What Is Specialty Coffee? Learn About Third Wave Coffee & How To Spot It (2023)

You have no doubt heard the term, but what is specialty coffee exactly? And how does the third wave coffee movement fit into this picture?

Coffee lovers worldwide have never had this much access to amazing coffee shops and roasters, and the popularity of high quality coffee is only growing. The entire process of this coffee movement, from the coffee farms to the artisan roasters, is more thoughtful than ever before.

What Is Specialty Coffee? Learn About Third Wave Coffee & How To Spot It (1)

So let’s explore what specialty/third wave coffee is and how it manages to provide you with such delicious coffee!

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Table Of Contents: hide

1.What Is Specialty Coffee? Here’s the 101

2.The Coffee Supply Chain

4.Best Third Wave Coffee Brands

5.Common Questions About Specialty Coffee

6.Final Thoughts

What Is Specialty Coffee? Here’s the 101

Erna Knutsen first used the term specialty coffee in 1974 to describe the type of coffee that came from specialized climates and had the best flavor. Today, it refers to coffee that has the highest quality at every stage of production, and it usually refers to single origin coffee, which is coffee that comes from the same geographic region.

The majority of coffee you will find in North America—for example, at gas stations and restaurants—is not specialty quality. But the growing popularity of artisan cafes in North America over the last 20 years shows how popular this specialty wave of coffee has become.

What Is the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA)?

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) is a trade association that helps set the standards for what constitutes specialty coffee. They score coffee on a 100-point scale that accounts for many standards along the coffee production chain including:

  • Allowable defects in beans
  • Selective hand-picking at coffee cherry’s maturity
  • Water standards
  • Brew strength

In addition to setting and raising these standards, the SCA also aims to connect the coffee industry worldwide and embrace a fair and sustainable approach to this wave of coffee. They host an annual event called the Specialty Coffee Expo where professionals and enthusiasts can gather to connect and learn.

What Is the Third Wave Coffee Movement?

As a gesture toward the multiple waves of social movements, third wave coffee refers to the third major shift in how our culture approached coffee. The wave began with specialty coffee’s advent in the 1970s, but Timothy Castle first used the term in 1999. Coffee professional Trish Rothgeb also used it in a 2003 article.

The first wave of coffee in the United States would be the initial popularity of coffee in the culture, with an emphasis on affordable prices and consistent taste. Canned coffee at the grocery store and diner coffee all fit into this first wave.

The second wave dates to the 1960s and began in conjunction with famous coffee companies like Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks. With this wave, people began paying attention to a coffee’s origin and flavor profiles. High altitude arabica coffee from the tropical zones became the most popular.

Lastly, the third wave of coffee (specialty coffee) involves companies like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture Coffee. By the 2000s, the third coffee wave was in full effect with more and more shops opening. The emphasis is on sourcing from specific farms and choosing light roasts that bring out a bean’s unique tasting notes.

Is Starbucks Third Wave Coffee?

What Is Specialty Coffee? Learn About Third Wave Coffee & How To Spot It (2)

While many people associate Starbucks with fancy coffee, Starbucks is not part of the third wave coffee movement. Starbucks is instead one of the primary driving forces behind the second wave of coffee during the 1960s and 1970s, along with other big names like Peet’s Coffee.

But there are a select few specialty cafes that Starbucks started in 2014 that target the specialty movement.

So while the standard Starbucks cafes that you see in every airport and shopping mall are not specialty coffee, the company does have special shops to target the growing popularity of third wave specialty coffee.

The Coffee Supply Chain

Everyone in the supply chain of quality coffee has to do their part to make the finished product delicious, and any slight error can ruin the delicate flavor. So let’s explore the journey your coffee takes from being the seed of a plant to your morning brew.

Coffee Farm

No matter your barista skills, you cannot make amazing coffee without the hard work and dedication of coffee farmers. It is easy to forget that a coffee bean is the seed of a fruit, the coffee cherry. And all of the details behind growing the coffee plant—the soil, temperature, elevation, harvest time, etc—affect the final product.

A coffee producer is often part of a family that has spent generations perfecting the craft of growing and processing coffee. To avoid low-quality and defective beans, they sometimes nurse a coffee plant for years before harvesting. And when quality is more important than profits, sustainability also goes up.

Green Coffee Buyers

The person who buys green coffee beans, or unroasted coffee, has to have a sensitive palate to decide which ones are the highest quality. Through a process called cupping, these buyers decide if coffee is specialty grade and provide subtle tasting notes to help roasters understand the bean. They may even pass on roasting suggestions and other information to the cafés and roasters that buy through them.

