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What Is The 'Third Wave' In Specialty Coffee?

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Coffee's vast history can be defined by different waves, which prioritised different aspects of coffee whether its quality, convenience, accessibility, the experience etc.

Whilst you may be familiar with the term wave with regards to movements like feminism or covid-19, it's also used to describe different eras of the coffee industry where there was a strong progression in a particular aspect. Let's explore the waves of coffee!


First Wave Coffee

It took coffee 200 years from its discovery and initial brewing in Ethiopia and Yemen, for it to become a globalised commidity which became a staple in every household. During the 19th century, coffee became interwined with cultures around the world, and the primary drive in the first wave was an emphasis was on convenience, low-cost, and being homogenised. Quality and the cafe experience was a far lower priority, and companies like Nescafe, Folgers and Maxwell House were based supermarket products and strong household brands.

In 1900, R.W Hills of Hills Bros Coffee invented vacuum packaging; removing air in coffee tins for preserving freshness in coffee beans for longer. In 1903 Satori Kato put forward his bespoke dehydration process from tea into coffee, which granted him the first US patent for 'Coffee Concentrate and Process of Making Same', in other words, instant coffee! The first major brand to capitalize on this phenominon was Nescafe, who became the primary driver for cheap, convenient and consistent coffee in the household.

Throughout the 20th century, and coffee became a household staple, and the love of coffee evolved to become an experience for the average layman to relax and enjoy a unique beverage. Replicating these bespoke beverag which have been very costly and time consuming to reproduce at home...


Second Wave Coffee

One word to summarise the second wave. Starbucks. The masses loved the taste and caffeine fix of coffee, but a yearning still remained for a more unique and varied experience. Starbucks became the first company to deliver coffee not just as a quick coffee drink, but a relaxing bespoke coffee drink to be enjoyed as an experience in a dedicated coffee shop. Of course other chains like Caribou Coffee delivered this, but it was Starbucks who made that initialy push and dominated the market during this 80s to the present.

Starbucks started in Seattle in 1971 with just one shop selling coffee beans, and over the next decade the company evolved into selling espresso coffee drinks with fairly slow growth. In 1987, Howard Schultz, the former marketing director became chairman and CEO of Starbucks, and quickly propelled Starbucks as a nationwide coffee chain.

The primary focus was on the unique espresso technology, trained baristas and a relaxing environment for the customer to enjoy a tailored coffee experience. Whilst cafes were commonplace, coffee was still treated in passing, whilst starbucks pioneered giving coffee however you wanted it, in a series of new drinks with a strong emphasis of syrups. New varieties of milk based espresso drinks like pumpking spiced lattes, mochas, frappuccinos boomed, and coffee shop culture made a pervasive influence hrough pop culture like 90s hit shoes Friends and Seinfeld.

It seems like every aspect of the coffee experience from the first to the second wave improved, but the actual coffee itself didn't see a radical improvement... The vast majority of coffee in coffee shops would be roasted extra dark, and made to be served with syrup, milk and anything to mask the bitterness and carbonised flavours. There was still plenty of room to focus on bringing out the best of coffee itself...


Third Wave Coffee

The third wave was born out of love for making making the occasional great cup of black coffee, a regular occurance. The 80s saw the third wave a peripheral niche in the coffee industry, with no internet to readily share new findings, no rigurous authority to assess coffee quality objectively, or thorough transparecy on origin, Just a burning desire build on the groundwork of previous waves, and answer the question, what exactly is a good cup of coffee?

The Speciality Coffee Association was setup in 1982 by a small group of coffee enthusiasts who sought for objective scientific criteria in coffee quality, and now acts as the gold standard for specialty coffee. The scientific literature on coffee chemistry was limited, and bridging the gap between coffee data, and professional standards food tasting was a new frontier left unexplored. Their first major publication was the coffee tasting wheel below, which works with a general flavour characeristic at the centre of the wheel, from which you can narrow down to a specific flavour notes as your progress outwards - This is one of many ways the SCA identifies quality, and has put forward the standardised SCA rating, anything above 80 which is considered speciality.

Whilst third wave coffee has been going for 40+ years, it's still a niche counter culture when compared to the coffee industry at large. The third wave essentially bridges the gap between accessibility and unique, rare and delicious coffees. Fortunately the average coffee drinker is likely to have had experience coming across great quality coffee, and brewing what the SCA would deem good quality has never been easier. With the advent of social media, the masses have an abundance of knowledge, tips and low cost buying guides to setup coffee at home far better than most mainstream coffee chains. A silver lining to the covid-19 pandemic saw at domestic specialty brewing boom, and now has never been at better time to easily achieve great quality coffee.

Third wave coffee also focuses on traceability, so you have far more details about origin. Not just the country, but the specific farm, variety that was grown, altitude, processing method and any further details which have a influence on the quality of what your drinking. In addition, coffee tends to be roasted lighter to shed light on the variety of unique flavours the coffee can offer, as opposed to being roasted extra dark where these aroma compounds are lost.

What lies in the next wave of coffee? Coffee quality has never been better, and organisations like the Speciality Coffee Association hold coffee to rigourous criteria to asses quality. The unspoken fourth wave lies more on altruism, through sourcing coffee that's ethical and eco-conscious. Customers love attention to detail on all of the hard work which has led to their cup, and compelling stories of the farmers lies at the heart of transparency.

Above are our partners at Mio coffee farm who go above and beyond in eco conscious practices like crop rotation, derviving power from solar panels and using compost from the husks homemade compost made from waste products like coffee straw, coffee husk, wastewater (which is naturally rich in potassium and phosphorus and ideal for coffee crops). Additionally, Fair pay is guaranteed for all workers, well above the national average, and Mió is the only farm in the region to have real control of workers hours and to compensate them accordingly if they do any extra time. Expenses for workers and their family are reduced with weekly milk and vegetable allowances, constant healthcare access and free daily commute from the city.

It's this attention to detail that moves coffee beyond the poverty rife in this industry, and towards the next wave in ethical and eco-conscious coffee.

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