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What is “third wave coffee?”

What is “third wave coffee?”

Clark Clark
7 minute read

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Many avid coffee drinkers wake up craving the first sip of their morning cup of joe. For many, coffee is more than a morning jolt and an afternoon pick-me-up – it’s an experience. 

What is third wave coffee? Third wave coffee is a movement within the coffee world, not a type of specialty coffee. This movement believes in quality during every part of the coffee experience: Coffee should be ethically sourced, lightly roasted, and painstakingly prepared.

Coffee roasters and drinkers alike strive to better understand coffee from cultivation to cup. The process of crafting a superb cup of coffee has become as important as the coffee product itself.

Specialty coffee is the highest quality of coffee available based on its distinctive attributes and “cupping” score as designated by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). The SCA uses a 100-point scale with 80 and above considered specialty coffee.

So, what is this third wave of coffee, and how does it differ from its predecessors?

The Waves Defined

The 3 waves of coffee refer to time spans and how coffee was viewed, valued, purchased, and consumed during those periods. 

The first and second waves were characterized by a more practical view of coffee, whereas the third wave seeks to celebrate coffee.

Let’s begin with a brief history of how coffee came to America. 

Coffee became popular in Europe by the mid-1600s. By this time, there were about 300 coffee shops in London alone where merchants, intellectuals, and artists would gather. 

These early coffee shops were called penny universities. People gathered to discuss the issues of the day over brewed coffee, which cost merely a penny per cup at the time.

Coffee came to American shores in the early 1600s; however, the Boston Tea Party in 1773 encouraged Americans to make the switch from tea to coffee. Thomas Jefferson noted, 

“Coffee – the favorite drink of the civilized world.”

In the mid-1800s, coffee became a favorite drink of the western expansion. James Folger began selling coffee to gold miners in San Francisco. 

He perfected the art of buying and selling coffee and paved the way for other coffee companies (like Maxwell House and Hills Brothers) to do the same for this increasingly popular beverage.

First Wave

The heyday of “first wave coffee” was during the 1960s. 

Folgers and Maxwell House more or less ran the coffee industry. Instant coffee was popular, as convenience ruled the coffee market. Consumers purchased coffee in grocery stores, and little thought was given to where it came from. 

During this time, in particular, coffee served as an efficient and practical means of energy… and that was about it.

Second Wave

“Second wave coffee” began in 1966 with the founding of Peet’s Coffee and was further reinforced when Starbucks came on the scene in 1971. 

In this second wave of coffee, the focus shifted to coffee shops. People were more than happy to pay a bit more for a better-tasting cup of joe, all the while enjoying a bit of bohemian ambiance that neither home nor workplace possessed.

Unique coffee drinks, such as lattes containing espresso with added flavors and sweeteners, popped up on menus. Dark roasts with bolder flavors rose in popularity.

This wave hearkened back to the original way people learned to enjoy coffee in London — coffee drinking was simply a medium for shared human experience.

Third Wave

“Third wave coffee” first became popular in the early 2000s. Coffee became an art form, and “coffee culture” went beyond just meeting to chat at our local Starbucks. Roasters, baristas, and consumers sought the highest-quality beans for their coffee. 

Great coffee wasn’t enough. 

Roast profiles became important. Those who enjoyed a bolder, more acidic flavor had long tended towards darker roasts. Connoisseurs seeking more complex flavor profiles (and more caffeine) sought out lighter roasts. 

Flavor descriptions began to show up on bags of coffee, much like they do on wine bottles. Roasted coffee notes became more complex — is this blend nutty or more earthy? Are the primary flavors citrus or more floral in nature?

Brewing methodslike pour-over, cold brew, French press, and Aeropress appeared at the forefront, as different brewing styles highlight certain coffee flavors. 

Also, single-origin coffee rose in prominence during this period. It wasn’t uncommon for coffee beans to originate from different farms and even different regions that formed coffee blends. 

With single-origin coffee, beans come from the same crop, farm, and region.

What are the differences between third wave coffee, specialty coffee, and mass-market coffee? 

  • Third wave coffee is ethically cultivated specialty coffee.
  • Specialty coffee, officially graded by the Specialty Coffee Association, is arguably the best coffee available to consumers based on source and roasting methods.
  • Most coffee falls under the banner of mass-market coffee, considered average-grade coffee. Mass-market coffee is frequently over-roasted (to extend shelf life). It’s also sourced and roasted in the most cost-saving way possible to be produced at scale, which severely limits the quality of the coffee.

The Heart of Third Wave 

The third wave coffee movement hopes to shed light on the importance of ethical practices in the production process. Sustainability and fair trade are strongly emphasized.

Passion also characterizes the heart of third wave coffee. From farm to roastery to coffee shop to consumer, the goal is that passion be infused into high-quality coffee every step of the way.

Who started it?

The initiation of third wave coffee was a collective effort; however, the coffee community credits Trish Rothgeb with coining the phrase “third wave coffee.”

She used the language of “waves” to denote the evolution of the coffee industry, much like feminists use the same terms to refer to the progress made for women’s rights.

Rothgeb observed that consistency from cup to cup was key in terms of taste for third wave coffee. With specialty coffees gaining traction, this consistency was achieved.

Riding the Waves: the Future of Coffee

Whether or not we’re currently in the fourth wave of coffee is highly debated in the coffee world. Regardless, many are looking towards the future and what shifts are in store for coffee.

What is the fourth wave of coffee?Though there’s no definitive definition of fourth wave coffee, many agree that this upcoming wave will continue to shift the focus from the consumer to positive social change.

Investing more in the lives of those involved in the coffee production process is on the table. Also, Rothgeb believes making high-quality coffee beverages more accessible to all regardless of socioeconomic background is an essential step in fourth wave coffee. 

Is fifth wave coffee on the horizon? Only time will tell.

Looking for a unique coffee that checks every box for “third wave coffee?” Check out our yummy variety pack of ethically sourced, high-quality coffee that you steep just like tea. If you’re feeling adventurous, why not try a box of our new birthday cake flavor? 🥳

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