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The Three Waves of Coffee | Noah Hulton

My cup of coffee today was $4.75. I walked into my usual Starbucks with the mission that today would be the day I’d branch outside of my usual, Pikes Place. Is it just me or is a cappuccino and a latte basically the same thing? I still don’t even really know what espresso is. But I know it was in my Christmas-caramel whatever that had whipped cream and caramel shavings littered on top. It was delicious. Tasted more like chocolate milk than coffee.

Slumped over a Macbook in a brown wooden chair with business men chatting on one side and lovers on the other, I wonder how coffee became green-haired baristas rushing back and forth with steaming milk spurting out of metal containers. What happened in-between my grandad taking his instant coffee black and me saying “yes” to whipped cream, hoping no one else heard?

First Wave: The Quest for Convenience

“In 1849 three Folger brothers left Nantucket for the gold fields of northern California,” Amy Jenness writes for Yesterday’s Island. “When the brothers reached San Francisco there was only enough money for two to continue on to the mining camps. The youngest, J.A., as he was called, stayed in the city to work for his travel costs so he could join his brothers.”

Alone, far away from home, and separated from the only souls he knew, rescue came from Henry H. Bouvee. Instead of gold and riches buried deep within the earth, Bouvee had an even better offer to give: coffee. Folger, probably having no other options, took the job at the first mill of The Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills.

Now whether or not Folger recognized this at the time, this mill had revolutionized coffee. Until Spice Mills, coffee drinkers had to grind whole beans. The mill began pre-grinding and pre-packaging coffee, which made the beverage readily available and widely accessible. It was a complete game changer. An empire was on the cusp. A whole nation was about to become heavily addicted to caffeine, and James Folger was at the heart of it. And what did he do? Well, he saved up enough money and left for his brothers.

“The First Wave [of coffee] made it their mission to increase consumption exponentially.”

All along the road to the mines, he handed out samples of the revolutionary coffee to shops. The clerks took the bait and business grew. Eventually the gold rush ended, and James and his brothers left. James ended up back in San Francisco.

“James became a full partner of The Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills. But, following the Civil War, the economy collapsed—resulting in the business going bankrupt,” according to the modern, non-pioneer driven Folgers’ website. After that, James went on to convince creditors to pay off the company’s debts, and eventually he bought out the other partners. The company was then renamed to J. A. Folger & Co.

In the early 1900’s, a Japanese American by the name of Satori Kato was given the first patent for instant coffee. While originally inventing the concept for instant tea, he was approached by a coffee brewer to apply his methods to coffee. After adjusting the formula, he became successful. Unfortunately, he never really got the royalties he deserved. For during World War I, his rival Red E Coffee would become the provider for instant coffee rations to soldiers. And during World War II it would be Nescafé. And the poor chap got kicked again when it’s revealed that apparently David Strang of New Zealand invented instant coffee two years prior to Kato.

Considering it’s basically a social slight to offer someone instant coffee today, and that Folgers has all but been delegitimized among any sort of educated coffee drinker, it may seem the First Wave left us nothing.

“At first glance, it looks like there is plenty to reject from the First Wave of coffee. We like to point at them and say: look who made bad coffee commonplace, look who created low quality instant solubles, look who blended away all the nuance, look who forced prices to an all-time low!” writes Trish Skeie, in her well-known 2003 piece “Norway and Coffee” in The Flamekeeper. Skeie is the coiner of the three waves of coffee. “They were and are the mass-marketers. While coffee has steadily grown in popularity since its discovery, the First Wavers made it their mission to increase consumption exponentially.”

Body Photo 1
Noah Hulton for Blue Muse Magazine

Second Wave: The Rise of Starbucks

So, coffee had humble beginnings. But how did it become pompous?

After the first world war ended, Alfred Peet was born in The Netherlands and grew up working in his father’s bean wholesale and grinding business. At eighteen he moved to London, and in 1955, after Europe had again been ravaged by war, he found his way to America. A little more than a decade later, he opened his own bean shop.

While the First Wave leaders focused on mass production, Peet focused on quality. Artisanal coffee had begun, and in no better a place than in the infamously progressive Berkley, California.

Peet’s ideas flourished but not by his hand. For a little farther north, in the preliminary bowels of post-modern culture, a few men sent scouts to observe and learn from Peet.

These men were Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zer Siegl. And after meeting in college, they opened the first Starbucks in 1971 at 2000 Western Avenue, Seattle. Seven years later they moved to 1912 Pike Place, likely what their famous Pike Place roast is named after.

