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By Leo Sainati

If you’ve stepped into a local coffee shop in the past few years or browsed the depths of internet coffee forums, you’ve probably come across the phrase “Third Wave Coffee.” Usually without context, to the detriment of the reader, third wave coffee is often thrown around to cover a variety of “artisan” coffee producers. But what exactly is third wave coffee? And what about the first two waves?

Understanding third wave coffee requires a brief explanation of the history of coffee in the United States. The US had an entirely different coffee evolution than Europe or Asia, where coffee was more widely available at an earlier date. Although coffee was popular in the US since the 19th century, it wasn’t mass-produced or sold until James Folger began selling pre-roasted coffee to Goldminers in California. Coffee brands like Maxwell House and Hills Brothers began to sell instant coffee and thus the first wave of coffee consumption in the US was born.

This first wave of quick, easy-to-brew coffee prioritized convenience and became widely accessible, but lacked attention or focus on flavor and quality. With the boom in coffee popularity in the United States, consumers increasingly began to be concerned with the origin, roasting style, and brewing method for the coffee they were drinking. Broadly, much like the wine industry, this period facilitated increased beverage knowledge and transformed coffee drinking in the United States into an experience. It’s during this second wave of coffee that words like latte, cappuccino, and espresso became increasingly integrated into our coffee vocabulary.

The second wave is also credited with the birth of specialty coffee, as brands like Starbucks and Caribou began to focus on higher quality coffee and paid some attention to country of origin. However, the second wave became quickly corporatized and large brands began to dominate the coffee industry, ultimately sacrificing quality for profit.

In the 1980’s, another coffee movement emerged that sought to move the coffee industry toward independently-owned small businesses, making space for an increased focus on specialty coffee. A core emphasis of this third wave of coffee was transparency down to the farm, soil, and altitude where the coffee was grown. Some key features of third wave coffee are increased quality, lighter roast profiles, diverse brewing methods, and transparency in freshness.

Third wave coffee shops often roast their beans locally or in-house and are owned by coffee lovers looking to expand their presence within their respective community. The third wave of coffee built upon the experientially-focused second wave by connecting customers further with their cup. In addition to a holistic coffee-drinking experience, third wave coffee pulled the shades off of the coffee industry and gave customers a view into their beverage.

Third-wave coffee is often used as a catch-all term to describe specialty coffee or high end quality coffee in general, but it specifically refers to a recent movement in the coffee industry toward transparency and variety.

The first coffee wave revolutionized the industry, bringing mass-produced coffee into Americans’ homes. The second coffee wave pivoted from accessibility to quality, with large brands like Starbucks adding a wide variety of flavors to coffee products. The third wave is equally revolutionary for the coffee industry, moving coffee production and consumption into the hands of local small-business owners and informed customers.

About the Author

Leo Sainati

Student at Northwestern University

Specialty Coffee Barista at Coffee Lab Evanston

Assistant Curriculum Developer at the CL Academy

Writing Intern at Ignitus Digital Evanston

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