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What Is Third Wave Coffee?

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Third wave coffee is a movement that prioritizes the coffee-drinking experience, ethical sourcing, and sustainability. Keep reading to learn more.

We may have seen the term “Third wave coffee” appear at coffee shops and cafés. Or in discussion threads. I wrote this guide to clarify what it is.

Here’s what I’ll talk about:

Let’s ride the wave and figure out what this movement is.

Key Takeaways

  • Third Wave coffee emphasizes on specialty coffee.
  • Focuses more on the coffee-drinking experience rather than the drink.
  • There’s no Fourth Wave coffee, yet.
  • It isn’t the same as specialty coffee.

What Is Third Wave Coffee?

Third wave coffee is a movement that focuses on sourcing the finest beans, sourced directly from farms. Think bright, nuanced flavors unlocked by lighter roasts and expert brewing methods like pour-over and siphon.

Ethical sourcing and sustainability are key, and knowledgeable baristas guide you through this elevated coffee experience, far beyond your average latte.

Signs of Third wave coffee include:

  • Single-origin beans
  • Latte art
  • Drinks with specific flavor notes (think fruity aromas)
  • Bean origin transparency
  • Artesian brewing methods (e.g., manual pour-over)
  • Displayed roast dates
  • A lot of aesthetics in coffee shops
  • High-end glassware

If you see any of the above, you’re “taking part” in the Third Wave movement. It focuses on creating an experience for the coffee drinker instead of caffeinating themselves. For instance, coffee shops will see themselves as educators on everything coffee.

Ask, and they’ll provide information on your coffee’s country of origin, roast profile, date, etc.

There’s more to defining Third wave coffee. Let’s check it out.

Features of Third Wave Coffee

The features of Third wave coffee are as follows:

1. Lighter Roasts

Roasters often use lighter roasts to preserve the delicate flavors of the beans. This results in a brighter, more nuanced cup of coffee.

2. Emphasis on Sustainability

Roasters are committed to sustainable practices, such as using organic farming methods and supporting environmentally friendly initiatives. This helps to protect the planet and ensure that coffee production can continue for generations to come.

3. Direct Trade

Roasters often source their beans directly from farmers, paying fair prices and building relationships with the people who grow the coffee. This ensures that farmers are rewarded for their hard work and that the coffee is ethically sourced.

4. Focus on Quality

Third wave coffee emphasizes using high-quality, specialty-grade coffee beans. These beans are typically grown at high altitudes, hand-picked, and carefully processed to bring out their unique flavors.

5. Innovative Brewing Methods

Coffee shops typically experiment with different brewing methods to bring out the best flavors in the coffee. This could include using pour-over cones, Chemex coffee makers, or siphon brewers.

6. Focus on the Coffee Experience

Third wave coffee shops are designed to create a unique and enjoyable coffee experience. This could include providing information about the coffee beans, offering brewing demonstrations, and creating a comfortable and inviting atmosphere.

Focusing on such features increases the cost of each cup of coffee. However, it’ll result in higher-quality, more sustainable coffee.

Third Wave Coffee vs. Specialty Coffee

Specialty coffee is coffee graded at 80 points or more by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) [1]. Third wave coffee builds on that foundation by emphasizing ethical practices, transparency, and innovative brewing techniques.

Third wave coffee isn’t a type of coffee drink or brewing method, it’s a mindset and an experience.

By the way, what’s the SCA? The Specialty Coffee Association sets global coffee standards, promotes knowledge, and empowers coffee professionals.

Now, let’s move on to Third wave coffee’s history.

History of Third Wave Coffee

Coffee author and broker, Timothy J Castle, coined the term “Third Wave Coffee” in December 1999. When he wrote the article, Coffee’s Third Wave, for the magazine, Tea & Coffee Asia [2]. However, he defined it a bit differently than the actual definition.

He meant for Third wave coffee to have roasters dedicate more attention to coffee production than the Second Wave.

Second Wave coffee began in the late 1960s because of Peet’s Coffee & Tea, which started in 1966. It focused on sourcing and blending, with a focus on the bean’s country of origin.

From there, Starbucks was created and allegedly took inspiration from Peet’s Coffee. It focused on artisanal sourcing to transform the way people thought about coffee.

In 1995, Starbucks expanded to the United Kingdom. From there, the UK began to take part in the Third Wave movement and championed it. James Hoffmann, an English barista, set up his first Third Wave roastery in 2008.

Also, between 2007 and 2009, Hoffmann was one of the winners in the World Barista Championship. Folks began to regard him as a pioneer of the movement in the UK [3].

Nowadays, you’ll find tens of thousands of Third wave coffee shops and cafés worldwide.

