1st, 2nd, 3rd Wave Coffee: What’s the Difference?

Most people with anything more than a slight interest in coffee will surely have heard the term “Third Wave” – but what does it refer to? And when did the First Wave and Second Wave happen? Did we miss them?

If you’ve ever been perplexed by confusing coffee culture jargon or wondered about First, Second and Third Wave coffee, please read on. We have the answers to enlighten you.

The start of the First Wave Coffee

The start of the First Wave Coffee
Image: Lucky Belly

By the 19th century, coffee consumption in the United States was experiencing a burst of growth. However, it was still a relatively expensive commodity that was still seen as something of a luxury. At this early stage, coffee was usually distributed in small quantities by independent local roasters (1).

The “First Wave” of coffee in the US began as the product became more widely available across the country and in ever more convenient forms. This development was enabled by some significant technological advances.

One of the first was vacuum packing. In 1900, the Hills Brothers developed a new technique for removing air from packs of coffee, meaning the beans would stay fresh for much longer (2).

The Hill’s Brothers’ invention spelled the end for local roasters as vacuum-packed coffee beans proliferated in grocery stores across the country.

Another novelty that appeared from 1903 was instant coffee, the invention of a Japanese-American named Sori Kato.

Until that point, quite aside from the difficulty of procuring quality beans, making coffee took time. First, you needed to grind the coffee, then you needed to wait for it to brew; people increasingly didn’t have the patience for this long process – and instant coffee filled the gap.

Instant coffee was a perfect fit for the America of the early 20th century. In an increasingly fast-paced world, the convenience and modern image of this new concept had obvious appeal. By the 1970s, a third of all coffee consumed in the US was instant.

Folgers and Maxwell House

One company destined to become synonymous with the First Wave in the US was Folgers (3).

In the mid-1800s, a young boy named James Folger found work at the Pioneer Coffee and Spice Mill in San Francisco. In the years that followed, he rose to become a partner, eventually buying the entire business and renaming it J.A. Folger and Co.

After his death, his son continued to expand the family business, and from the beginning of the twentieth century, the company was perfectly placed to benefit from the increased demand for the product. Folgers became a household name and their coffee went on to become the best-selling coffee in the US.

At around the same time, another giant of the coffee industry was making its name. Maxwell House – using the slogan “good to the last drop”, supposedly the words of President Roosevelt after tasting a cup – was busy becoming another of the best-known coffee brands in the country (4).

Check out their 1950s advertising:

The successes of Folgers and Maxwell House in many ways represent the culmination of the First Wave. Coffee went from being a drink for the richer classes to being something found in almost every home across the country.

The problem was that much of the coffee being sold, either fresh or instant, was of poor quality.

The beginnings of the Second Wave can be seen as a kind of reaction to the bad coffee that most Americans were happily consuming at that time.

The start of the Second Wave Coffee

The start of the Second Wave Coffee
Image: Lucky Belly

If the First Wave was characterized by the increasing availability of coffee, then the Second Wave witnessed a shift towards better quality. Whereas coffee had previously been viewed as a simple, essential commodity, now it started to be seen as a luxury item.

One of the instigators of the Second Wave was Peet’s Coffee and Tea. Alfred Peet was a Dutch immigrant who, on arriving in the US, was appalled by the standard of the coffee Americans consumed (5).

In 1966, Peet opened his first store, selling high-quality, dark-roasted coffee – and the locals were blown away by what they discovered.

Before long, Peet’s had achieved cult status among its dedicated followers – who became known as “Peetniks”. Once people realized that coffee could be a complex, sophisticated beverage to be savored and appreciated, there was no turning back.


The other name inescapably tied to the Second Wave of coffee is Starbucks, and the genesis of the now-ubiquitous coffee behemoth is closely intertwined with the history of Peet’s.

Starbucks was founded in Seattle in 1971 by three friends who had spent a summer working and training in Peet’s original store.

They decided to open their own business selling imported coffee beans, teas and spices; the original Starbucks (which still exists in Seattle’s Pike Place) didn’t serve drinks.

In 1982, the three original founders were joined by Howard Schultz. After a trip to Italy, Schultz became convinced that the future lay in serving drinks and not just selling beans and leaves, and soon he left to start his own company, Il Giornale (6).

What happened next was one of the most important events in the early phase of the Second Wave.

In 1987, Schultz returned to Starbucks to acquire the company, while the original three founders left to take over Peet’s. Under Schultz’s guidance, Starbucks morphed into its modern form, embarking upon its quest for global domination.

Although Starbucks and Peet’s were far from being the only coffee businesses in operation, between them, they encapsulate two of the most important aspects of the Second Wave.

Peet’s was the innovator responsible for raising people’s expectations in terms of quality, while Starbucks represented the idea of the coffee shop as an “experience”, not just a place to drink coffee.

Starbucks famously promote their stores as the “third place” between work and home, somewhere customers can go to relax and spend time with their friends.

Although Starbucks also tried to promote high-quality, specialist coffees, in many ways, the coffee itself became almost incidental. What was important was the social activity of going to the coffee shop.