What Is Specialty Coffee? Learn About Third Wave Coffee & How To Spot It (3)

The Roasters

Next in the chain is the specialty coffee roaster, who transforms the bean from its unusable green form to the heavenly smell and flavor of roasted coffee. Skilled roasters experiment with specialty coffee beans until they find the roast profile that best captures the unique flavors of that bean. By roasting in a small batch with utmost control over the details, the quality can be consistent from batch to batch.

Skilled roasters will even alter their roasting profiles depending on the brewing method they plan to recommend for a particular bean.

The Coffee Shop and Barista

After roasting, the next crucial step towards delicious coffee is brewing it correctly, which includes details of grind size, water chemistry/temperature, the ratio of water to coffee, and many other details. A specialty coffee shop with an expensive espresso machine dials in their coffee each day to make sure the taste is up to standard.

The SCA has a certification for baristas that many shops require. But even without that certification, a specialty barista knows all about the coffee’s origins and flavor profiles. They pay attention to all of the brewing details so that they can extract the best flavor possible.

The Consumer

Last, but not least, is you, the coffee consumer. By caring enough to seek out specialized beans and brewing, you help sustain the third wave coffee industry and promote access to delicious coffee. And since specialty coffee also promotes fairness and sustainability, you also improve the lives of people throughout the coffee supply chain.

Specialty Beans and Roasts

Since you are probably not going to any coffee farms and grading beans yourself, let’s explore some of the basic characteristics of bean type and roast level that most specialty coffee has.

Arabica vs Robusta Beans

There are thousands of species of plants in the Rubiaceae family of plants to which coffee belongs, but Arabica and Robusta are the two species whose seeds we drink. Of these two species, Arabica has more complex tasting notes with a smooth balance of sweetness and body. Robusta beans tend to have a harsh and bitter flavor.

Third wave specialty coffee uses Arabica beans because of the better flavor, and these plants require tropical climates and high elevation to grow.

Roast Levels

Roasting coffee is a science and an art, with so many crucial details like temperature curves and time. The most relevant detail for the consumer is the roast level, which ranges from light to dark. Lightly roasted coffee brings out subtle flavors and delicate acidity, while dark roasts will cook away those tasting notes and replace them with a roasting flavor (nutty, burnt, etc).

What Is Specialty Coffee? Learn About Third Wave Coffee & How To Spot It (4)

That is why a specialty coffee bean generally tastes best at lighter roasts. Specialty coffees are rarely roasted to a dark level, although you can occasionally find blends that push into the dark category.

Blends vs Single Origin

Most coffee people have worldwide is a blend—beans combined from several sources to make a balanced flavor profile. But the specialty coffee industry puts a lot of emphasis on single origin beans, or beans that come from the same harvest. Beans from one origin allow you to appreciate the subtleties of a single coffee variety, and you can even notice how it changes from year to year.

But blends are also common amongst third wave coffee roasters, especially espresso blends.

Best Third Wave Coffee Brands

This is by no means a complete breakdown of the best specialty coffee brands as many companies operate on a smaller scale in their local communities. Luckily, even these small roasters often offer an online coffee subscription that delivers freshly roasted coffee in the mail.

But in terms of pure size, some of the biggest and best third wave brands include:

And some of our favorite roasters, those that we regularly order beans from online, include:

Common Questions About Specialty Coffee

Now that you have a better idea of this coffee movement, let’s finish by answering a few of the most commonly asked questions on this topic.

Who coined the term specialty coffee?

Erna Knutsen originally coined the term specialty coffee in 1974 as a way to talk about a growing movement to source coffee from specific climates and farms with an emphasis on capturing the best flavor possible.

When did specialty coffee start?

The third wave of coffee began in more subtle ways during the 1970s, but specialty coffee particularly took off with the popularity of companies like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture Coffee. Today, artisan cafes are popular across North America and the world.

Why is specialty coffee special?

Specialty coffee starts with green beans that have a high rating and remains special so long as everyone along the coffee production chain—roasting, brewing, etc—follows proper protocols that bring out the best flavors possible.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this article has inspired you to join the third wave coffee movement and make excellent coffee a daily experience for you. Instead of buying the standard coffee grounds at the grocery store, you can buy special beans from specific farms and grow to appreciate the subtle tasting notes from different coffees.

And remember that at the end of the day, specialty coffee is not about being a snob—it is just a reminder that everyone should try to make the best coffee they can!

