Third Wave Coffee

If you are reading this, then you, like me, may have faced a similar challenge to what I’m about to address. Maybe you’ve been asked to write for a publication, or maybe you are writing a business plan, and you are trying to describe this movement in coffee which we are a part of. We’re a movement involving single-estate coffees, a myriad of brew methods, and an emphasis on transparency and telling the story of where the coffee has come from.

To some, we call this Specialty Coffee. But this term really doesn’t do us justice. Specialty coffee is really a coffee that cups better than an 80 on the cupping table, assuming there are minimal defects to be found. Starbucks is specialty coffee.

The term that was coined awhile ago, is Third Wave Coffee. But many have become resistant to the label. For some, it reflects a movement in coffee where baristas believe they are kings. Espresso is never to go, sugar is evil, and we feel that Third Wave gives us the soapbox upon which we can stand to deliver our dogma to the masses. I’ll agree, these are all very negative connotations I have with the words  Third Wave.

However, to the public and thanks to folks like Liz Clayton and Oliver Strand, Third Wave is probably the most publicly recognized label for the kind of coffee I am talking about. With this in mind, I propose that we, as a movement, need to embrace the term Third Wave.

It’s important to recognize what Third Wave coffee is. The Wiki link is a good place to start, but even more so, it’s important to recognize how young this thing is. If you consider how we define the first and second waves, then you can understand that Third Wave is maybe just beginning to take it’s first baby steps as a child. As such, I look at the early days of Third Wave and espresso snobbery as being a young, ignorant mindset… One we are growing out of.

I would even go to the point of saying that no truly Third Wave coffee bar existed until Intelligentsia Venice opened in 2009. Bear with me… But until that store, we all built bars with comfortable elements meant to mimic the atmospheres found inside a Starbucks or Peet’s location (which are both 2nd wave retail brands). The experience offered at Venice was the first to test the boundaries of customers, breaking the mold as much as possible. Another fine example of Third Wave retail would be the Square Mile experiment with Penny University. Though, this may not have been the most profitable business operation, it again broke the mold of most coffee service experiences.

I recently had a conversation with the manager of an espresso machine repair company. The conversation drifted to the idea of how valuable Third Wave coffee was in a world where coffee retail is still dominated by the Starbucks, Peets, and Caribou’s of the world. I explained that as I see it, Third Wave coffee is the other big name in that pool.

You see, none of the Third Wave companies on their own are going to cut into a larger corporations market share. However, I do believe that as Third Wave coffee grows, and more Third Wave companies exist, the movement of better coffee is slowly going to cut further and further into the market share of these larger corporate coffee companies. I see Third Wave as almost a brand opportunity, a network. 

It happens all the time where your customers come in and tell you they are going to Miami for spring break. Before they even finish their sentence, you’re blurting out, “You gotta go to Panther Coffee!” Sure, your customers might get lazy and hit a Starbucks a couple of times on their trip, but I bet if their accustomed to drinking your stuff, they’ll probably venture out of their way at least once for a cup of the good stuff. Next thing you know, they’re telling their friends (Who don’t drink Third Wave coffee) about this awesome spot they have to stop by in Miami. And it grows from there…

So, all in all, what I am saying is, Third Wave is not some badge of shame. It’s an opportunity. Sure, we can let it be defined as ego’s screaming from behind a grinder. Or, we can look at it as a chance to push the boundaries of coffee. To be creative, and to grow… But to grow together. To acknowledge that this thing is still young, and definitely has some growing up to do. But, if we own the term, we can shape how it is defined.


2 thoughts on “Third Wave Coffee

  1. I think another thing that separates third wave coffee (at least in my experience – as a consumer rather than an industry professional) is the commitment these shops have to elevating your home coffee game. I love grabbing a drip and espresso and hanging out; usually I am too busy for that. Grabbing a bag of beans usually leads to at least a cursory conversation about how best to make these beans into an excellent cup. Many of these shops have freely available brew guides online, and I have a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests your average barista might not be such a surly guy or gal after all.

  2. I’m commenting on this because this blog needs more comment action. I agree to your premise. We need a banner. We need something. Most of us in third wave are generally post-moderns who hate labels, we hate anything being imposed on us, even if it’s largely self imposed.

    We have very similar characteristics, even the one that Kyle mentioned, but I gladly send people over to other cafes that are doing a good job and serving good coffee. Some places have even gone so far as to offer rewards cards for multiple, local, third wave shops.

    Maybe, we could try to get some sort of a national coop working together- offer rewards across the country, so that our customers who travel a lot (like one I had who I sent to Olympia Coffee Roasters, Bluebeard, Intelli, and Not Just Coffee in Charlotte, NC) will be incentivized to seek out those local shops to get rewards points or something. This would probably be fairly easy to do if it were just piggy backed off of a geolocation app like Foursquare or something.

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