What Is Third Wave Coffee?

Neon diner sign says coffee

Nowadays, when you walk into a local coffee shop, you're greeted by the swirling aroma of freshly brewed coffee. You can sit and watch as the barista makes your drink, while you take a break to read, work, or simply unwind. In this moment, all you have to do is experience your coffee.

We're living in the third wave of coffee -- a time of delicious coffee, unique twists on the classic drinks, and a focus on the experience as a whole.

Now, if you’ve never heard of third wave coffee, you’re in the right place. We’re all benefitting from it, and to be honest, at Coffee Bean Corral, we’re pretty big fans of it. So, we’ve pulled together a comprehensive guide to introduce you to the wonders of third wave coffee.

History of Coffee

First, we have to take a step back and start at the very beginning of the coffee revolution in the U.S. because you can't fully understand third wave coffee without learning about the first two waves.

First Wave Coffee

The first wave of coffee began in the 1960s when giant corporations decided to make coffee a widely accessible grocery item. Soon after, instant coffee, canned coffee, and diner coffee flooded the super market aisles. The low price and consistent taste drew a lot of people in.

Companies like Folgers, Maxwell House, and Green Mountain Coffee became household names. But the divide between the coffee farm and the cup of coffee people drank was wide. Coffee became just another item you could buy at the grocery store.

First wave coffee is characterized by:

  • Artificially flavored beans
  • An emphasis on premium or gourmet
  • Pre-ground packages
  • A super dark, bitter taste.

Starbucks baristas

Second Wave Coffee

Second wave coffee breathed new life into the coffee industry in the late 1900s. With the arrival of higher quality beans and espresso-based drinks, the coffee market was quickly redefined.

Often credited to Peet’s Coffee & Tea, the second wave was a transition away from mass-produced coffee at the supermarkets to artisanal, handmade drinks in a café. Peet’s Coffee is said to have inspired the founders of Starbucks, which arrived at the peak of the second wave in the 1990s.

Starbucks introduced customers to different coffee origins, cultivating a coffee experience for the customer. The more people knew about coffee, the more invested they became. High altitude, Arabica, tropically grown coffee beans grew in popularity.

While the coffee itself didn’t greatly improve during the second wave (cafes still tended to use a dark, bitter roast), the whole coffee experience did improve. And grabbing a cup of coffee with friends became a common occurrence.

At this time, there was an increase in concern about the entire supply chain, from farmers to consumers. The third wave built off this concern to create a culture of sustainability for coffee farms.

What Is Third Wave Coffee?

The third wave of coffee built off the first and the second wave, turning a cultural addiction into something greater – an experience of high-quality coffee.

The term third wave coffee was first used by coffee pioneer Timothy Castle in 1999, but it didn’t become mainstream until the early 2000s when people began to crave a higher quality coffee than local chains offered. During this time, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) was founded, and the concept of third wave coffee began to take over Australia, Canada, and Scandinavia. Soon, people found themselves in the middle of a coffee renaissance.

What Sets Third Wave Coffee Apart

At its core, third wave coffee is truly set apart by its basic culinary appreciation of coffee. You'll find an emphasis on the subtle flavor notes, the coffee variety, and the growing region. Each roast is carefully calculated to draw out the natural characteristics of each bean to make the most complex cup of coffee. It’s clearly a response to the dark roasts and mass-produced coffee of the first and second waves.

Competing with giant brands, like Starbucks, made it hard for third wave coffee shops to survive, so they worked hard to set themselves apart. Coffee roasters and coffee shops turned their focus towards higher quality, single origin coffees, experimenting with lighter roasts and different brewing techniques. They also began to advocate for more sustainable practices for farmers, as they closed the gap between coffee production and your cup of coffee.

Many third wave coffee shops and roasters use Fair Trade coffee, sourced directly from the farm, rather than a third party reseller. This attribute is one of the best parts of the third wave, allowing farmers, roasters, and cafe owners to interact with one another.

Because of this partnership, our team at Coffee Bean Corral was able to visit a local coffee farm, La Minita, in Costa Rica. We witnessed the coffee industry from harvesting to processing and milling to packaging. But that’s a story for another time. It’s just an incredible perk of the third wave coffee era.

The coffee quality isn’t the only thing that’s improved, brewing methods have followed suit. At home, people began to meticulously brew by hand, using pour overs and French press. The Aeropress and siphon also rose in popularity at this time.

Meanwhile, coffee shops focus on brewing a sweeter, thicker espresso, often a ristretto. They carefully dial in the grind size, water temperature, water quality, and length of the espresso pull. And you get to watch every step from the other side of the coffee bar because it’s not just about quality coffee, it’s also about the coffee experience.

The third wave views coffee as an art form. From the harvesting to the roasting and brewing, every step is done with intention and an eye on quality.

Making multiple pour overs

How Is Third Wave Coffee Different than Specialty Coffee?

Third wave and specialty coffee are often used interchangeably. But there’s actually a big difference that most coffee connoisseurs will note. Basically, third wave is a mindset around coffee, not the actual cup of coffee.

On the other side, specialty coffee is coffee graded at 80 points or higher by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). This takes into account the growing conditions, production, and processing of the beans. The beans are also graded by Q-graders to determine quality and cupping notes.

One is often confused for the other because specialty coffee is the backbone of the third wave. It’s how we achieved the third wave. But while you don’t need the third wave for specialty coffee, you do need specialty coffee for the third wave.

Will There Be a Fourth Wave?

Now that we’ve been in the third wave for a few years, people are beginning to ask, “Will there be a fourth wave?” While no one can know for sure what will come, we can say that it’s at least possible. We're not done exploring all that coffee has to offer.

One avenue the coffee industry hasn’t explored much with its customers is the science behind each cup of coffee. Perhaps this is the direction the fourth wave will take? Or maybe we’ll dive into even greater specialty coffee. Whatever happens, we can only enjoy the process and see where the world of coffee continues to take us.


The third wave of coffee transformed the way we make coffee and is only continuing to do so as the coffee industry progresses. The coffee industry doesn’t accept the traditional way of doing things but focuses on innovation and quality, creating new brewing methods, new roast profiles, and great coffee. But at its core, the third wave coffee is a culture, an experience, and high-quality coffee.