Third Wave Coffee - What is It, and Why Does It Matter?
As a coffee drinker, you've probably heard of "third wave" coffee at some point, either online, in the news, or at your favorite local coffee shop. But what is third wave coffee, and why does it matter? *hint - it does!*
A *Brief* History of Coffee Culture in America
Coffee didn't become widely available in America until the mid-1900s, but once American palates got used to the taste, the beverage exploded in popularity, launching the first wave of coffee. The first wave was about making coffee as readily available and affordable as possible. Brands like Folgers and Maxwell House dominated this era with low prices and acceptable coffee quality. However, innovations were soon to come.
In the 1960s, a few brands sought to elevate the taste and quality of coffee and new roasting and brew methods were developed. This second wave of coffee, which lasted until the mid-1990s, was about bringing better coffee and specialty beverages to the mass market. The second wave changed the way we think about coffee. No longer was coffee just a consumer product - chains like Starbucks and Peets roasted better coffees, gave customers the opportunity to customize their drinks, and added open seating, cementing the "coffee run" as a social experience.
Today, we're on the third (or fourth, depending on who you ask) wave of coffee. Perfect Daily Grind describes the third wave as, "All about making the consumer feel special. Part of that is customer service, but another part is sharing the story behind the cup. This story is one created by producers, importers, roasters, and baristas. It explains why a coffee is distinctive, why a consumer can taste certain notes, and why high-quality coffee takes so much work."
But you might be tempted to ask another question - does this matter? We say yes.
The third wave coffee movement is beneficial in many ways, some that you can taste, and some that you can't. The growth of third wave and specialty coffees have had a significant impact on our culture, how we experience coffee in the United States, and how coffee is produced and consumed around the world.
Why does Third Wave Coffee Matter?
Elevated Quality and Standards
Now that we have access to better coffee, we've started to demand elevated quality and standards. Today, independent roasters travel the world to find high quality beans and develop new coffee flavor profiles. The taste of a coffee is impacted by not just roasting type or length, but by country and place of origin, land (terrior), water quality, climate, and more. The third wave of coffee has inspired roasters to experiment and create new roasts to give coffee lovers more of the flavors they crave.
To differentiate from larger second wave roasters, many third wave coffee roasters have invested heavily in sustainable practices. By purposefully creating more equitable supply chains and reducing their environmental impacts, third wave roasters are pushing the conversation forward and taking clear steps to make our world a better place.
Just as an example, Wonderstate Coffee has made sustainability their mission, operating on 100% solar power, announcing high minimum price guarantees to farmers, and investing in new agricultural methods to reduce environmental impact (read more). They're a great example of how third wave coffee producers are doing their part to implement sustainable practices in their operations.
Coffee as an Experience
Coffee has come a long way from being just a bitter, watery black beverage that you drink to get your morning dose of caffeine or power through the workday. The third wave of coffee has opened us up to the idea that coffee can (and should) be about the experience. The story created by producers, importers, roasters, and baristas helps you appreciate the beverage that you're enjoying. Enjoying coffee as an experience allows us to take a step back from our own lives that are busier than ever, to enjoy a beverage that's traveled thousands of miles and been transformed by skilled artisans to get it into your hands. Coffee is best enjoyed as an experience, and that's what third wave coffee is all about.
Discovering Better Coffee, from the Comfort of Home
We are in the midst of a particularly transformative time in craft coffee. During the pandemic, sales for roasted whole coffee beans have skyrocketed and people are learning how to make their favorite coffee beverages at home. Some have even argued that we're in a "fourth wave" of coffee culture, but instead, we see this as a continuation of the elevation of the coffee experience. When you grind the beans and prepare a perfect cup of coffee with your own two hands, there's no experience quite like it.
The third wave of coffee educated us about what's in our cups and why it matters, and now, in the midst and aftermath of the pandemic, we have the tools and ability to bring the beauty of damn good coffee into our homes.
To bring superior beans from hand-selected Midwest roasters into your home every other month, join the Lokoly Coffee Club! ↓