Third Wave Coffee


You’re probably thinking to yourself that you didn’t even know there was a First and Second Wave of coffee. But even though you may not have been aware of the terminology, you’ve certainly experienced coffee’s waves. The term ‘waves’, with regard to coffee, was first used by coffee historian Timothy Castle in 1999 to describe the growth of specialty coffee in North America from the 1800s to the present day.

Coffee to the masses

The First Wave of coffee occurred back in the late 1800s. During this time, coffee consumption by the general consumer grew exponentially as entrepreneurs realized that there was a market for coffee that was both affordable and ready to brew. Developments such as vacuum sealing to preserve freshness, the electric drip coffee maker and the invention of instant coffee saw coffee become a household staple. This gave rise to brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House which prioritized convenience and mass production over quality and taste. Ultimately, this led to the use of mainly Robusta coffee as it was both cheap to produce and distribute. The First Wave of coffee is often criticized for being profit-driven and commodifying coffee; however its innovations helped propel the coffee industry to where it is today.


Triple Venti Latte

The Second Wave occurred in the 1960s and grew primarily out of a response to the low quality coffee of the first wave.  Consumers now wanted to know where their coffee originated as well as understand the different roasting styles.  Coffee was now recognized as having differences in taste and quality, and as such, consumers began to develop preferences. As a result of this, many brick and mortar coffee shops arose to fulfill the public’s needs. These coffee shops were equipped with trained staff and complex machinery which allowed coffee to regain some of the mystique it lost in the First Wave. Some of these brick and mortar shops expanded into global franchises, the most famous of these being Starbucks. Second Wave coffee is also responsible for the introduction of Italian-style espresso drinks to the world. This led to a change in coffee vernacular as words such as espresso and cappuccino became commonplace among coffee consumers.

While the First Wave made coffee more accessible and brought it to the customer, the Second Wave reintroduced the idea of having the customer go to the coffee. Coffee was now a more social experience fueled by the combination of coffee drinks that could not be made at home and café aesthetics. The most defining trait of the second wave was its homogeneity: there was a need for consistency, scale and branding across coffee franchises. Coffee drinks bought at one outlet needed to taste exactly the same at another outlet. While this proved to be an effective business model, it allowed commercialization and mass production to once again take ahold of the coffee industry. It was a rebellion against this homogeneity that gave rise to the Third Wave.

Going hipster...

The current movement in coffee history is the Third Wave. While it’s mainly an American phenomenon, it has expanded to the rest of the world. The first mainstream use of the term was by Trish Rothgeb, of Wrecking Ball Roasters, in 2002.  Since then, the term has permeated the coffee industry.  The Third Wave can be characterized by its emphasis on the story behind the coffee: its origin, variety, environmental conditions, processing method, roast profile and brewing methods. These aspects of coffee each contribute to the coffee’s flavour profile. Specialty coffee in the Third Wave tends to favour lighter roasts which accentuate the nuances of the coffee and there is also an emphasis on the freshness of the coffee. The objective of the Third Wave was now not to sell as much as possible or customize drinks, but to reveal as much character and flavour as possible of a single cup of coffee; black, no less.

In contrast to the Second Wave giants, Third Wave roasters and coffee shops tend to be independently owned and operated small businesses with a very artisanal approach to coffee. Marketing and the social aspect of coffee are still important in Third Wave development, but they are no longer the driving force they were in the previous waves. Coffee is treated as a craft product with a certain degree of luxury and the typical Third Wave coffee drinker requires the same level of detail as that of a wine connoisseur, perhaps in part, fueled by the current upsurge of consumer advocacy and the need to know as much as possible about the origins of one’s food. In this regard, coffee education plays an important role (so meta) as better educated consumers aid in the development of the industry.

There is an increased focus on transparency in Third Wave coffee. Coffee has had an extensive history of exploitation and inhumane labour conditions, specifically in developing nations. Given that coffee is such a labour intensive crop, there was an increased demand by the market for transparency from coffee companies. Because of this, more information could be obtained, allowing consumers to trace their preferred coffee back to the exact farm or estate from where it was picked and understand what flavour profile to expect from a particular coffee. In this regard, the concept of single-origin coffees was introduced. Single origin coffees are all sourced from the same farm or cooperative and allow for the seasonal and regional differences in coffee to be highlighted. Transparency also helped to ensure that workers in the coffee industry in developing nations received fair wages and ethical treatment. Many coffee companies moved away from the Fair Trade model in favour of Direct Trade whereby coffee is purchased straight from the coffee producers, allowing the producers to receive more money as middlemen are cut out of the equation.

Many believe that we are now moving into the Fourth Wave; however the use of this term is divisive at best.  A more objective view is that we are currently experiencing a New Wave in which Third Wave ethos is combined with the better aspects of Second Wave culture, thereby making specialty coffee more accessible. In the end, it’s all semantics, but there’s never been a better time to be a coffee drinker.