I mentioned “Second Wave coffee.” Which means there’s also a “First Wave.” How do these differ from Third Wave?

Third Wave Coffee vs. Second Wave Coffee vs. First Wave Coffee

In short:

  • First Wave: Outbreak of coffee consumption.
  • Second Wave: Defining specialty coffee.
  • Third Wave: Artesian coffee production and purchasing based on origin.

1. First Wave Coffee

  • Period: Mid-19th to mid-20th century
  • Focus: Mass production and affordability
  • Beans: Often commercially sourced, low-grade Robusta beans, heavily roasted for consistency
  • Brewing: Primarily drip coffee makers, focus on convenience and quantity
  • Experience: Utilitarian coffee shops, primarily seen as a quick fuel source
  • Examples: Folgers, Maxwell House, diner coffee

First Wave coffee is commodity (or commercial-grade) coffee. That means the manufacturers don’t emphasize on quality and focus on mass production. Signs of First Wave coffee include:

  • Coffee you’d see in a Walmart (think Maxwell House).
  • Dark and bitter
  • Artificially flavored beans.

This movement began in the 1800s, with coffee brands like Maxwell House and Folgers wanting to target household coffee consumption throughout the United States. And to draw in these coffee drinkers, they needed to produce affordable coffee.

But affordability led to cheap and mass-produced coffee, which sacrifices quality. Examples of coffee under this category would include instant coffee or vacuum packaging

2. Second Wave Coffee

  • Period: 1960s–1990s
  • Focus: Specialty coffee and café culture
  • Beans: Higher quality Arabica beans, sourced from specific regions, roasted to highlight origin flavors
  • Brewing: Introduction of espresso-based drinks, automatic espresso machines, pour-over methods
  • Experience: Rise of coffee shop chains like Starbucks, focus on atmosphere and social gathering
  • Examples: Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee, Caribou Coffee

Second Wave coffee is a movement when specialty coffee houses such as Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, and Peet’s Coffee began shifting toward making coffee drinking an experience. Meaning that coffee would come from specific countries and would result in better-tasting drinks.

Signs of Second Wave coffee include:

  • Emphasis on flavored drinks (e.g., café latte).
  • More of a focus on country of origin
  • Baristas passionate about coffee shop experience

Introductions of such drinks transformed the coffee-drinking landscape worldwide, with more of an emphasis on coffee shops, stands, and cafés.

3. Third Wave Coffee

  • Period: Mid-2000s onwards
  • Focus: Ethical sourcing, sustainability, intricate flavors, craft brewing
  • Beans: Emphasis on single-origin beans, meticulous sourcing directly from farmers, focus on varietals and processing methods
  • Brewing: Experimentation with diverse brewing methods like pour-over, siphon, AeroPress, cold brew, highlighting the bean’s unique characteristics
  • Experience: Independent coffee shops with knowledgeable baristas, focus on education and appreciation of coffee as a craft beverage
  • Examples: Blue Bottle Coffee, Intelligentsia Coffee, Stumptown Coffee Roasters

All the sections above emphasize what Third wave coffee focuses on. It’s different from First- and Second Wave coffee since it focuses on flavor exploration, craft approach, ethics, and the coffee-drinking experience.

How about Fourth Wave coffee?

Is There a Fourth Wave Coffee?

There isn’t a Fourth Wave coffee at the time of writing. Everything related to fourth wave coffee at the moment is speculation. However, many folks believe that it’ll focus on transparency, education, and improving coffee-making equipment.

Some people suggest it might focus on convenient coffee making at home with machines such as Keurig and Nespresso pods.

Or it could focus on emphasizing the additives that went into each coffee drink. For instance, an emphasis on cocoa fermentation that went into a drink’s chocolate syrup.

It would most likely focus on addressing issues folks suffer from, like:

  • Fluctuating coffee prices: Seeking alternate forms of income to keep coffee-making profitable.
  • Welfare transparency: How coffee workers are treated.
  • Specialty coffee at home: Think high-quality coffee beans and machines.
  • Climate change: Welfare of coffee-growing regions.

There’s also talk of an emphasis on micro-lots. A micro-lot is a tiny batch of coffee beans, meticulously sorted from a specific area or farm, showcasing unique flavor profiles impossible in mass production.

Its small size allows for intense care and control, making it the jewel of high-quality coffee.

That’s all theory, though. Otherwise, thanks for reading.


Third wave coffee isn’t a specific type of coffee or brewing method. It’s a movement that focuses on sustainability and a better experience when drinking coffee.

Want to keep learning more about coffee? Here’s a great place to start.

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Tim Lee is, as you might have guessed the founder of He is a former barista and a professional web publisher. He has now combined his knowledge and expertise in both subjects to create
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