What Is Third Wave Coffee?

What Is Third Wave Coffee?

Today’s coffee drinker is fortunate to live in a “golden age of coffee”—new cultivation methods and extraction techniques have resulted in a café scene that produces a better, richer cup of coffee than ever before. And if you've had “shade grown” or “fair trade” coffee, you’ve taken part in Third Wave Coffee. It’s the current movement among specialty coffee drinkers that treats coffee and its processes with the same reverence as an artisan or craft beverage, much like fine wine or craft beer.

“Waves” of Coffee: A Brief History

The American history of modern coffee is comprised of three “waves” or movements. The First Wave, beginning in the 1800s but not gathering steam until the 1960s, was characterized by the newfound availability of coffee to the general public at home and at the office in an effort to ramp up consumption exponentially. The advent of vacuum packaging—removing air from coffee tins—brought fresher beans into the home, and made mass, remote production possible, phasing out the once-essential local coffee roaster. People now bought their coffee beans (usually ground) of the retail shelves of the supermarket.

In addition, instant coffee, which had been mass-produced since the early 1900s, enjoyed several upgrades to its manufacturing process at this time, increasing its popularity with the coffee-buying public. Finally, perhaps the most important invention of the First Wave, the world’s first automatic drip home coffee maker, Mr. Coffee, was developed by entrepreneur Vincent Marotta. By the end of the 1970s, consumers were buying more than 400,000 Mr. Coffee machines every day.

The Second Wave of coffee came about as a general desire for better coffee. The expansion and mass production of coffee beans had rapidly increased availability, but at the cost of quality. Consumers went in search of what became known as “specialty” coffee, as well as information about the source and production of the beans. It was the start of what would eventually become today’s coffee culture: the community culture of drinking coffee, along with an enjoyment of the coffee itself, began to be emphasized again; American coffee companies and cafés began their very first forays into espresso-based drinks; and mainstream media, including TV shows like Friends and Frasier, started using the café as a backdrop, which began to popularize it as a “third space.” Mr. Coffee machines, now ubiquitous, joined the ranks of standard countertop appliances in the home.

The Third Wave and Today’s Coffee Culture

The next movement, which brings us to the present day (although some already tout a Fourth Wave of coffee), built on the ideas spawned near the end of the 1980s—sourcing, craftsmanship, production and sustainability of coffee. Quality began to assert itself as the primary aim in coffee making, and to that end, schools and training programs offering coursework and certification for budding baristas sprang up to meet the new demand. Coffee festivals, tasting events and competitions exploded in popularity as coffee reached into such disparate fields as cooking, sculpture and cleaning products.

Happily, this new fascination with the beverage also translated into better wages for coffee farmers and a more sustainable and environmentally-sensitive coffee economy. As the world’s thirst for coffee continues to increase, customers are continuing to assert their willingness to pay extra for better, cleaner, fairer coffee. It’s truly exciting to see what the future of coffee will bring!

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