Have you ever walked down the coffee aisle at your local grocery store and wondered how all those brands came to be? How many coffee drinkers have tried a cup of Folgers, Maxwell House or Nescafe at one point or another? Or how there is a very good chance that someone in the checkout line has a tin of coffee in their cart?
These historical powerhouses in the coffee industry originated in the first wave of coffee, which began in the early 1800s. As mentioned in one of our early blog posts, the first wave of coffee can be characterized by one word – convenience. People were starting to see coffee as a commodity and began purchasing it regularly.
Coffee quickly became a staple in homes and offices, with many individuals caring about getting their “caffeine fix” rather than the actual quality of the coffee they drank. There was little regard or concern over the origins of the coffee or the unique flavours that can come from beans grown in different countries.
We aren’t trying to talk negatively about these brands or make you feel bad if this is your coffee of choice, we are simply stating a fact about that era of coffee. There was little understanding of the roasting process, different techniques for roasting and how to bring out the tasty notes from each bean.
Characteristics of First Wave Coffee
Coffee from the first wave is primarily only offered as pre-ground and comes in large tins with a “freshness seal” underneath the lid. The coffee itself is very dark and bitter, which is why many people add milk, sugar and syrups into their coffee.
Take a look at one of those tins next time you are in the grocery store and look at the label. It doesn’t say where the beans come from, the unique flavours it has or how the beans were processed. This lack of information that we and other speciality coffee roasters emphasize was not a focus at the time as producers were focused on making the coffee inexpensive, convenient and accessible.
Did you know that coffee comes from a plant? More specifically, a coffee cherry! The coffee beans are the seeds from the cherries, which then go through weeks of work to get them ready for roasting. Due to the widespread eagerness to position coffee into an accessible commodity during this era, this fact was not widely known until the last few decades!
Innovating the Industry
There were some notable inventions that came out of this time that are still prominent in how coffee is processed and packaged today.
Vacuum packaging was invented by R.W. Hills in 1900 as a way to keep beans fresher for longer. It removed air from within the tins, keeping the fresh aromas inside. This invention has increased the shelf life of coffee and allows it to be shipped further from its roasting location, while maintaining the flavour and quality. Extending the freshness of quality helped turn coffee into the staple for individuals across all work areas and professions, rather than a drink exclusive to the upper class.
Instant coffee was also invented just three years later in 1903 by Satori Kato by applying a dehydration process for tea to coffee grinds! People liked it because it was quick, easy and didn’t require any equipment to brew. Only had to add hot water.
Nescafe by Nestle had become the prominent brand of instant coffee by the last 1930’s and can still be found in supermarkets today!
At the end of the first wave in the 1970’s, approximately 1/3 of all imported coffee was being processed into instant coffee.
Road Fact: Instant coffee was used by military members in both the First and Second World Wars, as it was incredibly convenient and could fit into rationing packages easily!
Appreciating the Past
Coffee consumption would not be as widespread and popular as it is today if it wasn’t for the innovators and marketers in the first wave of coffee. They were able to transform coffee into a household and office commodity, an essential part of people’s day.
Prior to the convenience of brewing coffee at home, people had to go into local roasters and coffee houses to get their daily coffee drinks. Inventions such as vacuum packaging also revolutionized the packaging process for the better, as this is something that coffee roasters around the world continue to use.
While we are happy that the coffee industry has evolved to focusing on sustainability and paying farmers above their cost of goods, it is important to recognize our past and where we come from. We wouldn’t be here without those early coffee entrepreneurs and innovators.
Author Jordan Calladine