Coffee 101: The Three Waves

To speak of coffee is to speak of waves.

coffee-spectrum-fire-sin-backgroundEven when you are drinking the average small cup of drip coffee from a local coffee shop, you are a part of third wave coffee.

The third wave is a response against Starbucks.  Starbucks provided us with a space to congregate, a community space.  Right when America’s church attendance slowed, when everyone dropped their bowling league in favor of home theater and surround sound speakers, right when America needed some place to meet-up, Starbucks expanded at the rate of one store a day in the mid-nineties.  Starbucks brought European coffee culture to America, to its cities and to its interstates.

Second wave coffee:  Bitter and Everywhere

This is great news for coffee enthusiasts, but in order to scale up and give America the coffee shop experience, Starbucks broke some of the basic love-rules of coffee.  They burnt the beans:  way past the second crack in the roasting process.  These beans were so burnt-bitter that sugar and cream became necessary to make the drinks palatable.  The good stuff–the body, the sweetness, the aftertaste, the complexity– died in the excessive roasting that Starbucks subjected its beans to at its roasting plants.

Third wave coffee is about roasting the coffee just enough to develop its complexity and stopping the roasting process before the bitterness appears.   This is often the difference you can taste in a local coffee shop’s brew.  Also, rather than buy beans indiscriminately and burning them past the recognition of their origin, third wave coffee is about identifying quality beans from specific farmers and specific regions.

The third wave: smaller batched, more personally sourced and carefully roasted

Third wave coffee treats coffee as the produce that it is; just like your apples and bananas, quality is all about nurturing the plant, timing and honoring the expiration.  Second wave coffee beans grow stale on the shelf and are made palatable by the addition of cream and sugar.  Third wave coffee develops over the first couple of days of roasting into a complex flavor profile and then is tossed once it’s expired–in about two weeks.

The first wave: Coffee on the Shelves

Before Starbucks, the coffee wars were fought on the grocery store shelves–Folgers and Maxwell house, vacuum cans and bricks.  Coffee was always stale, always ground–accelerating its staleness.  America’s coffee consumption flourished in large pots brewed and then simmering on a hot plate.  This is the root of contemporary American coffee.  The first wave.  Coffee was consistent, stale and coffee drinkers loyalty was nurtured by advertising campaigns.  The ad-myths of Juan Valdez, Good to the Last Drop, and the Best Part of Waking Up solidified America’s love of coffee even if it left them without much depth of flavor.

(Illustration by Stephanie Mulvihill)

11 responses to “Coffee 101: The Three Waves”

  1. […] Coast Roasting Manager for Stumptown Coffee.  Like everyone I’ve chatted with who works for third wave coffee giant Stumptown, Ryan spoke of the passion that he feels for his company the way some people speak […]


  2. […] from its exposed brick wall, to its brightly spray-painted mural, to its barista’s measuring out single-origin beans from local roaster Joe Coffee, manifested under Mark’s vision for himself and for his […]


  3. […] Local Favorites on their menu board) Jack was one of the pioneering coffee enthusiasts bringing third wave coffee to the previous stale-drip caffeinated urban […]


  4. […] end, they brew Toby’s Estate, an Australian born, Brooklyn roaster specializing in bright third wave roasts.  Perpetuum sources pastries from some of my favorite NY bakeries such as Ceci-Cela, the tiny […]


  5. […] did, serving and drinking it in a deli or a bodega.  As the New York coffee scene exploded, as third wave roasters found the eastern shore, Faryal discovered that she too loved coffee.  She began to train a […]


  6. […] 1993, Starbucks hit the city and hit it hard.  As America moved into the second wave of coffee, moving coffee out of kitchens and break rooms and into coffee shops, the model for how to coffee in […]


  7. […] is a response to stale coffee cans found in our home cabinets and our workplace break rooms. (More here about all three waves.)  Made famous by Starbucks, the second wave coffee movement convinced Americans that coffee is […]


  8. […] Most importantly, Culture Espresso knows its coffee.  Heart Coffee Roasters out of Portland are one of the biggest early pioneers of third wave coffee. […]


  9. […] commitment to relationships with coffee farmers around the world marks them as a trail blazer in the third wave of coffee.  Since their birth in Ithaca in a small shop near Cornell University in 2000 to their current seven […]


  10. Great site! I found it via Angels Cup. I wish I’d known about it when I was still living in New York, so I could join for a coffee tour!

    Your discussion of the waves of coffee left me wanting to know more. Why did Starbucks *have* to burn their beans to scale up? Was it just cheaper? Did Americans not care because they were used to stale coffee anyway?


    1. Tim,
      Thanks so much for your interest. Abby and Jeff at Angel’s Cup are gems!
      Your questions are great.
      My understanding is that Starbucks’ decision to roast their coffee so dark was a style choice that was heavily influenced by Italian espresso. Of course, it helped that roasting coffee that long sometimes allowed cheaper coffees to still fit their flavor profile. Also, Starbucks is all about the milk and the sugar—something these darker roasts hold up very well to.
      In terms of Americans and first wave coffee being stale, I think people really just didn’t know any better. So much of what I hope to do on the site and in tours is helping folks understand the nuances of great third wave coffee which are hard to detect once the coffee was roasted over three weeks ago.
      Thanks again! Next time you’re in New York I hope we are having a tour!

      Liked by 1 person

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