What Is Third Wave Coffee? A Practical Guide

What Is Third Wave Coffee?

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The world of coffee has gone through some major transformations over the years. From the ubiquitous Folgers cans in every household during the first wave to the rise of espresso drinks at chains like Starbucks in the second wave, coffee has evolved dramatically since its early days.

Now we are in the midst of the dynamic third wave – but what exactly does this latest movement in coffee entail?

In this post, I’ll provide an in-depth look at third wave coffee – the pioneers behind it, its distinguishing traits and philosophies, and how it is reshaping specialty coffee as we know it. I’ll also touch on some less discussed factors of the movement you may not have considered before.

So brew yourself a cup and join me as we dive into the third wave phenomenon that is transforming the future of coffee.

✔ Quick Answer

Third Wave Coffee refers to a movement that treats coffee as an artisanal product, like wine, focusing on high-quality beans, sustainable farming practices, and skilled brewing. It emphasizes the unique flavors of different coffee regions and strives for transparency in every step of the coffee production process, from farm to cup.

The Evolution of Coffee: From First Wave To Fourth Wave

As we explore the world of coffee, it’s essential to understand its evolution through various phases. Each wave of coffee brought unique changes, shaping the way we experience and appreciate coffee today.

Let’s take a closer look.

First Wave Of Coffee: The Beginning

Coffee’s story in many homes began with the first wave, a time when coffee was all about convenience and accessibility. Brands like Green Mountain Coffee and Folgers played a significant role in popularizing coffee, making it a staple in every household. 

The focus was on instant gratification – just add hot water, and you had a cup of coffee ready to go.

However, this wave wasn’t much about the quality or the origin of the coffee. 

Where the coffee had come from was veiled in mystery, and the emphasis in this wave was solely on producing coffee that was quick and easy to make.

The quality of coffee took a backseat, but this era laid the groundwork for the coffee culture that was to flourish in the years to come.

Second Wave of Coffee: The Rise Of Coffee Chains

Enter the second wave of coffee, marked by the rise of coffee chains and a growing interest in the coffee experience. Coffee shops like Starbucks began to pop up, transforming coffee from a mere beverage to a lifestyle. 

The second wave introduced the world to a variety of coffee drinks – lattes, cappuccinos, and mochas became part of the everyday language.

This wave brought with it a sense of community and a place to gather, making coffee shops a new social hub. 

However, while the second wave did a lot to popularize different styles of coffee, there was still a gap in the quality and understanding of the coffee bean itself.

Third Wave Coffee: The Focus On Specialty

And then came the third wave, a movement that shifted the focus back to the quality of the coffee and the artistry behind making each cup.

This is where my passion lies, in understanding and appreciating the journey of the coffee bean from the farm to your cup.

Third wave coffee is about transparency, sustainability, and a deep respect for the craft. 

It’s about supporting local coffee farms, understanding the nuances of coffee roasting, and mastering the art of brewing. 

Coffee shops and baristas also play a crucial role in this movement, acting as the bridge between the coffee farmer and the consumer.

It’s a movement that’s still very much alive and thriving, with more and more coffee lovers seeking out specialty coffee and unique coffee experiences.

The Potential Fourth Wave: What’s Next?

As we stand at the cusp of what might be the fourth wave of coffee, we’re seeing new trends and innovations shaping the future of coffee. Sustainability is becoming more of a focus than ever before, as is the use of technology to enhance the coffee experience.

Although not here yet, the fourth wave has the potential to take what the third wave started to new heights, further refining the quality of coffee and the sustainability of coffee production.

It’s an exciting time to be a part of the coffee world, as we continue to learn, grow, and innovate.

In the upcoming sections, I will delve deeper into how you can bring the third wave coffee experience into your own home, and I will continue exploring the third wave coffee movement, the local roaster, the role of the barista, and some of the other key players.

Understanding Third Wave Coffee

The third wave coffee movement has completely revolutionized the way we perceive, experience, and enjoy our daily cup of joe. It’s not just about quenching your thirst or getting that caffeine fix anymore; it’s about savoring a unique and high-quality coffee experience. 

Let’s delve into what really defines third wave coffee and hone in on its connection with specialty coffee.

What Defines Third Wave Coffee?

Third wave coffee stands out for its uncompromising dedication to quality, from the coffee farms to your cup. 

