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What the Heck is Third Wave Coffee?

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

Like virtually any lifestyle-based hobby or interest, coffee itself has buzz words.  Specialty, craft, third wave coffee, artisan, gourmet, etc.  They all describe coffee in a unique way, but in most instances really don’t describe anything at all.  Unless you’re down with the lingo, any specific adjective motioned towards the ever-changing “artisanship” of the current coffee movement is more trendy than descriptive at best.

I’ve recently started listening to Chris Baca & Jared Truby’s Cat & Cloud podcast on Soundcloud.  In a roundabout way, I’ve followed Baca (as he’s more affectionately known in coffee) for a couple of years since I tuned into a coffee cupping video produced by Verve Coffee Roasters in West Hollywood.  While driving out of town this past week, I tuned in to a podcast Baca and Jar (as he’s affectionately known by Baca) published about third wave coffee.

Third wave coffee is about as interesting a term as they come in our industry, but for there to be a third wave, there must have been a first and second, right?  In this week’s post, I ride along Baca and Jared’s podcast to describe the third wave coffee movement as we know it.

The Land Before Coffee

There was a time, not all that long ago, when coffee wasn’t a grocery driven commodity.  It wasn’t a derivative nor a function of a global trade on the stuff, but rather something that people roasted locally and at home.  We have the Boston Tea Party to thank for America’s adaptation of coffee over tea as its breakfast drink of choice.  Without need for British assistance, American colonists could import coffee from South America.

Coffee in America didn’t become a mainstay in the middle class diet until the Restoration period following the Civil War.  The advent of the coffee percolator made brewing coffee much more accessible and simple for the middle class, and coffee shortly became one of the most consumed beverages in the nation.  Just as Civil War soldiers were issued coffee as part of their rations, World War I ushered in a more shelf-stable and more easily-brewed dehydrated coffee.

third wave coffee

In the 1940s and 50s, the Pan American Coffee Bureau coined a clever marketing campaign that essentially brought forth the age of the beloved “coffee break” further ingraining coffee culture into war-reeling America.

But somewhere in there it all changed.  What once was a more scarce commodity that could seemingly only be found by talking to the right guy at the right street corner became a grocery store staple and something that only milk could make drinkable.  Enter the first wave.

The First Wave: Industrialization of a Commodity

The shift towards coffee becoming a tradable, profitable commodity came during the Restoration period.  The post Civil War age yielded a number of American-based roasters with the first being John and Charles Arbuckle who purchased a new coffee roaster from upstart Jabez Burns (now the namesake of the famed Probat Burns partnership).  The Arbuckle’s new coffee roasting company, Ariosa, would be the first to roast and prepackage coffee for consumption.  Their brand was and would remain a hit in the American West as cattle driving cowboys and ranchers blazed trails through the new American frontier.

Ariosa gave rise to several other common household names in coffee.  Shortly after the Arbuckle brothers took to the industry, James Folger fell in line to produce coffee for the gold miners on the West Coast.  Maxwell House as well as Hills Brothers shortly followed after.

third wave coffee

The first wave of coffee was an important step for Americans to readily and easily have access to coffee.  No longer was coffee difficult to find, acquire, or even brew, but it became a household mainstay and a grocery store staple.  Unfortunately, as you probably know, this movement generated nearly 100 years of insensitivity and ignorance on the part of the American people as to where the product came from and how it was prepared.

Two World Wars and several other global conflicts later and a new wave of coffee would come to the rescue.

The Second Wave: Rise of the Barista

The 1960s in America were a golden age for some.  For others, they were stricken with civil movements, violence, and great confusion for the direction of our nation still rebuilding from one of the greatest world conflicts ever seen.  On the one hand, Americans held strongly to their ideals of what this nation should be, but on the other, many were inclined to more open ways of viewing our nation.

