Riding The Waves

by Chris Silvestro

Coffee has been on a journey since us consumers in the US began drinking this funny, magical brown beverage. Generally, it is common to see coffee classified into three distinct “waves” which describe methodologies, eras, and to some extent, quality.

First Wave

The First Wave began in the early 20th Century (est. 1920’s) and, sadly, remains today. In The First Wave, coffee is treated as a commodity with no connection to the producer, and rarely even, to the country of origin. Coffee is just a drink, nothing more. Generally, it is a dark, bitter, often watery drink with a little bit of hot sludge at the end of the cup. No flavor nuances whatsoever. Convenience is emphasized over quality. Definitely not related to “Specialty Coffee”. Commonly associated with canned grocery coffee and gas station Styrofoam cups served from glass carafes on hot plates. The First Wave introduced vacuum packaging and instant coffee. Folgers, Maxwell House, and Mr. Coffee are common First Wave brands. In summary, The First Wave was about making coffee available to the masses.

There was no transparency with the farmers/producers like there is today.

Second Wave

The Second Wave began in the 1960’s (est. 1966) with the increase in presence of the espresso machine in US cafes, predominantly on the West and East coast. Italian espresso machine makers such as Pavoni, Gaggia, and La Marzocco were pioneers in the US adaptation of espresso and espresso based drinks, and it is in fact the espresso café culture of Italy that spurred the massive retail expansion of chains like Starbucks. The Second Wave is the precursor to today’s “specialty coffee”, and took coffee to a new level i.e. “artisanal” or “hand crafted”. This is when we begin to see the introduction to lattes, cappuccinos, and even the now common french press. We also begin to see more focus on country of origin and even region within the country of origin. Starbucks, Peet’s, Seattle’s Best, and Caribou Coffee are common 2nd wave brands, still alive and well in today’s coffee marketplace.  In summary, The Second Wave was about better coffee through the marketing of the experience.

Quality improved thanks to carefully roasted coffee and drinks made on the espresso machine.

Third Wave

The Third Wave began in the early 2000’s (est. 2002). Trish Rothgeb of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters first wrote about The Third Wave of coffee in a November 2002 article of The Flamekeeper (Roaster’s Guild Newsletter). At its roots, The Third Wave is about making coffee shops about the coffee and allowing the coffee to speak for itself. This means a bridging of the gap between consumer, who drinks the coffee, and the producer, who grows the coffee. It is taking the focus away from the roast flavor and instead highlighting the origins and unique characteristics of the coffee with a lighter roast, thereby potting the focus squarely on the producer of the coffee. While higher quality green coffee and higher prices are often correlated with The Third Wave, it is critical to note that this does not necessarily guarantee a high quality product. By the same token, this means that Third Wave coffee is not necessarily “specialty coffee”, which narrowly refers to coffees which score above 80pts on the 100pt Specialty Coffee Association official score sheet. The Third Wave is a category of coffee businesses with similar ideals and methodologies, whereas “specialty coffee” speaks to an empirical metric of quality. Yours truly - 1000 Faces Coffee, Counter Culture Coffee, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown are common Third Wave coffee brands. In summary, The Third Wave is about working towards better coffee through the product itself; ideally with coffee quality as the main focus. 

Quality has improved even further through cuppings and testing extraction.