The Waves of Coffee: What Does Third Wave Coffee Mean?

This website contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Coffee culture is ingrained in everyday life of all coffee connoisseurs. And with the rise of culture and history of countries and urban cities around the world, the term “Third Wave Coffee” also gets a lot of use and recognition these days.

Those obsessed with coffee labels often hear this phrase across coffee shops and cafes, pleased with the notion that they’re currently riding the trend of third-wave coffee.

But what does third-wave coffee really mean? How did it all start, and how did it come about in other parts of the world? This post will provide some information behind the concept of ‘third wave of coffee.’ We’ll also explain where the idea of this term came from.

Focus what does third wave coffee mean

Introduction to the Waves of Coffee

The so-called ‘waves of coffee’ refers to a period in time or stage in the history of coffee consumption. Currently, there have been three waves that are referred to: first wave, second wave, and third wave.

In my own perspective, I see it as an evolution of how the industry treated coffee during the past years.

The concept of waves was created because there was a wave of change taking place in the industry. As coffee consumption began to grow exponentially, the way we buy and drink coffee also changed dramatically.

Focus what does third wave coffee mean

How Does First Wave of Coffee Started?

Coffee had already gained popularity since its discovery. But the first wave began and marked its history when coffee consumption grew significantly.

Coffee became widely accessible when companies like Maxwell House and Folgers began supplying coffee beans to households.

However, the first wave of coffee is recognized as an era where coffee is seen as a commodity. As the first wave continued at the turn of the 20th century, it became common to sell coffee to anyone, anywhere.

First wave coffee is also perceived as being the lowest quality because of the lack of sourcing information and transparency. As instant coffee also entered the scene, the history of coffee consumption began with factories, whereas most brands prioritize convenience and mass production over a keen focus on taste and quality.

The Second Wave of Coffee

The second wave trend entered with the rise of coffee shops that care about improving these low-quality coffees. It was driven by the growing popularity of large, high-street coffee chains.

Big companies, such as Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Starbucks, led this trend and revolutionized things that were relatively new in the United States.

Coffee started to become an exquisite little drink when freshly roasted coffee beans and alternative espresso beverages were introduced to US consumers and a wider audience. But this becomes a bit confusing in today’s context, whereas people think it’s unsettled because it has some overlaps with the third wave. 

What’s more, coffee shops and cafes started to bring coffee to life in a new way when roasters began to engage about how they sourced their beans and when baristas start to care about the craft of their coffee.

At this point, you can see that there’s a change taking place. These changes in the global coffee culture make people pay more attention to their coffee.

When we (consumers) were introduced to a wider variety of coffee experiences and made us explored higher-quality coffee, we then started to emphasize not just the taste, but also the importance of the entire supply chain – from producers to baristas to consumers. 

What Does Third Wave Coffee Mean?

Focus what does third wave coffee mean

Third-wave coffee has come a long way since it was first coined by Trish Rothgeb, co-founder of wrecking ball coffee, in 2002 from an article in Flamekeeper in the Roasters Guild Publication.

As people began to understand more about their brew’s origin, the third wave of coffee started as a movement that acknowledges coffee as an artisanal beverage, like fine wine. It is treated as an experience rather than a commodity.

Trish argues that it’s about personal expression. It’s a way of understanding how coffee beans are grown, harvested, roasted, and brewed. At the same time, it’s a way of consuming, enjoying, and appreciating high-quality coffee prepared by every actor in the coffee value chain: farmer, producer, roaster, barista, and consumer.

The third wave pinpoints particularly on customer service (i.e., serving freshly roasted specialty coffee beans), the story behind the coffee, and adaptation of new and popular trends (new and innovative manual-brewing methods).

Other perceptions also lie in some of these factors: greater emphases on environmental sustainability, traceability of coffee, adaptation of ethical farming and trade practices, a strong partnership between roasters and farmers (direct trade), lighter roast profiles, and more efforts to increase the coffee quality as well to improve farmer’s livelihoods.

Exploring the Things Behind the Third Wave of Coffee

So, let’s further break down the other key elements of a third wave coffee.

Customer services provided by third-wave coffee shops 

Aside from craving a sweet, complex, and delicious brew, we often look for excellent services. And once we’re satisfied, we’re happy to pay more to receive the same kind of experience.

If you’re going to drink coffee at a so-called “third wave coffee shop,” you will feel that you’re special. People have begun to treat coffee as an experience, so the customer service has to catch up with it. So, cafes care more about the way they serve their craft. 

The third wave tells you the story behind the coffee you’re drinking

Third-wave coffee is sometimes all about sharing the story behind the cup. Have you ever wondered what’s the relationships between coffee growers and roasters be like?

There are stories behind the cup of coffee that also involves a focus on all stages of supply chain. The importance of every actor in the creation of your beloved coffee, all the way from seed to cup, is well recognized because baristas and roasters can tell the consumer the stories behind it. 

Third-wave is all about information

Another part is the knowledge and information you can get from coffee. People are seeking to understand more about the origin of their brew.

Knowing the things like farmers’ agricultural practices, processing methods, farm managements and implementations, and most importantly, the art, craft, and skillful talents of roasters and baristas at coffee shops are more important.

Your cup of coffee will taste ten times better once you learn how the excellent drink is made from the very start.

And what’s more interesting, the third wave of coffee has become an ideology that provides universal meaning. Even without asking, you know that your cup of coffee is a single origin or specialty coffee rather than just being a commodity one.

