The Three Waves of Coffee

It’s a term that has invaded coffee culture and permeated it completely: Third Wave. Anyone in the specialty coffee industry has an opinion about what it means. Often the term relates to coffee as an artisanal beverage, independently procured and crafted by individuals mindful of origin and conscious of both environmental and social justice issues. It is, in nearly every way, a descriptor not so much of coffee as it is of the culture surrounding it. Third Wave is a term that allows those involved in coffee sourcing, roasting, brewing, and serving—all the niches of specialty coffee and coffee connoisseurship—to set themselves apart from coffee lovers of the past, who argued over Folgers versus Maxwell House and guzzled Starbucks like it was ambrosia poured directly from Mount Olympus.

But what precisely defines Third Wave coffee, relative to the two waves that preceded it, and how will we know when and if a Fourth Wave arrives? This little retrospective may help answer those questions, as well as raise a few, for those who haven’t been surfing the Third Wave of coffee since the beginning.

Genesis of the Term

The term Third Wave Coffee is generally attributed to Trish Rothgeb (who was Trish Skeie when she made the term famous) of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters. Back in 2002, Rothgeb wrote about the Third Wave of coffee in an article for The Flamekeeper, the newsletter of the Roasters Guild. Here’s an excerpt:

“First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave: this is how I think of contemporary coffee. There seem to be three movements influencing what Erna Knutsen, a Norwegian immigrant to America, termed Specialty Coffee. Each approach has its own set of priorities and philosophies; each has contributed to the consumer’s experience…”

In a nutshell, Rothgeb broke down the modern spread of coffee preparation and consumption into three surges.

The First Wave consisted of the mass marketers who made it their mission to increase consumption of coffee and put it into every kitchen. It’s easy to see them as profit-driven. Most of their innovations included revolutions in packaging, like airtight cans, that made it easier to get coffee to the consumer. First Wavers were responsible for turning coffee into a major commodity and began the process of marketing coffee for flavor. Juan Valdez, “good to the last drop” and “gourmet coffee” are all remnants of the First Wave of coffee culture.

The Second Wave of coffee was artisan-driven. It focused on coffee origins and roasting styles, and, though Rothgeb doesn’t say so, engendered much of the coffee snobbery that still partly defines certain corners of the Third Wave. The big names of Second Wave coffee are household names, including Peet’s and Starbucks—both of which started as small specialty coffee shops and expanded into global enterprises. The Second Wave was also responsible for the introduction of espresso beverages “to the world,” according to Nick Cho (also of Wrecking Ball), the elevation of Arabica and the contemporary emphasis on coffee quality overall. Along the way, the need for consistency, scale and branding led to homogeneity. Rothgeb postulated in her article that it was this homogeneity—or, rather, a rebellion against it—that birthed the Third Wave.

Interestingly, Rothgeb didn’t quite define Third Wave, perhaps reasoning that there was no need to do so for her audience of professional coffee roasters and baristas. She does, however, describe the Third Wave barista:

“They have spent the past few months perfecting and downsizing their signature drinks into exquisite, jewel-like espresso concoctions. In both cases, the coffee will make the moment, not the whipped cream or flavored syrup. These baristi will be able to tell you exactly when their coffee was roasted, how the beans were processed, the idea behind the blend, and offer cupping notes.”

Nick Cho, founder of Murky Coffee and, more recently, Rothgeb’s partner at Wrecking Ball Coffee, wrote in 2005 that he usually refers to “the ‘Third Wave’ as letting coffee speak for itself…the Third Wave is about enjoying coffee for what it is.”

While that may, indeed, be an important goal for Third Wave coffee lovers, there’s far more to it than just “enjoying coffee for what it is.” In the same 2005 article, Cho goes on to compare coffee to wine—not an original comparison, by any means, and he does credit Coffee Geek’s Mark Prince for the idea, though he takes a different tack on it. If the wine industry marketed wine the way the coffee industry used to market coffee, Cho writes, consumers would go to a store and see bottles labeled simply “French Wine,” “American Wine” and so forth with no indication of vineyard, vintage or even the grape variety.

In the decade since Cho wrote his critique, the Third Wave has become much more mainstream, bringing with it a harvest of roasters who take pride in the artisanal quality of their coffees and who label their bags with the kind of information today’s coffee consumers increasingly expect: farm, harvest, processing style, roast date, coffee variety and tasting notes. The typical Third Wave coffee consumer is no longer content with a coffee brand or even with coffee sourced from a specific country or region. Instead, he wants the same level of detail that wine connoisseurs have demanded for decades. One might see this trend as part of a larger wave of consumer advocacy and enthusiasm, manifested in the desire to know as much as possible about the origins of the foods and products we consume.

Moving on From Here

Interestingly, Out of Order Magazine postulated in November 2012 that we may be looking at the potential decline of Third Wave coffee. Writer Jenna Blaszczykiewicz noted that many of the independent coffee roasters whose names are synonymous with Third Wave coffee—Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Counter Culture and Intelligentsia, for example—are being scouted by Wall Street investment firms and corporate investors. She questions whether this new corporate interest will lead to the big-boxification of the independent coffee world’s standard bearers. Either way, it will be interesting to watch what happens as the Third Wave coffee companies that lead the way adjust to economies of scale while new micro-roasters crop up left and right.

In the meantime, somewhere out there a potential Fourth Wave of coffee may be brewing. When it comes, it may rise from the ranks of home coffee enthusiasts, many of whom are now taking up their popcorn poppers and roasting pans, buying green coffee in small quantities and roasting to their own exacting specifications. But your guess is as good as ours!

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