coffee: The hit or miss house blend got you down? Sourcing coffee from a single origin or a single farmer is in. Since elevation, soil, climate temperature, rainfall, humidity and age all affect the taste of a coffee, single origin coffee has emerged as a way to differentiate one coffee from the next.


Decline in single pods: While the Keurig might be attributed with starting the single serve coffee pod movement, momentum seems to be slowing. After the 2015 holiday season had passed, Keurig reported a 7% drop in machine sales during their most sales heavy season, and also experienced a drop in the sales of pods, “an ominous sign considering the little guys are responsible for roughly 80 percent of Keurig’s sales.” Indeed, the future of the pod is in question. Sustainability plays a big role here. While pods are less wasteful when it comes to water consumption – when you use a pod you drink the whole cup, rather than wasting three quarters of a pot for a single cup. However, disposing of pods creates a lot of waste, as they must be tossed in the garbage because they can’t be recycled. There is speculation that new compostable pods – aligned with Millennial’s love for sustainability – might provoke a resurgence. Only time will tell.

Deconstructed coffee: Average joes, hold onto your hats as hipsters rejoice. “Your house – with your kettle and tetley tea bags – is the only safe place now. The only sanctuary from a world of rainbow food, meals served on shovels, and, worst of all, deconstructed coffee.” This is third wave coffee epitomized. Love it or hate it the deconstructed coffee puts the bean, the barista and the experience of coffee at its centre. It’s coffee prepared and consumed with care. While not everyone is pleased with the three step presentation, the beakers, or the test tubes that deconstructed coffee has chosen as its form, it is kind of cool. But, not too cool.

Cartons: The trending cold brew brings with it another fanciful package: the carton. Straight from the fridge, to the belly, to the bloodstream, coffee shops are using recyclable cartons to host their cold brews. Ready to drink on the go? This is the most hassle free way to get your cup of joe.


Micro-roasters: Following in the footsteps of craft breweries and independent wineries, the micro roaster is emerging as a consumer favourite. Under the influence of the third wave’s artisan-ification of coffee, as well as the sustainability movement and Millennial demands, micro-roasters are finding success because of their ability to produce a fine, upper echelon product, while cultivating relationships with the farmers they use to produce their beans.

Sustainable, ethical organic beans: Millennials, those born from 1980 – 2000, are growing into their purchasing power. Despite reports that Millennials are staying at home longer, getting married later, having children older, and staying at jobs shorter, one thing that hasn’t changed is their love for coffee. What has changed, however, is the coffee they’re choosing to buy. According to the Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility, when it came to purchasing:


59% 57% 43% 41%
were heavily influenced when the product was from a company known for it’s commitment to social value were heavily influenced when the product was made from fresh, natural, organic ingredients were heavily influenced when the product was known for its health and wellness benefits were heavily influenced by environmental packaging

Thus, fair trade is reaching the point where it’s not an option anymore. Guaranteeing labor protections for bean farmers was – thankfully – so well received, that Fair Trade USA reached one billion lbs of coffee labeled Fair Trade all the way back in 2014. Organic coffee, sustainable roasting practices, and fair trade are now mainstays of the coffee industry, and yet, there is still a ton of work needed to be done to produce ethical, sustainable coffee. The bottom line for coffee roasters: the sustainable, ethical trend isn’t going anywhere and the more certifications that can serve as proof for sustainability of the roasts you choose to serve, the better.

Coffee Water: Your cup of coffee is 2% coffee and 98% water, which means improving beans can only go so far. It’s been theorized that the next step in the coffee evolution is to start fine tuning the water coffee is made with for optimal taste results.

Take Aquiem water for example. The water undergoes a purification process so that only the minerals that amplify coffee flavors are added back to the water. For a shipment of 12 one-litre recyclable cartons of Aquiem, the coffee enhancing H2O goes for $25.68 USD. Aquiem partner Rob Vidacovich is quoted as saying, “Coffee drinkers are becoming increasingly aware that coffee is 98% water and that the composition of the water used in the brewing cycle has a huge effect on the quality and consistency of the final product […] Our challenge is to make consumers aware that finally there is water available that has been specifically blended to significantly enhance their coffee experience.”

