What is “3rd Wave Coffee” And The Difference to “Specialty Coffee”



This is The third wave of coffee.

“Specialty coffee”

Lately we heard this phrase. In Cafe or online. What it actually means? What is the difference of Third wave and specialty coffee ?

Where is the first, second, and fourth waves of coffee ?

Defining the third wave coffee is not easy. You’ll hear different definition about this – some of which even contradict each other! So we reached out to some coffee professionals to ask how they define this. Here are their perspectives.

what is third wave coffee

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Third Wave? What Happened to The First Two?

A quick coffee history lesson for you: back in the 1960s, coffee consumption began to grow exponentially. For the first time, coffee became widely accessible. This marked the first wave.

The second wave came with an increase in the quality of coffee readily available. Big companies – such as Starbucks – started running coffee shops as profitable businesses. Coffee started to become a luxury product rather a necessity.

What’s more, we started to see more consciousness of the importance of the entire supply chain, from producers to consumers. Green bean buyers started to pay attention to where and how coffee was produced – and this eventually trickled through to consumers.

So if that’s the first and second wave, what’s the third wave?


What Sets Third Wave Coffee Apart?

There are some vague definitions about third wave

Third wave is a way of appreciating a quality product.” The keywords are “appreciating” and “quality”.  it’s both about the coffee we’re drinking and the way we think about it.

“Third wave coffee does not accept old traditional ways of growing coffee or making coffee.”

We can see the importance of every actor in the supply chain: producer, importer, roaster, barista, and consumer.

The first wave is all about consumer’s access to coffee, the second wave is Starbucks accepted by many, the third wave coffee is the result of everyone’s hard work.

But these are still vague concepts. Let’s break down the third wave into more specific details.


Key Features of The Third Wave

  • Increasing coffee quality,
  • More direct trade,
  • Greater emphasis on sustainability,
  • Iinnovative brew methods
  • These are all intrinsic to third wave coffee. We chase sweetness, complexity, and distinctiveness in our brews. And we’re happy to pay more to receive this.

But when speaking to industry professionals, one more thing kept coming up: customer service.

Tetsu Kasuya, World Brewers Cup Champion 2016, said :

“Thanks to direct trade, we baristas and roasters can tell consumer the stories behind the coffee beans.”

third wave coffee and specialty coffee

Matt Milletto from baristaexchange.com says, “Drinking a specialty coffee that has been produced in the right way, and with all the added value that the supply chain aggregates, is the basis of a great experience. This experience is a combination of education, knowledge, and hospitality.”

The third wave is all about making the consumer feel special. Part of that is customer service, but another part is sharing the story behind the cup. This story is one created by producers, importers, roasters, and baristas. It explains why a coffee is distinctive, why a consumer can taste certain notes, and why high-quality coffee takes so much work.

This consumer education is also enabled by greater channels of communication between production and consumption, including direct trade and social media.


The Third Wave vs Specialty Coffee: What’s The Difference?

You’ll often hear “specialty coffee” and “third wave coffee” used interchangeably, so I wanted to ask my interviewees if they saw a difference between them. The answer: a unanimous yes.

In fact, Sarah Dooley, Marketing Manager at Slayer Espresso, shares,

“Third wave coffee is simply a silly title for those who need one. [Its use] might even irritate me a little, depending on the context. Third wave is not a cup of coffee; it’s a mindset around loving the guest in all things.”

So if third wave and specialty are different, what is specialty? Well, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) scores coffees on a 100-point scale. Coffees that score 60 points or above are considered commercial-grade; at 80 points or above, they are graded as “specialty”. These exceptional coffees are often the product of specific microclimates and soils, production practices, and careful processing (the removal of the coffee cherry flesh from the beans).

Sarah Dooley says, “Specialty coffee is an important ingredient in the evolution of great service, because it insures the quality level of your bean through a point system by certified Q-graders.”

Similarly, Julian Rivera of Once Once Tostadores de Café, Mexico, says, “Specialty is how [third wave coffee] is achieved. It’s only with a distinctive quality and noticeable difference in the way we present coffee that we will be able to connect it to the consumer’s palates.”

Third wave coffee is an experience. Specialty coffee is what we serve in that experience.

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