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 as big of an impact. Third wave coffee can be boiled down to one paramount facet—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 real, real nerdy. People began to (rightfully) scrutinize every aspect of coffee from seed to mug in order to learn what makes a fantastic 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—or, how the seed of the coffee cherry (commonly called the bean) is removed from the fruit. Allowing the fruit to dry around the seed will yield a sweeter, fruitier cup than a washed coffee that has the fruit removed from the very beginning. These third wave coffee shops could feasibly roast and sell beans sourced from small growing operations that could never sustain the business of larger giants.
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 companies. Such information helped discerning customers understand what flavors to expect from a coffee but also ensured that workers in these other countries were receiving a fair wage for their efforts.
In order to differentiate themselves from the giants of Caribou and Starbucks, early 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 3rd wave shops and their public is more flexible than larger, 2nd 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 truly, 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—once a drink tasted right, the goal was then to rinse and repeat that same process. Third wave is closer to gourmet dining: few 3 Star Michelin Chefs will tell you they’ve reached their pinnacle. 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.
There’s always room for improvement, and moreover, room for innovation as well. We’ve written before about recent innovations in the coffee industry, but it’s worth mentioning again as those inventions are driven by the spirit of third wave coffee. With an unwavering focus on the taste of coffee sans syrups and milks, the only route for exploration came from how to brew the coffee itself. Cold brew looks at lessening acidity via heat-less extraction methods. Pour overs use a drip-brewing method but remove all automation for unparalleled control and precision. Either via principles of flavor extraction or via skill and finesse, these innovations let the beans’ flavors stand alone.
Some argue that we are currently in the midst of the fourth wave of coffee. Whether that’s true, what the fourth wave will look like, what attributes will change the industry as we know it—all of those discussions are open to debate. But, as of now third wave coffee has borrowed from the wine industry, the farm to table movement and a fiendish craving for information. And, above all else, a love for that delectable black brew is necessary.