barista holding open a blue bag of specialty grade roasted coffee

Riding the Waves: Third Wave Coffee and What Lies Ahead

Author: David Kelley
barista holding open a bag of specialty grade roasted coffee beans
Third wave coffee has given rise to specialty coffee in all its artisan glory

Throughout its entire history—which is equally elusive as its changes throughout space and time—coffee has evolved significantly. The industry is under a constant phase of ebb and flow, hence the appropriate yet somewhat evasive term wave. 

With each new coffee wave comes a major shift in our favorite caffeinated beverage’s mass production and distribution. These waves represent the undeniable changes in certain aspects from how the beans are sourced to how they’re treated and roasted—which includes how they’re grown and harvested as well as packaged and transported. 

While third wave coffee has given rise to specialty coffee in all its artisan glory, like that of fine wine and aged spirits, we’re entering an age of an even more prolific type of bean. This is a bean, or variety of beans, that not only springboards us into the future of caffeination and flavor profiles but brings us right back to our roots as we forge on to protect our planet and its people. 

Unless you’re a coffee connoisseur or have an interest in the industry, this is probably the first time you’re hearing about third wave coffee or anything related to the beverage’s evolution. Of course, depending on who you ask, the very definition of third wave coffee differs, although we seem to end up in the same place eventually. 

It suffices to say that we’ve come a long way from dancing goats and a boiled bean “devil’s brew” that allowed monks to pray with intense fortitude. 

Here’s what you need to know about the third wave of coffee and what can be anticipated in the coming fourth wave:

The Third Wave of Coffee Explained

While third wave coffee undoubtedly tips its feathered brim to the vogue of specialty coffee, the two concepts do not have interchangeable definitions. However, one is consequential to the other, but only slightly. 

This is arguably what is most misunderstood about third wave coffee, and it’s something that easily irritates coffee connoisseurs and independent manufacturers alike to their very core. 

This is because third wave coffee, put simply, is a movement rather than a flavor profile or a physical cup of coffee by any means. When we say third wave coffee, we’re talking about a shift within the industry that came about during the turn of the new Millennium—circa 2002. 

The history here is less detailed, but you can chalk it up to consumers becoming more aware of where their products are coming from and how they’re handled. The cool kids call it “woke,” we just call it responsible consumerism. 

Regardless, third wave coffee sprung up as a niche movement as more people wanted the details on their morning cup of Joe—details such as how the coffee is grown, how it was roasted, and the even more intricate details of each bean’s life and how it grew into its character and flavor profile. 

Much like the second wave of coffee (which we’ll cover momentarily), this need to understand coffee production from seed to brew came as more of a backlash to poor quality coffee and the question of what exactly makes for a good cup of coffee?

It’s About Quality, Not Quantity 

One major emphasis brought on by the third wave coffee movement is transparency. Coffee drinkers far and wide were tired of settling for a mass-produced product that gave them 100% of the buzz but virtually no sustenance, which is what we now experience from a more well-rounded coffee product. 

While it may seem a little on the nose, the truth is your coffee’s heritage matters. If you’ve ever switched from plain old drip coffee or even the vast selection of K-cups to what’s being freshly ground and served up by your local coffee roasters, then you know there’s a much more satisfying difference. 

This is because where your coffee is grown, how it’s grown, the temperature and elevation of which it’s grown, the process of roasting it, and more are what creates the difference. 

Additionally, there is a rapidly growing number of consumers who want to feel connected to the communities and individuals who put their time and effort into their coffee products. 

Generally speaking, consumers want to know that they’re not simply taking, but that they’re giving back to those communities who work so hard to bring them not just good coffee, but an experience that they can relish each morning. 

Therefore, at the pinnacle of the third wave coffee movement lies the independent producers who place their focus on care and quality. These farmers and producers are the people who take the time to roast their beans in a way that accentuates the natural flavors and characteristics of their coffee rather than mass-producing a bunch of burnt beans to feed corporate and public demands. 

Furthermore, there’s also more of a focus on various roasting techniques and brewing methods that work to bring out a coffee’s specific characteristics, flavors, crema, and even aromas. 

If the word artisan has come to mind now, then you’ve realized the essence of what third wave coffee means. Rather than treat coffee as a commodity, it is now treated as an experience—and a culinary one at that.


So, What’s Specialty Coffee Then?

man pouring frothed milk into espresso to make latte art
The "Third Wave" has us treating coffee as an experience and not merely as a commodity

Specialty coffee has a very intricate and essential place in the world of third wave coffee. It can be said that without it, we would still be asking about the source, but the experience probably wouldn’t be as high-quality as it is now. 

But what qualifies as specialty coffee? 

The Specialty Coffee Association  or SCA, (which Two Bit Rush Coffee Roasters is proud to be a member of) is a non-profit organization within the coffee industry that represents all coffee professionals from farmers to baristas. 

The SCA uses a 100-point scale to score coffee in several ranges that would determine and distinguish its quality from off-grade to specialty. Based on this scale, coffees that score 60 points or above are considered to be commercial grade or premium while 80 points or above designates the specialty grade. 

Specialty coffees are considered to be exceptional as they’re typically the product of microclimates and enriched soils as well as careful production practices and processing. As you can imagine, there’s a certain amount of devotion that goes into the how and what of growing specialty coffee beans, which comes alive with each sip of that end product. 

