What is...

Just what the hell is… the Third Wave of Coffee?

September 21, 2017

The third wave of coffee refers to the modern movement of creating the highest quality coffee. Words like gourmet and artisanal might be used. You can see parallels in the craft beer movement or the popularity of ‘smashed avocado on sourdough’ type brunches. People care about quality more so than ever before. Even if it is laced with a touch of pretentiousness.

Note: this will be very US-centric but similar movements have occured in parallel around the world.

1st, 2nd and 3rd waves

1st Wave 2nd Wave 3rd Wave
Global spread of coffee drinking Introduction of Italian-style espresso bars Artisanal approach to coffee making
When? 1800s/1900s 1960s/70s early 2000s
Big Names Folgers, Maxwell House Peet’s, Starbuck’s Stumptown, Blue Bottle
Characterized by… Mass production, preground coffee, buying from the grocery store, vacuum packed coffee Espresso in the US, blended coffee beans, popularity of chain coffee shops Single Origin coffee, Emphasis on light or dark roasts, New methods like the Aeropress or V60 Pour Over
farmer holding coffee beans

The ethical sourcing of coffee has been driven by the Third Wave movement.

In practical terms

The third wave of coffee has had an enormous impact on coffee drinking around the world. Here are a few of the more notable achievements.

Single origin coffee. Coffee beans are being produced and roasted to highlight their specific characteristics and tasting notes rather than being blended to provide a smoother, less distinguished taste. Forty years ago, you might be tempted by the popular and famous blends like the smooth-tasting Mocha-Java. These days you’re overwhelmed with choice of dazzling single origins like the fruity Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, the chocolatey Guatemala Huehuetenango or countless others.

New methods. The Aeropress was invented in 2005, the Hario V60 is less than ten years old and devices that had fallen by the wayside like the Siphon, the Chemex or Cold Brew coffee makers have experienced a surge in popularity. People are experimenting more and more.

More independent roasters. There are loads of startup coffee roasters making fantastic coffee beans you can buy on practically the day of the roast, in fact, there’s probably one near you. There are even some that are pushing the boundaries of coffee roasting, this hyper-caffeinated Death Wish coffee fits the bill, for example.

siphon coffee maker advert

Siphon coffee is an old method brought back into focus by the Third Wave of coffee. Photo by Mark

More independent coffee shops. Fifty years ago, your options for good coffee were mostly limited to large commercial chain coffee places. In 2017, the landscape has totally changed. The big boys still exist and still do great business, but there’s rarely a town or city across the country where you can’t pick up a freshly roasted coffee or espresso that will blow your mind.

More equipment. It’s not only coffee shops and roasters that are getting a push in hot new startups. The world of grinders is changing fast and even scales for measuring your coffee are entering the 21st century – the Acaia Pearl is a coffee scale that links to your smartphone and threatens to shake up everything you thought you knew about measuring your coffee doses.

Sharing of information. We live in the age of the internet, a time when information is shared freely and learning how to make great coffee isn’t some article at the back of an obscure trade magazine but a quick Google search away. There are hundreds of websites dedicated to the craft of making amazing coffee. (including… erm… this one.)

a barista at work

The rise of independent coffee shops focussed on quality is a hallmark of Third Wave coffee. photo by Jeremy Keith

Will there be a fourth wave?

It’s difficult to see what the next iteration of coffee could be. It’s really, really hard to predict the future, as anyone who dabbled in a spot of investing around 2007 might tell you.

The likeliest thing from my perspective is we’ll see a constant improvment in the innovations of the third wave. Even in the last five years, we’re seeing more and more interest and money begin thrown at things like quality hand grinders, exotic Single Origin coffee beans and whatever the latest hot new Pour Over method is.

The fact is, people love coffee. And people are becoming more aware of how they can make awesome coffee in their own kitchen. It’s a great time to enjoy coffee. So enjoy it.

(Particularly if you believe what most scientists believe will happen to the earth in about 50 years time…)

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