A barista recently tossed out references to first, second and third waves of coffee - whatever that means. But Levi Schofield, café manager for Switchback Coffee Roasters, had answers.
"The first wave is large coffee producers like Folgers and Maxwell House," he said. "Second wave was about using specialty coffee beans that were roasted darker for a deeper (flavor) and developing espresso drinks. The third wave is fairly new. There's more refinement on how the coffee is perfectly roasted and prepared."
Coffee has evolved tremendously over the past 100-plus years. Suzanne Brown, an Atlantabased coffee marketing specialist, offers a big-picture look at its progression.
"Really, all the waves are just divisions of coffee," Brown said. "First wave was mainstream generic sold in supermarkets or less-expensive branded coffees such as Maxwell House or Folgers. Second wave was higher-quality coffee usually sold in vacuumed packages. Third wave is specialty, better-quality coffee, grown in different countries. And the fourth wave is exceptional coffee at the top of the pyramid, sold from a specific location within a farm - the highest quality available from a country.
"All of this set the stage for the coffee industry growth to expand. And homemakers were latching onto modern coffeepots for making coffee at home, percolators and such. But so often, the coffee turned out really bad-tasting or burnt," Brown said.
The invention of the automatic-drip coffee maker in 1972 by Vincent Marotta started the era of better homemade coffee. Marotta called his machine Mr. Coffee. It was a marketing sensation.
"By the end of the 1970s, more than 40,000 Mr. Coffee's were being sold every day," the company website says.
Once consumers could brew better coffee, they expected more detail paid to sourcing, grading and roasting beans. Emerging coffee-specialty businesses triggered the second wave, best illustrated by Starbucks for its use of whole beans, freshly roasted and ground.
As consumers demanded better-tasting coffee, more roasters and shops began carefully sourcing beans, perfecting roasting techniques and developing distinctive blends.
Glenn Powell, owner of Barista Espresso and Specialty Roasting in Colorado Springs, could write a book on the subject after 40-plus years in the business.
"My first interest in coffee was in 1978 when I was working for a company unloading coffee from trucks," he said. "There were literally only two espresso machines in Colorado Springs. I started, with some partners, making espresso machines. But my passion was roasting coffee, and April 1, 1992, I opened Barista."
The second wave also was about ethical dealings with coffee farmers, and Fair Trade became a watchword. Powell started roasting small-batch specialty coffee with beans from small plantations around the world, putting him on the cutting edge of this phase.
"Starbucks did and continues to educate consumers about coffee," he says.
But he won't over-roast beans and doesn't intend to become a Starbucks-style empire.
"The bigger you get, the less control of the finished product you have," Powell said. "And we will always give our customers what they want.
"Back in 1993 or '94, the owner of Trina's Brewed Awakenings, who had coffee shops at several of the military bases, asked me to develop a light roast for her. I'd never done a light roast, but that's the flavor profile she knew her customers wanted. Now we're doing about six light roasts for customers."
The third wave has revolutionized the taste of coffee.
"Smaller roasters are riding the third wave right now," Powell said. "We can create more roast profiles for customers' tastes. One of the biggest parts of our business is private labels for coffee shops.
"Coffee is no different than being a chef. Get a really good-tasting roast, and it's a recipe you want to keep consistent. Stop tweaking it.
"People are getting more educated about the complexity of coffee," he said. "Look at wine. People have more sophisticated palates. The same is true for coffee drinkers. They are becoming more purists with coffees from a single bean from a single country. No blends."
But don't get him started on lattes and pumpkin-pie spice syrups.
"A latte is an abomination," he said. "It's a cup of hot milk. I'm not a milk guy. And pumpkin pie spice syrup is not my thing either. Have a cup of good coffee, and enjoy the great complex flavors."