Whole Latte Love Blog

What is Third Wave Coffee?

by Ed McGuire Updated: March 10, 2020 5 min read

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You've probably arrived here having just heard the term "Third Wave Coffee," wondering why the term exists at all or a new third wave coffee shop just opened in your neighborhood and you're wondering why it's been getting tons of attention.

You like your coffee; it's hot, it wakes you up, and it really doesn't need to be more complicated than that. Or, maybe you're wondering what our definition is since, it would seem, everybody's take is a little bit different. Either way, the question exists. What is it, and why should you care? Today, we take a shot at demystifying Third Wave Coffee.

The First and Second Waves of coffee serve as a sort of history lesson, retroactively decided on in broad strokes once everyone realized that we're in this new, definitely third, age of coffee. So what are these waves and how did we suddenly get to the third? Let's break it down.

What is First Wave Coffee?

Lifestyle Image of Coffee Mio cup on a cafe table

The First Wave: Since around the 15th century, coffee was generally accepted as something you would want to drink. In the 1600s, coffee came alive in Europe, and in the 1700s, coffee came to the Americas. 18 million coffee trees and 50 years later, coffee is a global commodity.

Enter vacuum-sealed packaging and instant coffee, and now it's a widely available staple in the early 20th century home. This is your Cup O' Joe era, your two creams and a sugar days, the "I just need to wake up" wave. The First Wave can be largely seen as a time when coffee was no longer exclusive to the social elite, becoming a more pervasive, more practical drink to warm up a cold morning at home and fast-lane your brain into work mode before punching in.

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What is Second Wave Coffee?

Joe Bean woman operating roasting machine

The Second Wave: Toward the middle of the 20th century, coffee franchises built themselves up by reintroducing an appreciation for taste and quality. If the First Wave was about the global realization that coffee is a drink we humans enjoy, the Second Wave was marked by talking about it. Coffee returned as a social drink, quietly sipped under dim lights at the local coffee house as you nod to your friend describing the script they’re writing, and occasionally punctuated by phrases like, "yeah, wow, this is some good coffee."

The Second Wave is defined by its new knowledge of roasts styles and coffee origins, escalating the experience and what it means to drink coffee. This marks the beginning of specialty coffee, officially distinguishing itself from the arguably inferior coffee of the First Wave.

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What is Third Wave Coffee?

Hario Pour over Set on wooden counter

Right at the very end of the 20th century, Third Wave Coffee ventured to make coffee an artisanal brew, taking into account all stages of production to improve quality. This required a deeper understanding of sourcing, growing, processing, roasting, and brewing, resulting in a finely crafted drink essentially built from the genes up.

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The quality of the bean became vital; a new appreciation for arabica and robusta cultivars and their effects took hold, single-origin coffee emerges, and light roasts gained popularity for their more complex and delicate flavors. Interest in coffee preparation saw a renaissance, as well.

The Third Wave Specialty Coffee revivified alternative methods like pour-over and siphon coffee, and applied heavy scrutiny to how preparation affects the final product in the cup. Grind size, dose, tamping pressure, temperature control, preinfusion, brew ratios, and brew time, all became essential ingredients to the larger espresso recipe.

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This is the time when coffee could be elevated in appreciation, comparable to wine in its complexity and deep history of culture and tradition. It's about realizing the gradient of coffee quality for the map that it provides. The Third Wave guides us away from a meager understanding of coffee toward an artful, almost scholarly study to produce a fundamentally better drink.

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It's the difference between bringing home a sad, but effective microwave dinner, and preparing a home-cooked meal with grandma's secret family recipe. Third Wave Coffee delivers an unbeatable experience gained by centuries of research and dedication we've only just begun to appreciate.

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Third Wave Coffee Brands

Coffee Mio Coffee Espresso Bags in a pile

Because most of you reading this live in a time where second wave coffee has slowly phased out and third-wave coffee is taking over many households, you might be looking for quality brands that you can get your hands on to craft a cup of joe. Here are a couple of brands for each category:

First Wave - Maxwell House; Folgers

Second Wave - Starbucks; Dunkin; Tim Hortons

Third Wave - Gimme! CoffeeFuego Coffee RoastersJoe Bean

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Fourth Wave - Includes most fair trade and certified organic brands who partner directly with the farmers

What is Fourth Wave Coffee?

Maromas Coffee Cherries harvested with people in the background

Fourth Wave coffee is all about developing a strong partnership with the farmers and getting the highest quality beans with the best flavor that you can possibly find. Fair trade coffee is synonymous with the fourth wave coffee movement and is definitely something to keep an eye out for as people becoming more eco-conscious and are more invested in where their coffee is sourced from, as well as the social and environmental impacts that their preferred brands have on the farming communities. Fourth Wave coffee balances specialty coffee with local sourcing and is all about the people.

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Support fair trade and sustainable development while enjoying a unique, 100% washed Arabica coffee with Lavazza Tierra. Grown from disadvantage farming communities in Honduras, Peru, and Columbia, ...
Ed McGuire
Ed McGuire

Ed joined on at Whole Latte Love in 2017 with a particular hatred for bad coffee. We keep him in a room on the other side of the office with a keyboard and an internet connection so he can write about it. He writes and edits product copy, blog posts, scripts, and wiki content in an effort to keep our customers from ever drinking bad coffee again. Ed is afraid of the sun and drinks his coffee black.