Everything You Need to Know About Third Wave Coffee

The 2020 Atlas of American Coffee found that more Americans than ever before had expressed a preference for premium coffee beans that were ethically sourced. Cue in third wave coffee, a newly popularized coffee drinking experience that places emphasis on the flavors, origins, and quality of coffee. Here’s everything you need to know about the newest wave of coffee.

The Difference Between First, Second, and Third Wave Coffee

You’ve heard about third wave coffee. But what about the first two? Here’s a quick breakdown of the difference between first, second, and third wave coffee. In the end, it all comes down to quality, origin, and customer experience.

  • First Wave Coffee: The first wave of coffee began in the 1960s when coffee became widely available. People began to appreciate the flavor of coffee and instant coffee was popular. Still, this was no better than your average gas station coffee. The quality of coffee during the first wave was nowhere close to what it is today.
  • Second Wave Coffee: The second wave of coffee began in the early 1970s and is largely attributed to companies turning coffee into an experience. The quality of brews improved and people began to distinguish between different types of coffee and their countries of origin. The second wave of coffee also popularized a variety of coffee drinks and the experience of going out to a café to have coffee with a friend.
  • Third Wave Coffee: In the early 2000s, the third wave of coffee took off. Coffees became more artisanal as people began to focus on coffee beans’ origins, flavors, and craft. Third wave coffee is high-quality and not meant to be prepared in large batches. It’s made to order, freshly ground, and served with care. The goal? The ultimate cup of coffee.

Third Wave Coffee vs. Specialty Coffee

Lots of companies use the terms “specialty coffee” and “third wave coffee” interchangeably. But there is a slight difference between the two. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) has standards for coffee that grade coffee based on its origin, production, and processing. Coffee must have little to no defects to receive a “specialty” grade.

Essentially, specialty coffee is just really good coffee. Meanwhile, third wave coffee transforms that good coffee into an experience. Third wave coffee prioritizes a freshly ground, often single-origin coffee that is brewed to order.

Will There Be A Fourth Wave of Coffee?

There is a lot of speculation over whether a fourth wave of coffee is on the rise. Some say we’re already living it. Descriptions of the fourth wave are very different depending on who you ask. Most people can agree that the fourth wave will focus on superior bean quality and making good coffee more accessible to the masses. But only time can tell us what will really happen in the fourth wave of coffee.