“The fact that Starbucks would become a multibillion-dollar company, I didn’t have that in mind,” Gordon Bowker said in a 2008 interview with the Seattle Times. The mainstream success of the coffee giant isn’t attributable to the founders, instead it goes to a man named Howard Schultz.

Schultz originally came into the company as Director of Marketing. And at this point, Starbucks only sold roasted coffee beans. Yup. There were no macchiatos or venti cappuccinos, only beans. Schultz tried to convince the company to change, start selling actual cups of coffee, but to no avail. So, the unappreciated Schultz left and began a lesser known, but still successful, Il Giornale Coffee. And whether out of spite or entrepreneurial instinct, he bought out Starbucks in 1987.

It was Schultz who brought espresso, cappuccino, latte, and ice coffee to the menu. “Once in charge, Schultz set out to completely overhaul Starbucks according to his vision,” Entrepreneur wrote in a 2008 profile.

Also changing was the social atmosphere of getting coffee. Entrepreneur writes, “Schultz also sought to create a more appealing atmosphere for his customers—the proverbial “clean, well-lighted place” where they could relax and enjoy their coffee in comfort.”

The third place, an area in between home and work, is still at the core of what Starbucks tries to do today. Following the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks and allegations of racism, the company closed for training to reinforce what this philosophy means. Starbucks lists on their website that “We want our stores to be the third place, a warm and welcoming environment where customers can gather and connect. Any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes, and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase.”

Starbucks continued to grow throughout the 1990s and went through a period of opening a new shop every day. They exist all over the country, small doses of metropolitan craft and European philosophy.

But some argue companies like Starbucks put too much emphasis on the atmosphere. They’ll tell you their coffee suffered because of it. Of course, these people need their own category. They are not the time-efficient moguls of past days, nor the human spirit, oriented Schultzonians.

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Noah Hulton for Blue Muse Magazine

Third Wave: The Journey Back

Tucked comfortably in downtown Hartford, Blue State’s sign hovers over a bustling street. Inside are vegan pastries, latte wall art, and local charities written on a board that customers can vote on for the company to donate to.

“Blue State Coffee donates 2 percent of sales to local non-profit organizations suggested by our customers,” Kelsey Cote, executive assistant, tells me. “Each time a customer makes a purchase he or she may vote for one of the four non-profits we are supporting at that time.”

Being a family owned business with eight cafes in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, the company sought to find a way to better engrain themselves into their branches’ communities. The solution was local activism.

This idea of direct relations, of transparency, is critical of the Third Wave of coffee and extends to the most important part: the coffee itself.

“The idea of expressing personal preferences may be seen by some as overly ambitious for a barista,” Skeie writes. “The Third Wave throws out orthodoxies, The Third Wave challenges this and other commonly held notions of coffee’s hierarchy. For example, it’s no problem for us to recognize the roast master as an artisan, and we know the effect a good barista can have on the product, but how often do these disciplines converge?”

The Third Wave is about returning to what made all these fancy shops and controversial holiday cups popular in the first place: the coffee. “The Third Wave is a reaction to those who want to automate and homogenize Specialty Coffee,” Skeie writes.

One of Cote’s favorite drinks is the unorthodox Espresso Frizz, which features seltzer, house syrup, and their espresso #9. Classified as bright, velvety, and lemony, the unique espresso #9 characterizes the Third Wave.

In the café baristas rush back and forth, clad in beanies and t-shirts, steaming milk and pulling espresso. Students slump over Macbooks. All day people walk in and out, sit in casual chairs, and rustic tables. The community charity board hangs colored with chalk, wood tokens slowly building up in the jars. Large, open windows look out to the streets of Hartford, watching people as they pass by, beckoning them to enter and reap the fruits of a craft long brewed in American culture.


Headline photo by Noah Hulton for Blue Muse Magazine


Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

4 comments on “The Three Waves of Coffee | Noah Hulton

  1. GREAT writing, Noah. And I hate Starbucks Coffee!!! Kudos on a well written article!! Congrats!!!

  2. Wow, Noah is so talented!! What a guy!! So proud of my neighbor.

  3. Lisa hulton

    Loved the article! And I don’t even like coffee.

  4. Mary Collins

    Whoa! You certainly cover a lot of ground (or is that grounds). Ha.
    I love history written with the public in mind, not academics, because it’s really just good story. The Japanese guy who came up with dried instant coffee never got a dime in royalties…lousy.

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