What’s the fourth wave? A chat with Proud Mary Coffee’s Nolan Hirte

Nolan Hirte - Fourth Wave Specialty Coffee - The Directory Coffee Blog1.jpg

The scene goes like this; it’s beyond cold outside, early in the morning (well early for me) and I’m a little dusty after last night’s boozy dinner that got a bit looser than originally anticipated. I’m sitting at a beautifully crafted bar in Melbourne’s Aunty Pegs – one of my favourite places to drink coffee, which is a good thing because coffee is definitely needed at this point in time. I’ve come here to meet up with owner Nolan Hirte for a chat about ‘the fourth wave’.

If you’re new to specialty coffee and have no idea what this ‘wave’ business is all about, all you really need to know is that to date, there have been three periods of significant development in the industry that have brought about a change to the way things are done. The first wave dates back to the 1800’s and was all about mass production and convenience for consumers, instant coffee was king. The second wave came about during the early 1970’s as coffee chains started marketing ‘quality’ as an important factor in the equation and consumers focused on chasing a ‘café experience’. The third wave kicked off at the start of the 2000’s and has been driven by a desire to improve what’s actually in the cup. Roasters and drinkers wanted to know more about where their coffee came from and there has been an industry wide shift towards lighter roasting styles that now aim to bring out the best cup qualities from the beans. As far as I’m concerned this is when we first started entering ‘specialty coffee’ territory. End of wave lesson.

Back at Aunty Pegs I’ve just finished my first Proud Mary Coffee espresso and the fogginess is starting to disperse. Nolan jumps into the stool next to me and the coffee talk begins to flow as we share a freshly made croissant from the bakery upstairs (which are ridiculously delicious I might add). It’s happy days for Nolan who’s just landed his coffees from El Salvador. Nothing was left to chance, so the greens were shipped in temperature-controlled containers set at a blissful 19˚C. It’s always hard to tell if Nolan is wired on caffeine or just full of energy because he’s so passionate about his craft. I think more often than not it’s the latter. He is after all, a coffeenerd king and we’re sitting in his castle.

Opposite us is Paul Lee who’s working the coffee bar with an attention to detail that can only be described as meticulous. The extraction processes that unfold are so well dialled it’s hard to imagine things could be improved further. Curious to know Nolan’s thoughts on where specialty coffee could possibly head next, I pose the question “what’s the fourth wave?”. He takes his time before replying “at the two ends”. What he’s referring to are the two ends of the process. Transport, storage, roasting, cupping and extraction are things most coffee brands already get right so Nolan believes the biggest improvements that can now be made will come through collaborating with the farmers at origin and also through improvements in the delivery of coffee to a customer in the actual café.

We’ll start at the beginning – origin. According to Nolan the next frontier in specialty coffee is going to come through developments in natural process coffee. “It’s pure but hard and needs to be done right. Washed coffee is safer and cleaner but naturals have massive potential. [As an industry] we should be aiming for better quality not a simpler process” exclaims Nolan. I couldn’t agree more. How many times have you sipped on a natural process filter brew and been left a little unsatisfied? A lot of roasters seem hesitant to play with these beans because there’s a risk of a rather funky cup at the other end, full of fermented notes that can provide a rather dull drinking experience. Nolan believes in order to get a good natural process coffee it takes a lot of collaboration with the farmers at origin to ensure the coffee is being handled properly before it even gets to the roaster. He gives me an example with the drying process; “they need to be turned every 15 minutes for eleven days to get even drying. It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it”. The guys serve me up an El Salvador Noruega, a natural process Bourbon. As far as palate awakenings go, this coffee was pretty mind blowing for me. Bright with hits of strawberry jam acidity up top, yet super balanced by a decent bottom end filled with sweet chocolate notes. This is not your ordinary natural and if it’s anything to go by, I’d say it’s about time roasters started putting in the hard yards with their farmers and started paying more attention to this particular processing method – a lot more attention.

What about the other end of chain? What can be done in the café that’s going to push us forward as an industry to a new level? Education and delivery to the customer. Physically speaking, the Aunty Pegs space is geared around delivery. It’s open with everything on show, it’s a bar and the countersunk, separated Synesso espresso machines do a stellar job at promoting communication between barista and drinker. “We want front line engagement, to find out where you are at now and increase your knowledge from there” says Nolan. Speaking like a passionate teacher he continues, “the ultimate customer is one who orders a latte… how do we get them to try something new?”. I really value this kind of attitude and the way Aunty Pegs rises to the challenge. It’s all too easy to convince a coffeenerd to try a new geisha from the filter bar but persuading someone who’s only ever ordered a milky coffee to part with eight dollars for an ‘oddball’ drink they’ve never heard of can be tough going. That’s where the delivery to the customer becomes so important. At Aunty Pegs you’ll get a full rundown of the coffee from the barista, where it’s come from, who made it, how it was processed and why the particular method was used. They’ll help you decide which coffee to order with genuine enthusiasm and a desire to have you order a drink that you not only enjoy but also one that pushes you into territory that’s new for your palate. The baristas will bring over the fresh grounds for you to smell pre-extraction, a whetting of the appetite so to speak. After you get your coffee and you’re happily sipping away the staff will ask you how it is, though it’s not done in the throwaway manner this question is usually posed with, here the staff really do want to know what you’re getting out of your coffee so they can continue the conversation. The great news is this is only the beginning and I think it’s going to be fascinating to see how coffee shops step up their game when it comes to customer engagement through education.

