Coffee,  Food and Drink,  Social Commentary

Third Wave Coffee and Beyond.

As I write this, I’m in a Starbucks. I have a few excuses. For one, they’re everywhere. There’s also the fact that I have a few Starbucks cards loaded with various amounts, as well as a bevy of free drinks coming my way. I’m poor – so these things are important! That is not to say that I snub my nose on a good, local coffee shop. No, far from the truth! I love visiting independent coffee shops. Third wave, and fourth wave coffee is both delicious and rewarding. I’ll admit – while I’m a caffeine addict, I’m also a coffee connoisseur, and I’m happy that there are others out there that share the same passions I do.

What is third wave coffee?

Third wave coffee involves different and non-traditional brewing methods such as the coffee press, the chemex, and the pour over methods. Third wave also focuses on equality for the people who grow the beans. Finally, third wave coffee often times focuses on culinary appreciation. As much as I want to hate Stumptown Roasters, they often times get credit for popularizing the third wave. Did they really? I’ll get to that later, but if you’re looking for an example of third wave coffee, look at Stumptown Coffee.

But there’s another aspect of third wave coffee.

This might get me in trouble with all the coffee snobs, but when describing third wave coffee, most people are selective in their definition. They focus on the fancy and gourmet aspects of third wave coffee. However, I’ll argue that the Keurig machine is just as much a part of third wave coffee as anything. Yes – it totally goes against the ideals of other forms of third wave coffee, but let me explain.

First wave coffee was defined by what was popular before cafe culture – ie canned coffee brewed in an automatic drip (or even a percolator pot – yuck!). This involved coffee mostly brewed at home – which is exactly where most people use their Keurig machines. If you’re going to include home brewing in one wave of coffee, you have to include it in all waves. Yes – some people would say this is an extension of first, or at the best, second wave coffee – but those people are wrong. The waves of coffee always show what the trends are. As much as it might irritate the coffee snobs, the Keurig machine is very trendy and popular. In fact – the single brewing / Keurig machines are the second most popular home brewing method.

So, disagree with me if you must – but the Keurig is a part of the third wave of coffee. Numbers don’t lie.

Really third wave coffee isn’t anything new.

There’s one thing (aside from the Keurig machine) that third wave coffee brought us: direct trade coffees. Everything else came along with second wave coffee. All the flavorful, single origin coffees we know and love had already come with second wave. Hell – Starbucks was founded by a few people who loved single origin coffee so much, they’d travel to San Fransisco to get it!

Let’s talk about brewing methods. The aeropress, ok, that’s new. The chemex method though – well that was invented in the 1940s. The coffee press (aka French press) was invented in the 1920s. Oh, and we used coffee presses extensively in the 90s, to brew our single origin coffees.

I almost want to argue that third wave coffee is just an extension of second wave coffee. A brilliant marketing tool to make people think they’re drinking better coffee than they drank ten or twenty years ago.

Third wave coffee contradicts itself.

Looking at the one thing I said third wave coffee brought to the table – that is direct trade – there’s something deeply concerning. Yes, the idea behind direct trade is that roasters pay the growers what they’re worth – and that’s extremely important. HOWEVER….why are the roasters in charge?

Most of the notable third wave roasters come from where I live – the Pacific Northwest. Most coffee growers live in the tropics and subtropics. Again, why does the roaster own the business? Shouldn’t the roaster go into partnership with the growers, not just pay them enough to live and work? I realize this isn’t how our capitalist society operates, but global community serves as a main bullet point in third wave coffee. So if our coffee reflects a global community, the growers should be just as important in the business as the CEO.

And speaking of the Global community.

When people started using the term first, second, and third wave coffee – it really bugged me. People have been drinking coffee for thousands of years – and there’s way more than three waves of coffee. There’s probably several dozen waves of coffee.

This brings me to my point – the whole “first, second, third, and fourth wave of coffee” is extremely American-centric. Again, third wave coffee is supposed to be about global community. Yet they chose a term to describe their “movement” that totally ignores the global coffee, focusing only on America. Wow. Just wow.

What about the next wave of coffee?

The next wave of coffee is not a thing yet. There’s plenty of pie in the sky theorists, that say it’s even going to be more globally centric, and even more people centric. That’s nice and I’m not against it – but I theorize there’s going to be more of a back to basics approach to coffee.

Look, if you pull up different brewing methods, you’ll find a bunch of complex steps to brewing the perfect cup of coffee. And oh the choices! We can use so many different methods! While I’m not against this – I’ll be honest, the complexity of brewing the perfect cup of coffee overwhelms me. Especially on that first cup in the morning. The last thing I want to do is boil the perfect amount of water, and go through a checklist of a million different steps just to get the best coffee – I just want to brew and go. I have a pretty decent espresso maker at home – not high end, but decent. I put my coffee in and pull my shots. Done. Again – it’s freaking morning, and I don’t want complexity.

I suspect this is how most people feel about all these amazing brewing methods. I suspect this is why the Keurig machine is so popular. It’s simple and it makes semi decent coffee. Simple really does win out, especially in the morning funk.

But what about the quality?

I want simple, but I also want quality. Like I said, my espresso machine makes ok shots, but not the best. The Keurig machine makes ok coffee, but not the best coffee. We need something different – something convenient, but something that makes better coffee. I have no idea what this looks like – maybe an automatic french press or something. Whatever the solution, we need to find it. Like yesterday, ok?

As far as coffee shops go – enough with the espresso experimentation guys! I’m a man who loves his shots, and damn – everytime I see a barista use a light roast for espresso, I die a little inside. I want better espresso from coffee shops. Period. There’s only a couple shops I know of any more that will give me consistently good shots, and I live in a coffee drinking city.

So give us a marriage of simplicity and quality – and again – stop messing with my damn espresso shots! Seriously.

What about the future of the Global community?

The other aspect I want to see in next wave coffee – well – I already said it. Let’s not call it fourth wave first of all. Let’s call it something like “The Global Coffee Movement.” Let’s move away from the American Centric “wave” of coffee. Besides – if you move away from the wave model, you don’t have to include what people are doing in their kitchens (like the environmental atrocity that is the Keurig).

So, roasters, how about this: give the coffee growers not just a fair cut, but start including them in your business. Give them stock options. Maybe even let the growers buy into your business if they have the money. You would be nothing without the growers and their beans, and there’s a million other roasters out there. Just remember that. Ok – I guess I DO want the fourth wave, err global coffee movement to involve people.

Final Thoughts.

Look – if you’re a coffee snob, you’re probably mad at me and about to write a comment on how I’m wrong. How dare I say that the Keurig is third wave! How dare I talk against third wave coffee altogether! You have to admit though, even if you don’t agree with every point I make – some of my points are valid. Coffee needs to be less american centric. Coffee should also be decent and simple. Focus on those aspects, dammit! Coffee is good. Coffee can be prepared a million different ways. In fact there’s no correct way of brewing coffee. I really do admire the fact that you, oh beloved coffee snobs, really want to pay the growers what they’re worth – you’ve paved the way for further change. Yet, there’s still much more change that needs to happen in grower and roaster relations.

Oh – and again I say, stop messing with my espresso shots. Seriously!

Third Wave Coffee never had anything on my espresso.
Mmmmm……look at that crema!

I'm Aaron, and I am the owner of this site.