What is Third Wave Coffee?

For countless decades, coffee has been an invaluable source of energy and flavor for hundreds of millions of people. Much like any other industry, the coffee industry has undergone several alterations as time progresses. Referred to as “waves,” the development of coffee has remained steady since the 19th Century, when Folgers allowed coffee to be easily accessed by Americans throughout the country. This first introduction of coffee as an easily-obtainable beverage was known as its first wave. The second wave of coffee development was believed to be in the 1960s, when coffee began moving outside of home kitchens and into smartly marketed coffee shops. Fast-forward to the 21st Century, where coffee has moved into more of a “fine foods” category, akin to wine and other connoisseur foods. But what exactly is third wave coffee?

How is Third Wave Coffee Different?

Third wave coffee differs from traditional coffee, which feature a limited number of flavors and brewing options. In this latest wave of “specialty coffee” beans are roasted and brewed in unique ways to bring out the various subtleties of the actual bean. The process of accomplishing this goal is along the same lines as other complex culinary items, such as chocolate or tea. This level of coffee is becoming more mainstream, as many wholesale coffee vendors like Driven Coffee are getting into the movement.

Coffee beans dubbed to be part of the “third wave movement” are those that have been delicately treated and processed to highlight its own unique flavor profiles. Unlike the second-wave of coffee, which primarily focused on blends, third wave coffee narrows its focus on delivering the highest flavor via a single bean type, such as Sumatra Mandheling Coffee.

It’s All About the Roast

Traditionally, the roasting process of coffee was used to either highlight or disguise the natural flavors of a coffee bean. Because many coffee manufacturers utilize blends and added flavors, its roasts tended to be darker. The darker the roast, the less “original” flavor the coffee beans contain. However, in third wave coffee, the roasts are much lighter. The primary purpose of utilizing lighter roasts is to ensure the natural flavor of the coffee bean is not roasted away. By roasting coffee beans up until its first shell “crack,” the beans retain nearly all of its unique flavor profile.

The results from this roasting technique are apparent in coffee shops and via specialty coffee retailers. Instead of blending coffee beans and adding flavor throughout the process, coffee beans are marketed and enjoyed based upon its subtle and unique flavor profile. In order to highlight this flavor, brewing and consumption methods are streamlined toward the flavor of a specific bean. For example, Sumatra Mandheling Coffee is said to be creamy, sweet, spicy, slightly musty with hints of butterscotch.

Distribution of Third Wave Coffee

While third wave coffee has reached all corners of the globe, no country celebrates this movement as much as the United States. While the physical number of third wave coffee shops is significantly lower than a corporation-backed establishments, such as Starbucks, the concentration of specialty shops is steadily growing. While cities such as Portland, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Asheville and Chicago are experiencing a boom within the specialty coffee shop niche, the majority of coffee lovers must obtain their specialty beans via mail. In the United States, there are dozens of coffee roasters who specializes in third wave beans and production. While still in its infancy, commentators suggest the proliferation of third wave coffee to continue its expansion.