Therefore, technically speaking, you can’t really have third wave coffee without specialty coffee. The specialty is how that third wave was achieved in the first place. Once this distinctive quality of coffee was tasted and smelled, consumers began their line of inquiry and it was the independent coffee roasters’ time to shine.      

Essentially, if third wave coffee provides an experience, it’s the specialty coffee that is being served as a proponent of that experience by delivering elevated quality to each cup.

What About First and Second Wave Coffee?

Third wave coffee and specialty coffee aren’t things that just happened overnight. As you may know, coffee has a long, multi-dimensional history with several origin stories.

 However, with each wave of coffee came innovation as well as supply and demand and corporate coffee roasters. For example, you’re probably familiar with the Folgers jingle and its packaging just as you are with Starbucks and its logo and specialty coffee concoctions.

First Wave Coffee

It wasn’t until the 1800s that we realized the market’s potential for an affordable and “brew-ready” product, which is why first wave coffee refers to its initial exponential growth here in the United States. 

This brew-ready movement is what gave way to early brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House, which are still household names in modern times. The only catch to putting out such a quick and simple product is that quality is sacrificed for quantity and convenience, especially when there is such high demand. 

On the bright side, the first wave coffee movement gave us a foundation for the packaging, marketing, and expansion of these magical little beans. 

For example, in 1900, R.W. Hills who was the co-founder of Hill Bros. Coffee, invented vacuum packaging. By removing the air from coffee storage tins, he was able to preserve the beans’ freshness, which allowed coffee to move into the retail and distribution world without having to be directly purchased from coffee roasters. 

The very focus on convenience is what led to the official invention of instant coffee, with the first patent for it being filed in 1903 by Satori Kato, who had already been practicing a dehydration method for tea. 

Of course, Nestlé became the leader of instant coffee upon delivering Nescafe Instant Coffee to the public, which is still a fan favorite to this day. 

However, it wasn’t until 1972 when Mr. Coffee exploded onto the coffee convenience scene with the first automatic drip coffee maker that would change our homes forever.

Second Wave Coffee

A few decades later the second coffee wave hit. As you can imagine, this movement came about due to the lack of attention to the quality of the coffee being poured into the public’s mouths during the first wave. 

If the first wave of coffee was about innovation for convenience, the second wave was certainly quality-focused as it paved the road to the concept of specialty coffee—all because the consumers wanted to know where their coffee was coming from and how it was being treated and roasted. 

Certain terms like espresso, latte, French press, macchiato, and others began popping up, which arguably had much to do with increasing travel rates to more sophisticated countries that were already way ahead of us. Of course, for those who just wanted a quick and cheap cup of coffee, these new types of roasted beans and methods came off as pretentious. 

But that didn’t stop an increasing number of people wanting a better coffee experience, which gave way to coffee shops like Starbucks opening up to provide a social scene in addition to better quality specialty coffee drinks. 

There’s just one major instance where the second wave coffee movement got it wrong: These coffee shops gave into commercial pressures to become corporate. By the turn of the Millennium, Starbucks for one had spread like wildfire. They opened thousands of shops all over the country throughout the 1990s. 

By doing so, they sacrificed a certain level of quality and shifted their focus from their initial, noble intentions to giving into mass consumerism and large profits.


A Fourth Wave on the Horizon

a cup of steaming coffee being held over a deck railing in early morning

The "Fourth Wave" will likely see consumers demand social consciousness and sustainability from the entire coffee production chain

As the world turns, the coffee industry shifts. This time, however, the changes on this evolutionary path are even more significant than what we’ve seen so far. Rather than simply getting answers in regards to our coffee’s lineage, there’s a new demand that will change how we source coffee from the ground up. 

That demand is for social consciousness and sustainability. 

As educated consumers, we understand that we are to be good stewards of our planet and its scarce resources. In short, we have become intolerant of unsustainable practices. We’re also aware of the value in spending our money on small, independent businesses rather than larger corporations that only exploit their workers for profit. 

Now we’re embarking on a new era of coffee that is the culmination of exceptional products and sustainability. 

This is the type of social consciousness that has elevated coffee practices to an even more artisanal experience as it relies on sourcing the highest-quality coffee beans in small batches to bring out flavors and aromas that are out of this world distinct and pleasurable.  

More importantly, it brings about the importance of the industry’s socioeconomic impacts as the sources involve organic Fair Trade or direct farm-to-cup coffee. Additionally, each product will serve as a direct reinvestment into the communities that bring us this exquisite experience, beginning with the farmers and their families. 

While we’re still miles away from the fourth wave coming into full effect, rest assured that the future of the coffee industry will shift its focus towards creating sustainable partnerships that extend beyond a company and its relationship with select farmers. 

From seed to cup, the entire chain of supply will come full circle as conscious consumers continue to demand that their dollar doesn’t just buy them a decent cup of coffee, but deepens their connection to its source to ensure a better future for those who tend to the land and for the land itself. 

Does this mean coffee can change the world? If the Third Wave has been a good start, the coming Fourth Wave surely will. 


Be sure to shop Two Bit Rush Coffee Roasters' coffees. We offer a selection of single origin coffees, curated blends, and flavored coffees. Roasted daily and delivered fresh.

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