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What Is The Third Wave Of Coffee?

September 21, 2017

Anyone who has been around the coffee game must have seen a shift in the last 20-30 years or so. This ‘shift’ in coffee shops, coffee roasters, and home brewing has changed so much about what we think about coffee and is referred to as the ‘Third Wave of Coffee’.

But what exactly does it mean?

The Third Wave of Coffee refers to the modern movement of creating the highest quality coffee, with a focus on ethical sourcing, gourmet ingredients, and artisanal products.

You can see parallels in the craft beer movement or the popularity of ‘smashed avocado on sourdough’ type brunches. The demand for quality in products is higher than it’s ever been.

This contrasts with earlier ‘waves’ of coffee which saw the introduction of mass-production into the mix back in the early 20th century, and the importation of Italian style espresso coffee and major coffee chains.

This Third Wave thing has shaped what you are seeing in coffee shops up and down the country, but also provides a few clues to how to make great coffee at home, too.

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

What Is The Third Wave Of Coffee?

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 the 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.

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.)

pour over - percolation

What Are The Advantages Of The Third Wave Of Coffee?

It’s an exciting time to be alive. Here’s some of the reasons why I think Third Wave has the potential to improve your life, should you let it.

1. It’s easier than ever before to grab a great coffee at somewhere that really knows its stuff.

2. There are lots more places to buy freshly roasted coffee (rather than that stale rubbish you get at the grocery store).

3. Farmers are being treated better and getting paid more, even by the larger corporations.

4. The amount of high-quality home coffee brewing equipment being invented and produced is amazing, there are coffee grinders around now that can compete with coffee shops despite a modest (relatively) price.

How To Know If A Particular Coffee Place Is Third Wave

While the Third Wave movement is widespread and has, at least in some way, affected everywhere that is selling coffee, there are some places that adhere to the principles more than others.

The easiest way to tell is that their coffee tastes fantastic, but that doesn’t help you sort the wheat from the chaff when you’re looking to stop off somewhere.

Broadly speaking, Third Wave coffee places roast their own coffee bean or sell coffee beans from a local roaster and these bags have a ‘roast date’ on them. This instantly tells you that you’re somewhere that places an emphasis on fresh coffee that has been recently roasted and is at its prime in terms of taste.

Outside of this, Third Wave coffee places are likely to have an Instagram or some kind of media presence. They will post nicely taken photos of their brew, coffee beans or coffee making apparatus and maybe some photos of the trips they’ve taken to the coffee farms.

There is also a very definite style that is associated with these places, think rustic but arty, what many people might call hipster. In fact, Third Wave coffee is considered pretty hipster, don’t be surprised to see a barista with blue hair, tattoos and a plaid shirt serving your espresso with a smile!

Bear in mind, Third Wave does not always equal good coffee and you can get great coffee at places that wouldn’t consider themselves Third Wave.

In fact, one of the best coffees I had in San Francisco came from a Polish guy selling coffee and sandwiches in his convenience store!

What Are The First Or Second Waves Of Coffee?

The First Wave of Coffee was when it really took off as a mainstream drink sometime in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Prior to this period, coffee was common but still considered a luxury item to some degree, or at least not easily available or easy to brew. And instant coffee was not a thing, the techniques used to create it were not invented yet. All of a sudden, the advent of large factories and mass production made fresh coffee available to the masses and is credited with popularizing the drink across the USA.

The Second Wave of Coffee refers to the influx in the 1960s and 1970s of chains copying the Italian model of coffee houses with big espresso machines and new-fangled drinks like the Cappuccino and the Latte.

This caught on and led to some household names like Starbuck’s or Peet’s whose coffee shops can be found anywhere now. Although the coffee had a few key differences to what you would find in espresso bars in Italy, people were flocking to these places like never before and the idea of ‘meeting for a coffee’ and spending a couple of hours chatting away over a Macchiato and some cake.

Later on, these chains realized they could make highly caffeinated, sugary and milky treats that would sell like crazy.

What Are The Differences Between The First, Second And Third Waves Of Coffee

I think the easiest way to show you is in this table that I have lovingly/painstakingly created.

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

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 improvement 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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