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What Is Specialty Coffee? Learn About Third Wave Coffee & How To Spot It? ›

Coffees that score 60 points or above are considered commercial-grade; at 80 points or above, they are graded as “specialty”. These exceptional coffees are often the product of specific microclimates and soils, production practices, and careful processing (the removal of the coffee cherry flesh from the beans).

What is third wave specialty coffee? ›

Third-wave coffee is a movement in coffee marketing emphasizing high quality. Beans are typically sourced from individual farms and are roasted more lightly to bring out their distinctive flavors. Though the term was coined in 1999, the approach originates in the 1970s, with roasters such as the Coffee Connection.

What is third wave coffee and how is it different to specialty? ›

Third Wave coffee is more complex, less bitter, and has more flavor than specialty coffee. This means the flavors are more pronounced, and the acidity level is lower. It has an immaculate taste, which makes it perfect for coffee drinkers who don't like the taste of black coffee.

What are the 3 waves of coffee in the correct order? ›

What are the waves of coffee?
  • 1st Wave (1800s): Coffee becomes a commodity, its consumption grows exponentially.
  • 2nd Wave(1970): American coffee giant Starbucks transforms coffee culture.
  • 3rd Wave(2000s): Coffee starts being purchased based on its production origin and its methods of production.
Jun 21, 2019

What defines specialty coffee? ›

Speciality coffee is defined as any coffee that scores above 80 points on a 100 point scale. Typically, speciality coffee is grown at high altitudes, with much care and attention from the farmer. From there, it is sold at a premium to coffee traders, or direct to roasters.

Why do people like third wave coffee? ›

Third Wave coffee is a movement toward higher-quality coffee, positive relationships with the farmers, and a better understanding of the story behind the cup. Third Wave Coffee uses specialty coffee, which is high-quality coffee beans that rate 80 points or higher on a 100-point scale.

Who is the owner of Third Wave Coffee? ›

Third Wave Coffee was founded by Ayush Bathwal, Anirudh Sharma and Sushant Goel.

Why is it called Third Wave coffee? ›

The name Third Wave Coffee takes its inspiration from the "Third Wave Movement" that began in the US during the 1990s. It was a movement that changed how coffee was brewed by focusing on high-quality and single-origin beans.

What does 3rd wave mean? ›

Third wave may refer to: Third-wave feminism, diverse strains of feminist activity in the early 1990s. Third wave ska, a musical genre. Third Wave of the Holy Spirit, a 1980s expression coined by C. Peter Wagner for a Neocharismatic Christian movement.

What is the difference between regular coffee and specialty coffee? ›

Specialty Coffee - Is the opposite of commercial coffee and very big on QUALITY (Yes! Big caps). Consumers are willing to pay a premium price for these coffees which are usually grown in unique microclimates and have a distinct and unique flavour profiles.

How do you use third wave coffee? ›

  1. Grind 17 grams of coffee. ...
  2. While the water is heating up, wet the filter after placing it on the dripper to remove any papery taste that might be there.
  3. Throw away the water drained from the pre-wetting of the filter, and add the coffee to it, nudging it to flatten out the surface.
  4. There are 3 pours in total.

What is the difference between first wave and third wave coffee shops? ›

The coffee waves refer to defining changes in coffee culture over the years. The first wave is characterized by mass-produced coffee, while the second wave saw a shift from quantity to quality. The third wave gave rise to specialty coffee and the push for fair trade.

Is third wave coffee worth it? ›

Some people may not be willing to pay more for the third Wave because they are unfamiliar with the term or the difference in quality. Others may feel that the higher prices are not worth it for a cup of coffee. However, most people who have tried it agree it is worth the extra money.

What is the difference between 1st 2nd and 3rd wave coffee? ›

In a simple sense, the three waves of coffee represent how accessible or appreciated coffee was at certain points in time: the first wave represents the shift from novelty to commodity, the second wave represents a shift from commodity to culture, and the third wave represents a shift from culture to consumer awareness ...

What is first wave vs third wave coffee? ›

The coffee waves refer to defining changes in coffee culture over the years. The first wave is characterized by mass-produced coffee, while the second wave saw a shift from quantity to quality. The third wave gave rise to specialty coffee and the push for fair trade.

What is the fourth wave of specialty coffee? ›

Fourth wave coffee is a marriage between stellar coffee products and truly worthwhile social consciousness. It relies on sourcing only the highest-quality beans in small batches for a truly artisanal coffee experience.

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