Is this the fourth wave? I have no idea… but it’s pretty damn cool either way.

Where do you think the industry is headed next? Have your say in the comments below.


  1. Greg

    I should also mention that Nolan’s comments re dry/natural process coffee is inspiring.
    My favourite coffees have all been dry process beans from Ethiopia or Yemen, full of flavour
    complexity and with a hint of wildness about them! Bring it on!

  2. Greg

    Interesting article. The term ‘third wave’ coffee was first coined by Trish Rothgeb of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in a 2002 edition of The Flamekeeper, an in-house publication of the Roasters Guild. It was further defined by Jonathon Gold, who wrote: “We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”
    The term ‘specialty coffee’ was first used in 1974.
    Instant coffee was first developed by a Japanese-American, Satori Kato, who took out a patent in 1903. By 1938 Nestlé were a driving force in coffee and supplied the US military
    in WWII. The lifestyle boom of the 50’s & 60’s was the golden age of second wave coffee.

    First wave is where coffee broke free of coffee houses and became more widely available as a consumer product, sometime during the 1800’s. Personally, I think we’re all one wave behind….. wouldn’t the true first wave be the freeing of coffee from its traditional, natural boundaries and its introduction into the wider world?

    What will the fourth wave be? I think it might happen before it’s identified and given its place in history but as coffee seems to parallel the wine industry I agree, in part, with Nolan. During the 1990’s the focus turned on viticulture and the production of high quality fruit. Clone selection ( nothing to do with GM ), planting density, pruning and trellis styles,
    shoot thinning and fruit thinning to achieve the desired outcomes became the new science. The expression of site, climate and season became the ultimate goal and the humble farmer started to feel a more valued part of the wine making process.

    I hope that 4th wave coffee is more about the agriculture, the farmer and the pursuit of coffee terroir than anything a bunch of hipster baristas might say about themselves!

    • Thanks for the additional information Greg. I definitely agree with your comments drawing parallels to the wine community. I think as an industry we can learn a lot from those guys about how to ingrain the farming and processing stages to improve the end product. For me this is where I think we’ll see the greatest improvement in quality, by getting more feedback from the roaster to origin and working with the farmers to act on this information. In a bid to take this even further I think we’re going to see a lot of roasters starting their own farms to further control the entire process from start to finish (already happening now). Perhaps that’s when we know we’re riding the fourth wave?

  3. chris bonney

    Nolan is a pioneer in the Australian coffee industry and a personal hero of mine, so I enjoyed this article. Sadly, like much of the “wisdom” floating around the hipster version of third wave, this article reveals a poor understanding of coffee history. Instant coffee was introduced as a commercial product in the US just after the end of WWII, as a loss leader enticing consumers into the new “supermarkets.” Prior to that time, coffee in the US bore a striking resemblance to what we are now calling third wave — high quality Central and South American beans, roasted fresh and relatively light, ground at home and brewed in a siphon. This phase of coffee’s history was bypassed in Australia by the tea drinkers of that era, but it still took place. Australian coffee — and third and fourth wave innovations — have much to be proud of, but let’s not fool ourselves that we invented the wheel!

  4. Mikhail Sebastian

    Fourth wave is more about pairing coffees with food, finding that particular flavor and complexity that would create astonishing orchestra between food items and coffee of the day. Fourth way is more about where food meets coffee. In Australia it happened long time ago. In America, third wave started with opening coffee shops with no food. Now, gradually, it changes. Consumers do not just seek place for coffee, they want something to be added to their menu list when they get into coffee shop. Excellent food and great coffee and how properly pair them together to create ultimate tasteful experience.

  5. Cosmin Mihailov


    Lovelly article. But I will have to dissagree with you on this. This approach is still tied to the 3rd wave. Transparency and customer education and engagement are at the core of the 3rd wave. The 4th wave is here, but it has nothing to do with transparency and engagement, it is more about the barista’s involment in the developement and innovation of the industry. Just my take on this, will follow up with an article where I will talk in more details about. It will feature a number of industry leaders and their opinion on it.

    • Cosmin, thanks for the kind words, always happy to have other opinions up on this site. Remember it’s not the ‘transparency’ that Nolan’s getting at when he’s talking about changes at origin, but rather the idea that roasters can begin to actually influence and help control the farming process to improve the greens. This is something that’s pretty untapped at present but has huge potential to increase quality.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this. What Nolan is doing at Aunty Peg’s is inspiring. We were there earlier in the year and were impressed with the passion and knowledge of the staff.

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