Liquid Thinking

The Forth Wave is here, but what is it?

What does this mean for brands? 

28th September 2022

According to Mintel, the effects of the pandemic and the changing visual needs of Gen Z consumers have birthed the next wave of the coffee revolution. And it’s happening now. From TikTok-led trends to cold serves and the importance of at-home coffee bars, what does it mean for brands?

Forget coffee chains or even artisan roasteries that charge near £5 for a cuppa. At the confluence of changing consumer interests, developing technologies and growing financial pressures, we find this, the new fourth wave of coffee, according to a new think piece and forecast from Mintel. Defined by at-home serves, consumer-generated trends and cold coffees, it seems to be quite a step-change from a market that previously eschewed at-home serves.

Before we explore it further however, it’s wise to take a look at how coffee trends have previously unfolded; what have the other waves consisted of? According to Mintel, the first wave began from the 1800s when coffee became an ‘accessible commodity’. Slow to evolve amongst a background of industrial development, world wars, and changing lifestyles, the second wave only began with the rise of the coffee shop in the early 1990s. By the late 2000s, the third wave commenced with the focus on quality, specific brewing techniques, details of the coffee’s origins and calling out the name and source of beans while celebrating their unique flavour and the effects of different roasting techniques. It was, in short, a backlash to the highly sweetened, flavoured, and synthetic coffee products favoured in the 90s.

Consumers lead the way

So, that brings us to the fourth wave. Most evident so far in the US, the wave has just begun, driven by Gen Z’s preferences as well as the growth, greater availability of, and better quality of a wider range of at-home serves. Add the after-effects of a pandemic that has seen many switch to home working, and add a new(ish) visual medium that regularly births drinks and other trends of all kinds, and we have ourselves a set of entirely new dynamics driving change in the market.

What’s particularly interesting to note in Mintel’s analysis is that instead of being led by companies and their product launches, the fourth wave is almost entirely consumer driven, led by what is happening in the home and most likely innovative ideas  that find their way to Tik Tok.

A lifestyle shift

While home working has seen many consumers set-up a more sophisticated brewing situation in the home, growing inflationary cost pressures look set to cement the need for more affordable, ever more sophisticated serves to be readily available in the home.

Mintel in fact claims that a third of home workers own a single-cup specialty coffee brewer or machine, such as a Nespresso, Keurig, or similar. With home working set to stay – at least in some format – consumers are likely to experiment a little more and customise their home brewing experience and serves. And where are they looking for inspiration? Yes, social media.

Representing the antithesis to the preachy, faux-craft, snobbishness of the coffee shop-led third wave, the fourth wave is set to be quality driven. But with an added innate sense of fun, frivolity, and enthusiasm to explore and create.

Fun first

On the influence of the fastest growing social media outlets on coffee consumption, the forecast takes a strong view: ‘Rather than coffee shops, TikTok content creators will dictate future coffee trends and influence US coffee culture’.

If you’ve felt vaguely unhappy after sipping on a cold brew, then watch out. Mintel also predicts that fourth-wave innovation will primarily focus on cold coffee drinks, led by RTDs, new cold coffee recipes, textured serves such as sparkling coffee, newer cold brew techniques such as flash brewed and even functional products, all centred around the home and home consumption. Each will need to be visually compelling to stand out on social media platforms. And if there’s a ritual to creating it, even better.

And finally, you know how musicians like to create cute names for their dedicated fans? Well, think of the ‘Coffeetok’ influencer set in the same light. Sharing content such as recipes, brewing techniques, serving rituals and images of their own curated coffee bars, their aspirational content is set to become a benchmark for image conscious consumers. Mintel research claims that 49% of Gen Z consumers now learn about coffee and coffee serves via TikTok, with trends now being set by individuals rather brands.

Brands need a new approach

As cost pressures bite and consumers look for home entertainment and simple ways to treat themselves, these habits only look set to deepen. So, what does this mean for brands? Effectively, for some that aren’t already embedded in these new habits (think pod brands, machine makers, et al) any new products are going to have to approach consumers on their own terms.

No longer are brands going to invite consumers into their brand worlds when it comes to new coffee launches, instead it’s a case of consumers inviting brands into theirs. Fun, frivolity and a sense of fun – of something to do, make, experiment with, even transform – will be key as consumers look for sensory experiences from their coffee, from texture to ritual or transformative pours and ideally ones that photograph well.

However, it’s not all fun and games, quality too will remain paramount. And on top of this, brands will also need to instruct their creative brand agencies to flag their eco-credentials too, in ways that feel authentic and not patronising. In essence, the most successful coffee products in the fourth wave will neatly combine fun, theatre and a sense of morality to both planet and people.

Products that allow consumers to join growing trends, as well as those that neatly sit on purposely curated at-home coffee bars, will also strike a chord with consumers. Coffee shops too will need to keep a close eye on trends emerging from social media, allowing consumers easy access to the strongest, possibly in a take-home, branded format. Newcomer brands, especially from outside the coffee space that manage to tap into lifestyle trends – or simply the consumer mood or aesthetic preferences – will also flourish.

Brands… listen up and lighten up. We’re not saying forget your brand’s core values. But with life just frankly too darn serious right now, it’s time to get playful if you want to stand out.

Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

Please contact us at or 0207 101 3939