But what does that really mean? 

It means that every step of the coffee production process is meticulously crafted and cared for. The coffee beans are not just any beans; they are high-quality, often single-origin beans that are treated with the utmost respect.

Roasters in the third wave coffee movement are not just roasters; they are artisans, dedicated to bringing out the unique characteristics and flavors of each coffee bean. 

They pay close attention to the roasting process, ensuring that each batch is roasted to perfection.

This artisanal approach extends to the coffee shops and baristas as well, where brewing coffee is seen as a form of art, and each cup is made with precision and care.

Sam Sobolewski – Coffee director and co-owner of Bartavelle Cafe in Berkeley, characterizes third-wave coffee as –

“When you think about coffee as a culinary ingredient instead of a commodity – caring about how it’s sourced and prepared and the quality of the finished product, as opposed to having it be this routine thing that just wakes you up in the morning.”

But it’s not just about the quality of the coffee beans or the skill of the roasters and baristas; it’s about creating a unique coffee experience for each customer. 

Third wave coffee shops often foster a welcoming and educational atmosphere, where customers can learn about the coffee they’re drinking, understand where it comes from, and appreciate the effort that goes into making it.

Specialty Coffee And Third Wave: What’s The Connection?

Asian barista in the first and second waves

Now, you might be wondering, what’s the difference between third wave coffee and specialty coffee? Well, they’re closely related, and in many ways, they go hand in hand. 

Here’s the lowdown.

The Roots And Rise Of Third Wave Coffee

As I’ve already talked about, “third wave” is a term that goes beyond just quality; it encapsulates an entire movement, a coffee renaissance, if you will. It’s about viewing coffee as an artisanal product rather than a commodity.

I’ve seen firsthand how third wave coffee brings the focus back to the origin of the bean, the method of roasting, and the artistry of brewing.

It’s about connecting the consumer to the entire process, from farm to cup.

In the world of third wave coffee, baristas are akin to sommeliers, possessing a deep understanding and appreciation of their craft. They’re artists, scientists, and storytellers, eager to share the unique narrative of each brew.

It’s a holistic approach, treating coffee as an experience rather than just a quick pick-me-up.

Specialty Coffee: A Matter Of Quality

Now, let’s talk about “specialty coffee.” 

While third wave coffee embraces the culture and experience of coffee, whereas specialty coffee zeros in on the quality of the bean itself. It’s a term rigorously defined by the Specialty Coffee Association, with strict guidelines determining which beans make the cut.

Specialty coffee is scored on a scale of 100, and to be considered “specialty,” a coffee must score 80 points or above.

This grading takes into account various factors, including the cleanliness of the cup, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, and balance. It’s a meticulous process, ensuring that only the best of the best are labeled as specialty.

According to this SCA coffee tasting process, we can divide the coffee score into the following ranges:

Score RangeQualityType
90 – 100OutstandingSpeciality Coffee
85 – 89.99ExcellentSpeciality Coffee
80 – 84.99Very GoodSpeciality Coffee
< 80.0SubparNot Speciality Coffee

What’s fascinating, and often overlooked, is how different a coffee bean can taste based on these criteria.

Two beans from the same region can tell entirely different stories, showcasing the complexity and diversity within the coffee world.

The Symbiotic Relationship

While third wave coffee and specialty coffee have their distinct characteristics, they also share a symbiotic relationship. The third wave movement has been a significant driver in popularizing specialty coffee, bringing it to the forefront of consumer consciousness.

Through education, storytelling, and a pursuit of quality, third wave coffee shops have become sanctuaries for specialty coffee.

They’ve opened up a dialogue, encouraging coffee lovers to explore, ask questions, and develop a refined palate.

In the next sections, we’ll delve deeper and explore the nuances of coffee roasting and brewing in the third wave coffee movement, and discover why this movement has gained such a passionate following among coffee lovers around the world.

Key Players in Third Wave Coffee

The third wave coffee movement wouldn’t exist without the passion and dedication of some key industry pioneers. 

higher-quality coffee roaster found in the third wave

In the next section, we’ll explore the role of the barista and the specialty coffee roaster in the third wave coffee movement.

I’ll highlight their key role in the movement, and how they share the skills and knowledge that go into making each cup of coffee a unique experience. 