And he’s not alone in this assertion. Amanda Byron, the Director of Coffee at Joe Coffee agrees that focus on water might be here to stay, “I believe that the industry as a whole will start looking more intimately at our water and using this ingredient in different ways. I imagine we aren’t far off from a cafe offering a flight of one coffee brewed with three different water sources, or water that measures three different levels of TDS [Total Dissolved Solids]. Not only do I think the industry is thinking this way, I also find it a very approachable concept for the consumer that is often overlooked. Coffee is only 2% of the beverage; water is 98%. I think people may start to shift their focus to the 98%.” Whether or not the purified water trend will go the way of mineral water beauty spray – down the drain – is yet to be seen.

Coffee subscriptions: First came wine subscription services. Just like your favorite monthly magazine, you get a sampling of a new bottle of wine every month. Then came craft beer subscription services. Same deal. For the coffee curious, coffee subscription services could be the next thing. Companies like MistoBox match customers with custom coffee based on their preferences, delivered on a monthly basis. Customers can create a flavor profile based on their preference of roast, and then even choose a single origin, espresso, a blend, or even decaf. Coffee delivered to your door by mail, though it’s not quite at the drone delivery stage yet. Maybe in the next wave…


The local: Good news for the little guys: while it might seem impossible to get out from under the Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts of the world, consumers – yes, those pesky Millennials again – are preferring to shop down the street. As so eloquently put it, “Every Millennial’s purchase is a conscious act of political selfexpression, and every swipe on a Square register represents Gen Y’s commitment to local community at the same time that it reminds of Millennials’ thirst for unique products and a one-of-a-kind shopping experience…which they will then share it on social media to show their peers just how cool and socially-conscious they are.” This is great for local coffee shops. How can coffee shop managers take this to the next step? They can capitalize on the Millennial’s consumer power by running their shop under the ethos of sustainable beans, local crafts, art and wares, and hosting events that engage the surrounding community.

This strategy is working so well that even Starbucks is getting in on it. The seemingly local 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea, is actually owned by Starbucks, it’s just been “unbranded.” Fresh flowers, used coffee grounds up for grabs, and ground beans to order are just a few offerings that the unbranded shop is offering to hone in on the benefits of the local movement. Sly, but an indicator that local is on the rise.

Baristas: Heavily touted as one of the distinguishing factors of the third wave of coffee, the barista is now tasked with having coffee knowledge akin to a sommelier, while creating a similar experience to a bartender. Since the third wave of coffee means more artisan interest, sustainable demands, and single origin beans, baristas are being asked more and more about the ins and outs of the beans, “These baristi will be able to tell you exactly when their coffee was roasted, how the beans were processed, the idea behind the blend, and offer cupping notes.”


As the third wave of coffee ebbs and flows – flavored to purist, hot to cold, carton to bottle to thermos to cup, always to the belly and the blood stream – speculation around the fourth wave of coffee continues. Will there be a fourth wave? Are we currently in the fourth wave? Will we have to cross a new ocean of coffee altogether?

When it comes to the fourth wave, some, “imagine a world that finally says please, no thank you to suboptimal/wasteful/expensive pods. Your morning coffee will be delivered by drone from the experts down the street, and Augmented Reality cafe environments will provide a sensory service experience we can’t begin to imagine.”

Others believe we’re on the crest; the fourth wave is in the midst of crashing down. As Todd Carmichael, the founder coffee chain La Colombe, remarked: “the fourth wave is different. It’s cold and portable coffee. That’s it. It will be the biggest one of all.”

Any way you grind it, it’s an exciting time to be in bed with the bean. Restaurant owners, coffee shop owners, brewers and farmers will be riding the third wave until the next break officially occurs.