Third Wave Coffee

Third Wave Coffee has touched most of our lives, but what is it?

Burlap bags of green coffee beans stacked in a warehouse with the words Third Wave Coffee overlain

Anyone researching coffee has probably come across the term Third Wave Coffee. If you dont already know what that means, it can be a bit confusing.

What do waves have to do with coffee? Is it a brand? Are there more waves about to crash upon us? Should we start running for the hills? Do we even want Third Wave coffee?

Lots of coffee cups full of different beverages

With coffee shops in every city and bottled coffee in grocery stores across the country, you can't go far without encountering specialty coffee.

But its not just here in the United States that people have figured out how amazing coffee is. Over the last sixty years, the types of coffee and where we are drinking them have evolved. All over the world people are drinking more and more coffee. The National Coffee Association has reported that 59% of coffee consumed daily is classified as gourmet. That means for the first time in the 67-year history of the Coffee Drinking Trends report more than half of daily consumption falls into this specialized category.

People are drinking coffee that comes at a higher price, marking the Third Wave of Coffee.

A clock spinning backwards

First, lets take a short trip through time.

Back in the 1960s coffee became widely accessible.For the first time, people could drink coffee all day, every day. And they did. Like disco, coffee took off. Everyone was doing it.

a dozen white mugs

 First Wave Coffee

This First Wave of coffee consisted mainly of the mass marketers who made it their goal to increase coffee consumption and put it into every household and business. It is because of the First Wavers that coffee became a major commodity and the general public started to think of coffee as a necessity.

Second Wave Coffee

During the Second Wave, the quality of the beans became significant to both the consumer and the green bean buyer. Consumers wanted specialty coffee. The Second Wave was about quality. Coffee beans were scored, and anything below 80 points didn't make the grade of specialty coffee. As demand increased for better quality coffee, the origins and roasting profiles of coffee became hot topics among consumers. During this time, coffee shops became a profitable business. 

Second Wavers are responsible for making coffee a luxury product rather than just a necessity. Large companies invested in quality beans and their coffee shops created fun and fashionable drinks. Espresso beverages became the new accessory.

the street side of a cafe

Third Wave Coffee

Now that we know a little bit about the first two waves, lets talk about the third. It is debated who coined the term "Third Wave." Some people believe that it first popped up in 1999 when Timothy Castle used it regarding the specialty coffee movement. Others attribute the phrase to Trish Rothgeb for making it famous in the piece she wrote for The Flamekeeper in 2002, the newsletter of the Roasters Guild. Whoever is responsible for the term, it's agreed that the Third Wave of Coffee is a movement that considers coffee an artisanal food, like wine or chocolate, instead of just a commodity.

coffee beans and chocolate spread over a table

The term is often not just a descriptor of coffee, but a descriptor of the culture surrounding coffee.

The Third Wave movement is responsible for improvements at all stages of production. Including the growing, harvesting, and processing of coffee. It has strengthened and focused the relationships between coffee growers, traders, and roasters.

coffee cherries on the branch

The consumers of Third Wave coffee are concerned about the impact coffee has on the world around them.

They want to know that farmers are getting a fair price for their beans. Cognizant Third Wave coffee roasters, spend time and money building relationships with farmers.

They know the importance of making sure farmers make a living wage, and have a sustainable crop. The relationship between farmers and the roasters are part of what makes Third Wave Coffee Roasters so special. The expectation is that each person that handles the coffee from the beginning when the beans are still on the tree, through its journey to the consumer's cup takes pride in their job and profits from it.

During the Third Wave of coffee, microroasting coffee promotes quality over quantity.

Microroasting focuses on fresh roasting small batches of coffee as ordered and needed instead of mass roasting large, dark, almost burnt coffee that sits on shelves for months.

Roasting Coffee beans

Roasters want to tease out all of the delicate distinctions in their cup of coffee.

Like other plant-derived products (chocolate, tea, and wine) coffees taste is affected by growing region, climate, farming practices, processing, and the coffee variety; before it ever gets roasted.

pouring latte art

The Third Wave has spread the desire for single-origin coffee, lighter roasts, and even latte art.

Quality Baristas will spend months training before they are ever allowed to serve drinks to customers. They learn about the origins of the beans they serve, the different roasts offered, the relationships the company, and by proxy themselves, have with the coffee farmers.

Once baristas master the basics, they practice latte art, and pour overs. Many cafes will encourage their baristas to enter competitions to strengthen their skills.


Third Wavers have renewed alternative methods of coffee preparation.

In a desire to experience all of the nuances that a particular bean can offer, they have made classic home brewers like Chemex, French Press, and Hario V60 popular again among those looking to create a perfect cup of coffee.

The development of new brewing devices such as the AeroPress, has been another benefit of the Third Wavers.

An AeroPress and all of its components laid out flat on a table along with a scale and coffee beans

Third Wave Coffee culture has entered the mainstream, and coffee drinkers have higher expectations of their coffee and of the coffee companies they buy from. We dont know how long this Third Wave of Coffee will last, or what the fourth wave will mean for coffee. What we do know, is that the Third Wave has driven positive changes to every stage of the coffee beans journey. From farmers and producers to roasters and baristas, more care and respect is taken with coffee, making sure that coffee consumers can enjoy the very best beans.

Let us know where you think the next wave will take coffee by leaving a comment below, on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.

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