For the most part, as humans, we like to have structure and organization in our lives. We categorize ourselves, each other and just about everything around us. From periodic tables and flow charts, to filing cabinets and libraries, we keep it tidy. Why would our coffee be any different?
Third wave coffee. We’ve all heard the term get thrown around in coffee circles for years, but what exactly is the Third Wave? In 2002, Trish Rothgeb from Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters first used the term in an article for an SCAA publication. She was describing the change in focus from the big-box brand name cafes of the time, to the small shops that were doing something a little bit different.
As it would turn out, Ms. Rothgeb was only trying to describe a trend that she was seeing. She noticed that some coffee shops were beginning to show more interest in the coffee itself, and the careful preparation of the drinks they were serving. Many of them were beginning to seek out exclusive lots of the best quality coffee available, and they would roast them fresh in their own stores. In using the term “Third wave,” she gave this movement a name.
For reference, when coffee was first introduced on a massive scale, huge roasters would crank out tons of coffee every hour, and it was ground, packaged, sealed, and shipped to warehouses across the country, and across the world. The First Wave put cheap and potent coffee into the hands of the working class, and through a combination of excellent marketing and low cost, everyone still knows the iconic supermarket brands.
First wave coffee is still available en-masse, and if you have ever been served up a cup in a diner or greasy-spoon style restaurant, chances are you’ve tasted that first wave brew.
Fast forward to the 60’s & 70’s, and some cafes were starting to put more care into the production and preparation of coffee. There were major advancements being made in this trend, and people were willing to pay a bit more for a premium product.
As these second wave businesses moved from a few city locations to a worldwide audience, the needed to appeal to a more broad audience. They introduced sugar, flavors and whipped cream to everything on the menu. Fully automatic push-button models replaced semi-automatic espresso machines, and blenders popped up along side entire racks of artificial flavors and sugar.
Low-grade coffee and poor roasting technique was hidden beneath pre-flavored hazelnut and French vanilla artificial flavoring oils. While coffee took a small step forward, it was a far cry from the unadulterated and transparent craft that was to come next. As the popularity of these Second Wave type shops exploded, some people began to search for something even greater.
In a time dominated by green mermaids and whipped-cream nightmares, this Third Wave underground movement was starting to take hold. The mentality of “bigger is better” was checked at the door, and the focus was on quality, above all else. These shops took another look and began to focus on the drink itself, and how to perfect the craft.
The third wave is difficult to define, as it is a constantly evolving trend. However, it would seem that there are a few things that most within this movement can agree on.
We strive for transparency. The coffee and its story is extremely important to us. Most shops that fit the third wave description will know the history of the coffee they are serving, and will strive to craft the best possible cup from it. The will know about the region, the altitude, and the tasting notes that the baristas are experiencing.
We strive for clarity. This is different from transparency. While transparency describes the origin and pedigree of the coffee, clarity will refer to the taste in the cup. Pre-flavored coffee is non-existent, and most third wave style shops will only offer a few high-end flavor syrups, if they carry any at all. When you read descriptions and tasting notes, the coffee will likely have those characteristics naturally brought out through the roasting process. Those tasting notes are more than a talking point; they are natural expressions of varietal flavor. We want you to experience all that the coffee has to offer.
We strive for perfection. You may need to look carefully to notice, but we use tools to help us achieve perfection. Small and precise digital scales, and timers are used in every part of the preparation process. The machines have been carefully selected for grinding, brewing and serving. Behind the scenes, your coffee is being tested on laboratory grade equipment to ensure that the flavor extraction is achieving the parameters we are striving for. In the past year, even water has become suspect. After an industry publication shined the light on water chemistry, the third wave responded by testing its water and making the necessary adjustments to filtration.
Today & Tomorrow
It is safe to say that the third wave is still being defined. What you can expect from it today may be different from what is on the horizon tomorrow. For now, look for single origin and carefully blended coffee being served by a barista with some knowledge of both the coffee, as well as the proper technique to prepare your drink. You may be able to find some flavor syrup in these shops, but the focus will be on the intrinsic coffee flavor; not the sugary, bloated, 1200 calorie disasters.