The term ‘third wave coffee’ is a label given to coffee businesses opened after the year 2000, which share a similar mission statement or goal: to deliver high quality coffee.  Those who subscribe to the third wave coffee movement consider coffee an artisanal food, like wine, the consumption of which can be enhanced with greater education, connoisseurship, and sensory exploration beyond just a cup of coffee. Third wave coffee seeks to highlight the unique characteristics that result from the interactions between the coffee’s source cultivar, growing and cultivation methods, processing methods, roasting methods, and the various ways to prepare coffee.
The term “third wave coffee” is most widely attributed to coffee professional Trish Rothgeb due to a 2003 article for the Roasters Guild newsletter titled “Norway and Coffee,” with the first mainstream media mention in an National Public Radio piece about barista competitions. There is a lesser known reference to “third wave coffee” in a 1999 article in a trade publication called “Tea & Coffee Trade Journal Asia” by specialty coffee pioneer Timothy Castle.
The concept of “third wave coffee” was inspired by the ideas behind the three waves of feminism.
The first wave of coffee is generally understood as the era when many coffee consumers did not differentiate by origin or beverage type. Instant coffee, grocery store canned coffee, and diner coffee were all hallmarks of first wave coffee. Generally speaking, first wave coffee is focused on providing an accessible, low-price, consistent cup of coffee. Many restaurants offered free refills.
The advent of the second wave of coffee is generally credited to Peet’s Coffee & Tea of Berkeley, California, which in the late 1960s began artisanal sourcing, roasting, and blending with a focus on highlighting countries of origin and their signature dark roast profile. Peet’s Coffee inspired the founders of Starbucks of Seattle, Washington, which evolved into perhaps the most famous multinational coffee chain in the world. The second wave of coffee introduced the concept of different origin countries to coffee consumption, beyond a generic cup of coffee. Fueled in large part by market competition between Colombian coffee producers and coffee producers from Brazil through the 1960s, coffee roasters highlighted flavor characteristics that varied depending on what countries coffees came from. While certain origin countries grew to be prized among coffee enthusiasts and professionals, the world’s production of high-altitude grown arabica coffee, grown in countries within the tropical zone, became sought-after as each country had particular flavor profiles that were considered interesting and desirable.
Third wave coffee is often associated with the concept of ‘specialty coffee,’ referring either to specialty grades of green (raw and unroasted) coffee beans (distinct from commercial grade coffee), or specialty coffee beverages of high quality and craft.
Use of the Term
The third wave of coffee has been chronicled by publications such as The New York Times, LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times, La Opinión and The Guardian.
In March 2008, Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly defined the third wave of coffee by saying:
The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.
The earlier term “specialty coffee” was coined in 1974, and refers narrowly to high-quality beans scoring 80 points or more on a 100-point scale.
Across the US and Canada, there are a large number of third-wave roasters, and some stand-alone coffee shops or small chains that roast their own coffee. There are a few larger businesses, more prominent in roasting than in operating – the “Big Three of Third Wave Coffee” are Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea of Chicago; Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland, Oregon; and Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, North Carolina, all of which engage in direct trade sourcing. Intelligentsia has seven bars – four in Chicago, three in Los Angeles, together with one “lab” in New York. Stumptown has 11 bars – five bars in Portland, one in Seattle, two in New York, one in Los Angeles, one in Chicago, and one in New Orleans. Counter Culture has eight regional training centers – that do not function as retail stores – one in each of: Chicago, Atlanta, Asheville, Durham, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. By comparison, Starbucks has over 23,000 cafes worldwide as of 2015.
Both Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea and Stumptown Coffee Roasters were acquired by Peet’s Coffee & Tea (itself part of JAB Holding Company) in 2015. At that time, Philz Coffee (headquartered in San Francisco), Verve Coffee Roasters (headquartered in Santa Cruz, California) and Blue Bottle Coffee (headquartered in Oakland, California) were also considered major players in third wave coffee.
In 2014, Starbucks invested around $20 million in a coffee roastery and tasting room in Seattle, targeting the third wave market. Starbucks’ standard cafes use automated espresso machines for efficiency and safety reasons, in contrast to third-wave competitors.
- “Trish Rothgeb coined ‘third wave’ — and is now looking toward coffee’s future”. Los Angeles Times. 2019-10-04. Archived from the original on January 29, 2021. Retrieved 2021-04-29.
- Trish R Skeie (Spring 2003). “Norway and Coffee”. The Flamekeeper. Archived from the original on October 11, 2003.
- Stuart Cohen (March 10, 2005). “Coffee Barista Preps for National Competition”. NPR.
- “The Future of Specialty Coffee and the Next Wave – coffeetalkMAGAZINE”. Retrieved July 30, 2017.
- “The Waves of Feminism & Coffee – Tamper Tantrum”. Retrieved October 18, 2019.
- “What is Third Wave Coffee?, 2019” Perfect Daily Grind
- Hannah Wallace (May 29, 2008). “Do I Detect a Hint of … Joe?”. The New York Times.
- Gregory Dicum (March 9, 2008). “Los Angeles: Intelligentsia”. The New York Times.
- Ted Botha (October 24, 2008). “Bean Town”. The New York Times.
- Jonathan Gold (March 12, 2008). “La Mill: The Latest Buzz”. LA Weekly. Archived from the original on December 19, 2008.
- Jonathan Gold (December 31, 2008). “The 10 Best Dishes of 2008”. LA Weekly.
- Jonathan Gold (August 20, 2008). “Tierra Mia Explores Coffee for the Latino Palate”. LA Weekly.
- Amy Scattergood (October 25, 2006). “Artisans of the roast”. Los Angeles Times.
- Cyndia Zwahlen (September 15, 2008). “Coffeehouse Serves the Latino Community”. Los Angeles Times.
- Yolanda Arenales (September 7, 2008). “Cafe Gourmet Pese La Crisis”. La Opinion (in Spanish).
- Stuart Jeffries (March 16, 2009). “It’s the third wave of coffee!”. The Guardian.
- “Are Your Small Batch Coffee Beans Special?”. fairtradeamerica.org. Retrieved April 18, 2018.
- The Decade’s Top Ten in Specialty Coffee, Nick Cho, December 31, 2009; also references Michaele Weissman’s “God in a Cup,” which features the group collectively.
- Monica Bhide (June 30, 2008). “Good to the last drop”. Salon. Elaborates that these three were widely cited in the industry as most influential.
- “New York Training Lab – Intelligentsia Coffee”. Retrieved December 13,2015.
- “Stumptown Coffee Roasters – Coffee Shop Locations”. Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Retrieved December 13, 2015.
- “Peet’s rides coffee’s ‘third wave’ with stake in Intelligentsia”. Reuters. October 30, 2015. Retrieved October 31, 2015.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 07.01.2009, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.