We find ourselves in the middle of the third wave coffee movement, one that numerous local cafes take part in. However, not many people outside of coffee enthusiasts really know what that means. Heck, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what it means! But before we can discuss third wave coffee, we must learn the significance of the first and second waves.
The first wave of coffee dates back to the 19th century with the invention of Folgers and Maxwell House. The importance was quantity over quality, made possible with the invention of vacuum sealed containers which are still used today to preserve freshness. People primarily drank coffee for the pure consumption of it rather than enjoyment. And so for nearly a century, the best part of waking up really was Folgers in your cup.
One driving force that led to second wave coffee was the desire for a tastier cup of java; thus emerged Peet’s in 1966 and Starbucks in 1971. In addition to introducing the United States to new methods of drinking coffee (such as the French press or latte), this wave also focused on the experience of drinking coffee. Whereas people used to primarily enjoy the beverage in the comfort of their own homes and offices, drinking coffee now became an event. This is also one of the criticisms of second wave, that the attention moved away from the coffee itself and focused more on the social experience.
We are currently in the midst of the third wave of coffee, though there are still reminisces of waves one and two around us. The movement took off in the 1990s, and the term “third wave” was coined by Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in 2002. This movement characterizes coffee as an artisanal product, much like wine, cheese, or craft beer, and it is to be cultivated and appreciated as such, not as a simple commodity. In originally defining the term third wave, however, it appears that Rothgeb was referring more to the attitudes and knowledge of baristas in regards to the product rather than consumers. You can decide for yourself by reading the original piece here.
As opposed to the first wave that boosted quantity over quality, third wave promotes quality over quantity. The product itself is at the center rather than the consumer or marketing. This might mean an increase in prices, but that is to reflect the additional care and work that takes place behind the scenes. Words that you might see touted in a third wave coffee shop are direct trade, fair trade, organic, specialty coffee, and single-origin. Coffee shops and baristas participating in this movement promote transparency in the whole coffee production process, from farmer to roaster to consumer. This is why you’ll often see specific regions prominently displayed next to brewed-to-order options at third wave shops, or roast dates clearly labeled on packages of coffee beans. The more information they are able to share with you, the better. Popular third wave coffee companies you might be familiar with are Counter Culture, Stumptown, and Intelligentsia, sometimes referred to as the “Big Three.”
This term “third wave” can be a turn-off to some because it might insinuate “superior” or “snobby.” Some dislike the term because a lot of people boil it down to buzzwords, such as “fair trade” and “organic,” or the aesthetics of coffee shops themselves (think stereotypical hipster vibe). As one New York barista put it in a 2013 Esquire article, the concept of third wave coffee might come off as elitist, but in her opinion, it’s really just nerdiness.
It is not difficult to find a third wave coffee shop in the DC area. If you’re interested in learning more about the coffee you’re drinking, don’t be afraid to ask your barista about different seasonal offerings and which brewing method works best for your favorite bean. They can help you determine what you like and don’t like, and even what temperature you prefer to drink your coffee at! Coffee shops like Swing’s and The Wydown provide regular free cuppings to help teach budding coffee enthusiasts about the nuances of the beverage, and Peregrine and Vigilante even offer specialized classes for those wanting to delve deeper.
What I appreciate most about third wave is the evident passion for coffee and awareness of the journey coffee takes from farm to cup. It is not just about knowing that a particular bean is grown on this small, remote farm in Guatemala and has hints of cedar and caramel once roasted and brewed. It is about appreciating all the hard work that goes into growing and processing that bean, transporting it from that small farm, roasting it to perfection, and brewing it to your liking.
Now that we better understand the significance of the third wave, what do you think the fourth will look like?