Specialty Roasters

A handful of innovative coffee roasters set the stage early on for third wave philosophies by focusing on direct trade relationships with growers and lighter, flavor-focused roasting profiles. 

Trendsetters like Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, and Blue Bottle source distinctive single origin coffees from around the world and help educate consumers about the nuances of origin and processing.

Their dedication to highlighting terroir through quality-driven roasting has inspired many of today’s bleeding-edge coffee roasting companies.

Artisan Cafe Chains

The cafe experience is equally important to third wave movement.

Chains like Stumptown, La Colombe, and Joe Coffee have brought specialty coffee out of darkened indie cafes and into more accessible retail spaces while still maintaining high standards. 

They offer carefully prepared single-origin brews and educate their baristas thoroughly while expanding the reach of high-end coffee to the masses. And many of these cafes also roast their own single origin coffee beans in-house.

Independent Cafes

In addition to influential roasters and chains, countless independent cafes have embraced third wave principles to offer their local communities an elevated coffee experience. 

Passionate baristas carefully prepare each cup and openly engage customers on the coffee origins and processing methods. These indie spots focus on quality over quantity and customer connections over speed. 

And they help spread third wave ideals to coffee lovers everywhere.

Third Wave Coffee At Home

So you’ve delved into the world of third wave coffee, experienced its wonders in modern coffee shops, and now you’re itching to bring that experience into your own home. 

You’re in luck because crafting a third wave coffee experience in your own kitchen is entirely possible, and I’m here to guide you through it.

Choosing The Right Equipment

First things first, to make great coffee, you need the right equipment. 

Invest in a good quality coffee grinder. The grind of your coffee plays a crucial role in the brewing process, and having a grinder at home allows you to have the freshest grind possible. Burr grinders are typically preferred in the third wave coffee world for their consistency and precision.

Next up, consider your brewing method

There are various brewing methods popular in the third wave of coffee world, such as French Press, Aeropress, pour-over, and espresso. 

Each brewing method brings out different characteristics of the coffee, so it might be worth experimenting to find out which one you prefer.

And, of course, no coffee brewing setup is complete without a good coffee scale and a timer, ensuring you get the right coffee-to-water ratio and brewing time for the perfect cup.

Selecting Your Coffee

Now, onto the coffee beans. 

The third wave coffee movement is all about high-quality, often single-origin coffee beans. Look for local roasters or coffee shops where you can buy freshly roasted beans. 

Don’t be shy to ask the staff about the beans’ origin, flavor profile, and recommended brewing method; part of the third wave coffee experience is learning about the coffee you’re drinking, and most roasters, from my experience, are more than happy to help.

Brewing Techniques And Tips

When it comes to brewing, precision is key. 

Follow the brewing guidelines for your chosen method, paying close attention to the grind size, water temperature, coffee-to-water ratio, and brewing time. 

Don’t be afraid to tweak the variables to suit your taste preferences; finding your perfect cup is part of the fun.

Enjoying The Fruits Of Your Labor

And finally, take the time to savor your coffee. 

Notice the aromas, the flavors, and the way the coffee feels on your palate. This coffee is all about appreciating the nuances of the coffee, and now that you’ve crafted it yourself, there’s all the more reason to enjoy it.


The third wave coffee movement has dramatically impacted the specialty coffee scene we know today. It’s changed how we source quality beans, with an emphasis on direct trade relationships that benefit farmers and encourage sustainability. 

Roasting now highlights flavor nuances, rather than overpowering them. Brewing focuses on extracting the best from these premium coffees through careful techniques.

Ultimately, third wave coffee is about craftsmanship and appreciation from crop to cup. No longer just a caffeine delivery system, coffee is valued as a complex foodstuff and an experience to savor. Third wave coffee shops have become community hubs, bringing people together over quality brews and coffee education.

Of course, there is still room for growth. 

Issues like ensuring ethical labor practices and accessibility of good quality coffee remain. Some feel third wave shops focus more on quality products rather than customer experience. Many are now looking towards a “fourth wave” that addresses these concerns.

But overall, the third wave movement has made an undeniable impact on our coffee culture and built awareness of the craft behind the cup.

As both a coffee professional and enthusiast, I’m excited to see where the coffee industry goes next.

How about you? 


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