For the good fortune of many, food goods became one of the focuses of those movements.  The 60s spawned an age of more awareness for where food came from, how it was manufactured, and how to obtain it.  Many of those principles are being resurrected once again, but an overall curiosity for specialty coffee began to percolate (no pun intended) throughout the western part of the country.

third wave coffee

As the demand for better coffee began to grow, Starbucks opened its first cafe in 1971.  I shouldn’t need to tell you that Starbucks in and of itself changed the entire coffee game globally.  From one cafe in 1971 to nearly 25,000 worldwide, Starbucks has established itself as the dominant force for coffee: large enough to command major power in the coffee commodity trade but still small enough at the local level to be your local coffee shop.  No matter your opinion or feelings on Starbucks, the company illuminated the American perception of what good coffee is and heightened the cafe and barista movement in the country.

After listening to Baca and Jared’s podcast, the thing that struck me the most about second wave coffee is that the barista and the drinks took center stage.  The second wave became all about exposing average Americans to a more European style of coffee in that the preparations were largely espresso-based.  This espresso-based movement really did perk up a lot of Americans, and quickly Starbucks and similarly prepared coffee beverages became “the best thing I’ve ever had.”

With coffee’s second wave came an overall improvement in the roast quality of the beans used for the second wave’s barista agenda.  This improvement was, again, brought about by a strong desire to not drink bad coffee and to understand more of where coffee was coming from and, most importantly, how it was obtained.  The second wave brought about significantly more awareness about Fair Trade and coffee’s origins that are now common knowledge among the educated coffee public.

As the first wave set the stage for the second wave of coffee, the second wave set the stage for the third wave.

Third Wave Coffee: All About the Beans

Third wave coffee is still a relatively new idea.  Keep in mind that the first wave lasted close to 100 years from the 1860s to 1960s, and the second wave started only in the 60s.  So, in essence, from the 1860s until now there have only been 3 distinct changes in coffee culture in America.  150 years and 3 big changes.

For all intensive purposes, though, we can really date the changing of the coffee guard to the 1990s and a little roaster on Division Street in Portland, Oregon.  Perhaps one of the founding fathers so-to-speak of third wave coffee is one of our favorites in Stumptown Coffee Roasters.  Named after the iconic moniker of Portland, Stumptown set the precedent for really exploring the characteristics of each individual coffee and virtually giving it a personality.

third wave coffee

In addition to Stumptown leading the West Coast charge, a couple of other big names in coffee emerged as the leaders in the third wave.  Intelligentsia commanded the midwest out of Chicago while Counter Culture Coffee made waves on the East Coast hailing out of North Carolina.  Today, these three continue to be major players in the education, production, creation, and development of Third Wave coffee.

In addition to really putting the coffee at the forefront for consumers, third wave coffee brought about more awareness about the origins of the beans themselves.  This heightened awareness has led to much more transparency between roasters and consumers, after all, there’s really no reason whatsoever to hide the way you’re obtaining coffee and more importantly how it’s obtained.

What third wave coffee has really done is brought about a more educated coffee drinker while allowing roasters, baristas, and owners to be educators in their own right.  While we at Ciclismo probably fall in the gap somewhere between the second wave and third wave, we do our best to make sure that we can educate our customers to the best of our abilities and help them understand more about the coffee they’re getting.

Coffee’s Third Wave: Takeaways

No matter where you fall in the hierarchy of coffee’s echelons, coffee, its origins, and its preparation are getting closer to you.  Almost daily our world is getting smaller and smaller.  It’s not too far fetched to think that the Six Degrees of Separation could quite literally link you to a coffee grower in another country, and that type of connectivity is what makes coffee unique as a beverage and as a culture.

My encouragement to you is to learn as much as you can about how coffee is processed, where it comes from, who grows it, and vote for the things you value in your coffee with the only vote that matters: your dollar.  Shopping local, getting coffee you can trace, and buying from people who are passionate about their craft is the most important thing you can do (in the realm of a cuppa Joe).  If you’d like to take a look at our coffee offerings, simply click the link in the menu above.  Until next week, we’re signing off.  See you at Barefoot!

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