What Is Third Wave Coffee & Why You Should Support The Movement

If you’ve ever wanted to drink coffee of the highest caliber, then you may want to look for beans that are categorized as “third wave”. The third wave movement has birthed coffee producers who define their beans by a strong commitment to quality. In the end, these brands consider themselves committed to a few specific ideals that are unique within the industry – and these ideals are catching on among consumers.

So, let’s take a deeper dive into what third wave coffee represents and why you should support the movement.

What Is Third Wave Coffee?

The third wave coffee movement popped up in the late 1990s, although its practices have been around in some form or another since the 1970s. Those who consider themselves third wave typically sell high-quality beans that are sourced from individual farms and have undergone minimal processing. Ultimately, a third wave coffee brand will most often feature several of these characteristics:


  • Increased coffee quality and specialty grades of beans
  • More direct trade with farmers
  • More emphasis on sustainability
  • Minimal processing leading to lighter roast profiles
  • Unique small-batch brewing approach


The number of coffee brands who are moving to a third wave business model keeps increasing, with the industry seeing a craft coffee brewing explosion in recent years, similar to the beer market. The highest-selling brands in this category include Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, Stumptown and CounterCulture. Coffee products in this category are often also referred to as “specialty coffee”, referring to specialty grades of coffee beans sourced outside of commercial farming operations.  But, even commercial coffee companies like Starbucks have thrown money at the issue, opening a multi-million dollar third wave roastery and tasting room in Seattle. With this, you know that there’s momentum behind the movement.  Of course, the term third wave implies that there are other “waves” of coffee – let’s take a look at what first wave and second wave coffee represents.

What are the other “waves” of coffee?

The first wave is also known as the instant coffee era, when big companies reigned supreme, and consumers generally didn’t care (or didn’t know to care) about things like origin, farming practices, roast levels or beverage types. Canned coffee was a staple across the nation’s pantry shelves, keeping the cost – and the quality – of coffee low. Instant coffee became extremely popular during this time in coffee’s history. Like many consumer products in the first half of the 20th century, consumers enjoyed the quick, convenient and ease individually packaged coffee offered. This was a time when brands like Folger’s and Maxwell House were most dominant.


The second wave of coffee came into existence in the late 1960s, after California-based Peet’s Coffee began sourcing and selling coffee beans that they coined as “artisanal”. This triggered a transformation in the industry where producers started focusing more on quality and gave rise to modern-day coffee culture, with Starbucks being the era’s big winner. By the 1970s, the industry had pushed second-wave coffee as more of an experience than a simple drink.


At this point, there was also competition between different countries like Brazil and Colombia, among others, all vying to become the dominant exporter of coffee. Because of this, the second-wave coffee movement introduced the idea of “bean origin” among mostly dark roast and espresso-based beverages. Suddenly, people wanted their coffee beans grown in certain parts of the world, on small farms committed to quality and available in specific varieties. 


Certain regions of the world won out, with several South American, Middle Eastern, African and even small Caribbean countries becoming the most successful producers and remain so to this day. The most popular variety to come out of the second wave movement was Arabica, often grown in high-altitude countries along the equator. On top of the movement of sourcing beans from exotic locations, this era marked the beginning of brewing experimentation. Many latte- and espresso-style drinks were established during the second wave.

Why You Should Support The Third Wave Coffee Movement

With the long, fascinating history of the coffee industry’s different movements, the rise of the third wave is an exciting progression. Today’s companies have shifted focus toward an increasingly high-quality bean that’s sourced sustainably and supplies a better end experience to the consumer. Supporting the third wave coffee movement means that you’re doing your part to ensure coffee is manufactured in a fair, modern way, while offering a level of unprecedented flavor.  


So, does third wave coffee sound like something you would want to try? If you’re searching for a top-notch bean from a company with a commitment to ethical ideas, then this type of coffee may be for you. Even with a few simple changes to your morning routine, you can support a more sustainable coffee industry – just search for a locally sourced, high-quality coffee and you’ll be off to a good start!

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