Adaptation of new and popular trends such as brewing methods

Are you a coffee aficionado seeking to enhance your coffee brewing journey? Pour-over coffee could be your next adventure. This method offers unparalleled control over the flavor and intensity of your brew, making it a top choice among coffee lovers. To embark on this journey, you’ll need an excellent pour-over coffee maker. Explore our comprehensive guide on the top-rated pour-over coffee makers in today’s market.

Riding with new and popular trends is also an identity of a third wave coffee movement. The popularity of these brewing tools has led roasters and brewers to engage with the trend.

Adapting to new or innovative manual-brewing methods such as Pour over, AeroPress, Chemex, and V-60 is common to almost all independent specialty coffee shops. It’s a part of a growing phenomenon called the “third wave” of coffee.

Although manual brewing methods aren’t that common to second wave coffee shops like Starbucks, the brewing method is as important as the coffee itself when it comes to third-wave coffee. Coffee professionals are considered craftspeople.

Greater emphasis on sustainability and traceability of coffee

Third-wave coffee shops have a greater emphasis on environmental sustainability.

Suppose you’re going to define the character of the third wave coffee. In that case, it is a movement that aims to promote skills and abilities of not just baristas but those also involved in coffee production, from farming and harvesting to processing.

And when it comes to the coffee’s traceability, it’s one of the essential things in the third wave of coffee. You can trace back your cup and get information behind.

As mentioned above, baristas and roasters can tell the consumer the stories behind the coffee they drinking every day. That is because they don’t just speak about the coffee’s quality, but they also tell how the beans are produced from the origin.

A strong partnership between roasters and farmers

Direct trade is also an important factor in the third wave. Most coffee lovers will look for guidance about their coffee rather than experience. And in that case, roasters or brewers need to provide helpful information that highlights their beans’ good quality. 

So, the relationship between roasters and farmers doesn’t only obtain a higher-quality single-origin coffee. It also creates a bridge and communication between them and producers to learn more essential things about coffee.

Increase in the coffee quality 

As the third wave of coffee entered the scene, coffee shops started placing more emphasis on the coffee’s origins and quality.

While the third wave may refer to the great coffee experience from roasters’ and baristas’ methods of brewing the perfect coffee, those coffee cups are from freshly roasted and adequately brewed beans that passed the quality grading systems, cupping tests, and included as a specialty.

What’s the Difference Between Third Wave and Specialty Coffee? 

Focus what does third wave coffee mean

Defining the third wave isn’t easy as representing specialty. The term ‘third wave’ I think has been overused. As mentioned before, people are more pleased with the notion that they’re currently riding the trend and has lost its meaning to some extent.

Third-wave and specialty coffee are often perceived as the same because they can both complement each other. You can say that specialty is the third wave, and the third wave is a specialty.

In fact, it’s easy for specialty coffee shops and cafes to define themselves as ‘third wave.’ Simultaneously, the old concept of it, pertaining to those well-established coffee cultures in big cities, isn’t relevant nowadays.

However, remember that the third wave isn’t a cup of coffee. It’s more of a movement, a customer service, or an experience. Whereas specialty is the type of coffee that roasters and baristas serve. For example, since people are searching for a great coffee experience, specialty coffees are created to provide a better quality drink, making it a great ingredient in that experience.

To further understand the difference between the two, let’s elaborate on the meaning of a specialty coffee. You can read our full discussion on the Definitive Guide to Specialty Coffee for more information.

A Brief Introduction to Specialty Coffee

The term “specialty coffee” has entered the popular trend and terminology in the 1970s. It was first coined by Erna Knutsen, also known as the godmother of specialty coffee, to refer to coffee in 1974. The concept of it was quite simple aside from a coffee that’s being well prepared, freshly roasted, and adequately brewed,

Erna Knutsen was a broker who specialized in selling high-quality Arabica beans from single origins. They don’t have any classification to differentiate a particular and specific coffee from others during that time.

Therefore, she used the term “specialty” to comprehend her trade from the rest. And later on, it became a coffee culture advocating for the values of quality, identity, and distinction in coffee.

In an issue of the Tea & Coffee Journal and her speech to an international coffee conference, she referred it to high-quality beans with unique flavor profiles produced in special geographic microclimates.

So, while the term “third wave” mainly refers to the story behind the beans, it’s also a term referring to a coffee movement influencing the specialty coffee.

Specialty Coffee Today

In today’s context, specialty coffees are referred to as green beans that have been graded by a coffee expert or a certified Q grader. Specialty coffee receiving a high cupping score has been graded in altitude to grown, visual inspection, and cupping.

Examples are those coffee made up of Arabica beans. In 1982, the Specialty Coffee Association of America set standards for defining specialty-grade coffee beans.

And according to them, Arabica has been considered a specialty coffee. It’s because it has been cupped with a cup score of 80+ points out of 100. Having high cupping scores means that the coffee has met all the instilled tests and standards for a specific condition from seed to cup.


The idea behind the “waves of coffee” may have a much more in-depth thinking and understanding. Nowadays, most people, especially those involved in the industry, actually use the term “waves” to define their own history of coffee consumption and distinguish it from other coffee cultures and traditions.

And when it comes to the third wave of coffee, remember that the term is relative, and it depends mainly on the place and history of coffee consumption. The rise of the third wave started in the US, whereas it was popularized by big business.

The whole concept is about consumption, and each country has its own adaptation to this new coffee trend. Third-wave may still seem relatively unknown in other cities, or some counties are just currently riding the trend.

Like this Article? You Might Want to Read: What Does Single Origin Coffee Mean?