As a specialty coffee trader, 32cup is surfing along the mighty tide of the Third Wave of Coffee. Of course, we are not literally surfing a fragrant flood of joe, but what do people mean when speaking of “the Three Waves of Coffee”?

The term “Third Wave of Coffee” was first coined in 2002 by Trish Skeie, describing the current movement to produce high-quality coffee and a shift in mentality. Since then, this particular division in time waves has been used all over the world, but one should realize that Skeie’s description is merely relevant for the USA. Europe, for example, sees an entirely different evolution. In the New World, the Boston Tea Party (1773) quickly transformed coffee consumption into an act of patriotism, and coffee became the national drink of a young nation. European coffee culture, on the other hand, has seen a gradual development from a traditional, colonially-inspired import pattern towards the individualization and globalization around the new millennium. We will take a look on how the Waves developed quite differently on the two continents.

The American Waves

In 2008, Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold described the (American) First Wave as the 19th-century surge that put coffee on every American table. Technological developments like vacuum packaging led to the mass consumption and long distance distribution of roasted coffee. The emphasis was on low prizes, rather than on quality or taste. Doing so, this First Wave managed to put (very mediocre) coffee in every office and on every breakfast table in the USA.

The Second Wave is believed to have started in the 1960’s with the upswing of fast-coffee bars. The business evolved into the direction of higher quality beans, darker roasts and the enjoyment instead of mere consumption of coffee. Furthermore, Robusta beans were replaced with the more favorable Arabicas. However, the focus remained on mass consumption and the international coffee market, leaving a lot to wish for on the quality level.

That’s where the Third Wave comes in, starting in the 1990’s. One might say that this is the era of the ‘geekification’ of coffee, generating new scientific approaches of brewing methods, bean preservation, roasting intensity, etc. The focal point is not only on quality, but also on traceability and ‘originality’ of the beans. Coffees are no longer sourced from countries, but rather from specific farms, growing regions and washing stations. The coffee bean is considered to be a specialized, artisanal food item instead of just another commodity.

The European Waves

In the Old Continent, the First Wave meant – like in the USA – the marketing of affordable coffee for all. However, as far as flavor and quality goes, the coffees on offer were always ‘locally inspired’. Every region in Europe had a particular traditional taste profile, which was very dominant during the First Wave. In Scandinavia, people enjoyed a lighter roast and a higher acidity than in France or Italy, where coffee beans were roasted darker. In the North, filter coffees had always been in fashion, while Robusta beans and espresso’s ruled the South. Even in a country as small as Belgium, every region had different preferences. These taste differences throughout Europe was often influenced by the colonial history of the respective countries. The Netherlands imported their beans mainly from Indonesia, Belgium from Central Africa, Portugal from Angola and Brazil, Spain from South America, etc.

This continued for a long time, until recently (around 2000) the Second European Wave arrived. In contrast to the father-to-son coffee habits that had reigned Europe for centuries, this revolution was all about the individualization of taste. Albeit the obvious quality impairments, ‘quick fix’ coffee machines made it possible for people to make individual cups of coffee at a cheap prize. No longer did households have to make a large pot of (filter) coffee in the morning to supply the family for the day. Now, every person could decide for himself which taste variety they liked. This opened the door for young people to discover and personalize coffee. And while the run-of-the-mill coffee pod (or pad) machines were rather cheap, other companies aimed for the high-end market and installed a different standard. Capsule-based brewing machines offered better quality, more options, a fancier image and most importantly: coffee in the form of espresso, which was still largely unknown to this new generation. Logical next step for these youngsters: a proper espresso machine and quality beans to fill it with.

And it’s this passionate new generation that kick-started the Third European Wave of Coffee we are witnessing now. Since a couple of years, the coffee consumers have widened their scope and have become conscious about their own preferences and dislikes. Therefore, the choice lies no longer solely with the roasters. The Third Wave consumer knows which origins he likes, what he likes about them, and where he can get them. Specialty coffee shops sprouted from the ground in all the major cities, creating a new buzz around the age-old product. And since this evolution that takes place all over Europe, the old boundaries and strict flavor regions are fading rapidly. The globalization of the quality coffee is typical of this era (not only in coffee, of course), and therefore the main trait of the Third Wave. Ironically, in Western Europe, fast-coffee multinationals surf on this Third Wave as well. Starbucks, for example, only arrived in Europe in 2002 (the Netherlands and Belgium even had to wait until 2007 and 2008 respectively) and is experiencing fierce competition of the small, artisanal roasters and authentic coffee shops.

The Global Third Wave of Coffee

Viewing the Third Wave on a global scale, we can’t help but notice that this new mentality has stimulated a lot of improvements in all the production stages from tree to cup. Bean growing, harvesting, processing, trading, shipping, roasting and brewing were all put under scrutiny, making the relationships between producers, traders and roasters grow tighter and more transparent than ever. And in that context, certification has conquered its place in the Third Wave as well. Supporting different certification organizations (Fair Trade, Organic, etc.), the consumers have urged the industry to follow their lead. But still, reality shows us that the pursuit of quality coffee often leads to the same results. Indeed, instead of relying on expensive certification from third-party middlemen, many independent roasters believe more in buying directly from the sources. Often they pay higher market prices for the beans than the chains, letting the quality speak for itself and trusting that a long-term relationship with the growers will in effect practice what many certification organizations preach.

This reworking of the global supply chain also enlightened our company. We too put quality first, yet support producers that are growing in a sustainable and structured environment, regardless of being certified. Our new Rwanda’s, for example, originate from Washing Stations that are supported by TechnoServe, an organization that provides practical solutions to poverty in developing countries but are nowhere to be found in other certifiers’ catalogues.

Anyhow, closer to the consumer side, it’s clear that the roasters are back on track and fueling the revolution. It is unlikely that the Third Wave roasters will grow to the same size as the fast-coffee chains, but neither is that what they’re aiming for. For the contemporary, small roasters, the main goal every day is to make a top coffee and to invite people to join an amazing coffee experience. And to make sure that every town has that one café that, even if it doesn’t buy its coffee beans from specialty farms itself, at least it can buy them from someone who does. And we are pleased we can help them accomplish that.

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Sofie Nys Sofie Nys

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