The Third Wave Coffee Movement Comes of Age

The Third Wave Coffee Movement Will Only Grow Bigger

The third wave coffee movement is growing in momentum, but if you’re wondering what the first and second waves were, don’t worry, we’ll get you caught up on everything! For a lot of people, a cup of coffee is a relatively simple affair, but the coffee market does continue to change and evolve over time – and at Empire Coffee we keep a finger on the pulse of the coffee market to anticipate trends and stay ahead of the curve.

The First Wave Coffee Movement

Before we get to the third wave coffee movement, it’s good to understand what the first wave was. Basically, it’s referring to the early days of coffee and its exponential growth in popularity among consumers. In the United States, the first wave coffee movement would date back to the 1800s when merchants realized there was a growing market for coffee that was prepared in a way that it could be quickly “brew-ready” and also be affordable. It is the first wave coffee movement that made brands such as Maxwell House and Folgers well-known household names. In hindsight, there are those who say the first wave coffee movement sacrificed quality in favor of quantity and convenience to meet the growing demand. But it also has to be admitted that the innovations of the first wave coffee movement in terms of processing, packaging and marketing laid a solid foundation for the future growth and expansion of the coffee market.

One example of these important innovations was the invention of vacuum packaging in 1900 by R. W. Hills, co-founder of Hill Bros. Coffee. Removing the air from tins containing coffee beans went a long way towards keeping coffee much fresher than before. This allowed coffee to move onto retail shelves for distribution instead of being purchased directly from roasters. The focus on convenience also led to the invention of instant coffee, with the first patent for it being filed in 1903 by Japanese-American Satori Kato, who had already been using dehydration methods on tea. It was Nestlé, however, that quickly became the leading instant coffee brand with its Nescafe product. But what’s hard to believe is that the first automatic drip coffee maker for home use didn’t come out until 1972, when Mr. Coffee came on the scene.

The Second Wave Coffee Movement

As you might expect, the second wave coffee movement formed as a kind of backlash to the first wave coffee movement and its perceived lack of attention to the quality aspect of coffee. This was the beginning of the evolution of specialty coffees. People wanted to know more about where their coffee was coming from and how it was being roasted. For people who just want a cheap cup of coffee and a shot of caffeine, the rise of specialty coffees felt snobbish, but there were a whole lot of people who were looking for a new, different and better coffee experience. It is in this second wave coffee movement that a new vocabulary came into use with words like espresso, French press, latte and so on. Coffee shops began springing up everywhere that put more of an emphasis on the social aspect of drinking coffee, and Starbucks quickly became the chain of coffee shops leading the way with brewed specialty coffee drinks. It was opening new locations at an alarming rate throughout the 1990s and hit 3,000 stores by the turn of the Millennium. But once again there were critics who felt that the second wave coffee movement, which started out with noble intents, soon fell prey to the lure of mass consumerism and the social dimension of drinking coffee, losing sight of its original focus on the source and treatment of the beans.

The Third Wave Coffee Movement

This brings us to the third wave coffee movement, which began soon after the turn of the new Millennium with the first use of the term appearing in 2002. There’s not as much history to cover here, but the basic idea is that there is still a strong niche of people who are more interested in the details of where a coffee comes from, how it is grown, the ways it can be roasted – all in the name of wanting to go deeper into the character of different coffees. Like the second wave, it is once again coming as a kind of backlash to bad or mediocre coffee. The first wave was all about consumers getting easy access to coffee, the second wave started out as improving coffee but then morphed into being all about mass marketing the experience of coffee and not so much about the coffee itself, and the third wave coffee movement is yet another attempt to elevate the quality of coffee.

There is an emphasis in this third wave on industry transparency so consumers can really see the heritage of the coffee they drink – where it’s being grown, how it’s being grown and who is growing it. There is a growing number of consumers who want some kind of connection to the actual people and communities that grow their coffee. The Holy Grail of the third wave coffee movement are independent operations who roast their beans with great care not to impart any smoke or roast flavors and accentuate each coffees natural flavor characteristics. It’s all about farming parameters, roasting techniques and brewing methods. An example of a third-wave coffee company is our very own Path Coffee Roasters.

The word “artisan” is one that might capture the essence of the third wave coffee movement, where coffee is more than a commodity and is treated as a true culinary product in the same fashion as wine. It also points the way to a possible fourth wave…

A Fourth Wave Coffee Movement Might be on the Horizon

Now that you understand a bit more about the third wave coffee movement, some people are already talking about a fourth wave coffee movement! However, there is no widespread agreement yet that there is anything definitive enough to define a forth wave coffee movement. Some are pointing to the rise of more sustainably-produced coffee and fair-trade coffee as a strong element of what might eventually be called a fourth wave coffee movement, but it’s still too early to say for sure.

Where do you fit into this framework? If your cup of coffee is just all about the buzz, you can consider yourself a first-waver. If you’re a die-hard Starbucks fan, you’d be a second-waver. If you’re into newer specialty coffees and knowing more about the origins of your coffee, you’re a third-waver. And if you’re on the cutting edge of making a deeper connection to the people who grow your coffee, their well-being and that of the land and community where the coffee is grown, you might just be a fourth-waver. But you might also straddle multiple waves – these are not hard-and-fast categories.

Where does Empire Coffee fit into this framework? In short, we don’t! That is to say, there are elements of multiple waves present in how we do what we do. We have always been concerned with a better, consistent tasting coffee. We pay close attention to the origins of the beans we roast, and we have sought multiple certifications that a growing number of consumers want to see, such as organic and kosher. In those senses, we span multiple waves of the coffee market. In addition, the specialty division of Empire Coffee is Path Coffee Roasters, and it is a solidly third-wave brand of specialty seasonal coffees. Path Coffee Roasters is all about roasting-to-order in small batches and can be supplied to wholesale customers or packaged as a private label. As the coffee industry continues to change, you can rest assured that Empire Coffee will be there to ride the next wave, whatever it might be!

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