Third wave coffee is arguably the most recent wave in coffee history. While the first wave made coffee ubiquitous across all nations, and second wave changed the way Americans consumed coffee, third wave has had just as dramatic of an impact. Third wave coffee can be boiled down to one central feature: the coffee itself. The goal became not to customize taste or sell as much as possible, but to extract and reveal as much flavor as possible out of a single cup of black coffee.
As a result, coffee got very nerdy, very fast. People began to scrutinize every aspect of the substance, from seed to brewing technique to mug in order to learn what makes a truly magnificent cup of coffee. Different regions of the world have unique flavor profiles, and even coffees from opposite ends of the same country may have a marked difference in taste. Similarly, coffee connoisseurs want to know how the coffee was processed, how the seed of the coffee bean (the cherry) is removed from the fruit, what the Ph balance of the soil is where it’s grown.
Furthermore, the desire for transparency stems from the fact that coffee is such a labor intensive crop. There is a long history of exploitation and forced labor in coffee and sometimes buying from third world nations can lead to inhumane working conditions. The market soon demanded transparency and information out of their coffee makers. The information helps discerning customers understand what flavors to expect from a coffee, yes, but it also ensures that workers in these other countries are receiving a fair wage for their efforts. Or so we hope.
In order to differentiate themselves from the giants of Caribou and Starbucks, third wave coffee shops focused on being small, unique, and superb. Everything from the flavor of the drinks to the aesthetic of a café became a challenging ground for identity. Not only is the atmosphere of a third wave coffee shop unlike anything so commercialized, but it also encourages local shopping. Coffee shops became a source of home town pride, with a sense of protectiveness—as their beloved coffee house is only available in one specific town. That sense of pride is only furthered as third wave shops begin to express opinions about coffee through coffee. With this most recent wave, every variable of coffee making becomes an avenue to express a philosophy about how the coffee should be roasted, ground and brewed. Aside from being the favorite haunt of hip teenagers and telecommuters, third wave coffee shops may live, breath and bleed a particular philosophy about how to prepare coffee—and their customers as well.
The dynamic between third wave shops and their public is more flexible than larger, second wave operations. Coffee in general was stepping away from a formulaic approach and entering a more experimental phase. In some ways this perspective shift focused more on the journey than the destination. With so many variables in the preparation of coffee, each was viewed as a tributary for exploration and discovery. Vertical integration rose as a handful of coffee companies started buying machinery in order to roast in-house, completely transforming the definition of “fresh” coffee.
Certainly the sheer freshness of roasted-that-morning coffee made a difference, but in truth, many of these coffee companies are looking for more control. More capacity for learning, experimentation and ultimately expression. Second wave coffee almost held a “good enough” attitude towards making delicious drinks. Third wave is closer to gourmet dining. There are always more techniques to master, more experiments to run, more influences or knowledge to obtain. Like athletes, artists or musicians, one can always improve on something about coffee. As of now third wave coffee has borrowed from the wine industry, the farm to table movement, and a fiendish craving for information.