Starbucks established itself as a global phenomenon through its powerful branding and marketing. If you are in a strange city or country, all you need to do is step into a branch of Starbucks to be transported back to somewhere comfortable and familiar.

However, this homogeneity was also a catalyst that led to the start of the Third Wave.

The Third Wave Coffee

The Third Wave Coffee
Image: Lucky Belly

One of the key moments in the story came in 2002 when Trish Skeie, now Trish Rothgeb, of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, wrote an article in The Flamekeeper explicitly describing the First and Second Waves before going on to outline the concept of a Third Wave.

The first two waves were easy enough to understand. The First wave happened when coffee became more widely available, while the Second Wave concerned improved coffee quality as well as the start of the modern coffee shop experience.

However, over 15 years after this article identifying the three waves of coffee first appeared, the Third Wave is still somewhat elusive and harder to define.

In some ways, it was a reaction to the Starbucks-style coffee shop culture where each branch was a clone of the others, a place where the coffee was uninspiring and only of secondary importance. But the Third Wave was more than just that.

One instructive way to think about it is to consider the relationship the Third Wave has with “specialty coffee”. Some people have seen them as essentially the same, but this is to misunderstand the fundamental principles of the Third Wave.

Specialty coffee

Specialty coffee is something very specific that has been around since the mid-70s, long before the Third Wave began. In the simplest terms, it is a coffee that receives a score of over 80 in cupping tests.

Coffees capable of reaching such exalted scores are grown at specific altitudes in special microclimates. They are painstakingly harvested by hand, are carefully processed to ensure premium quality and, of course, command premium prices at market.

This means that, even as far back as the 1970s, coffee connoisseurs were seeking out and drinking specialist coffees – but that did not make them part of the Third Wave.

The Third Wave seeks to focus on the coffee again, but it is about more than just drinking the best coffee: it is a mindset.

It is about taking an interest in every step in the process, from the type of beans and where they are grown to the method used to process those beans to the final cup served by the highly-skilled barista – and everything in between.

If the Third Wave is a mindset, then we can also talk about Third Wave thinking. It is the whole approach to coffee; it is not just demanding a top-grade, unique beverage, it is how we view that coffee.

The Third Wave is a movement to see coffee in a new way. Without specialty coffees, the movement cannot exist; but specialty coffees already existed before Third Wave ideas appeared.

Comparisons with wine

Comparisons with wine 1
Image: Lucky Belly

A comparison might help explain this more clearly.

The movement was highly influenced by the wine industry. We are all familiar with the concepts of different vineyards, different grapes, and different vintages. When we buy a bottle of wine, even cheap wine, we expect to find all this information and more on the bottle.

A wine connoisseur knows that there are innumerable factors that can affect the end product and that even wine from the same vineyard will not taste the same from one year to the next.

The wine drinker wants to know all the details about the wine to be able to evaluate it. A Third Wave coffee drinker wants the same level of detail.

For example, if you buy regular coffee from the supermarket, you might discover from the packaging that the coffee is from Colombia. You might even be told that the beans are “100% arabica”, but you will be lucky to learn much more about what you are buying.

Yet this is the same as buying a bottle of wine simply labeled “France” or “Italy” with perhaps a perfunctory mention of the type of grape used. This would hardly be satisfactory for a wine connoisseur and nor is it satisfactory for a Third Wave coffee enthusiast.

A Second Wave coffee connoisseur was content to drink a specialty coffee and appreciate the flavors; a Third Wave coffee enthusiast takes an active interest in everything there is to know about how those flavors were produced.

A conscious movement

A conscious movement
Image: Lucky Belly

The Third Wave differs from the First and Second Waves in that the first two were the natural evolution of coffee drinking habits in the United States whereas the Third Wave is a conscious and concerted movement.

With the creation of the Barista Guild of America, there has been a push for the espousal and promotion of Third Wave values.

This means the emphasis is placed on knowing the individual farm where coffee comes from and the growing and processing conditions. This also means ensuring that everyone in the chain is treated fairly and equitably – Third Wave thinking champions Fair-Trade coffee.

Baristas are to be not only experts in preparing the coffee they serve but should also be as knowledgeable about the beans as a sommelier is about the bottles on the wine list.

The Third Wave is also about innovation and experimentation, with new methods of brewing coffee constantly being created, while others continue to be refined.

Ultimately, it is about learning everything there is to know about a coffee and making coffee itself the star of the show.

Just for coffee geeks?

While not everyone is convinced, and some would argue that the Third Wave is simply an esoteric world created by coffee geeks so they can obsessively try to outdo one another with their coffee knowledge, this is undoubtedly the best time in history to be a coffee drinker.

Better coffee is now more widely available than ever, there is more choice than ever, and we know more about the coffee we are drinking and even the health benefits of the beverage – and we have the Third Wave to thank for all of this.

We hope you enjoyed reading about the First, Second and Third Waves of coffee. Are you a “Third Waver”? What are your views? If you have a comment, please let us know as we always love to hear from you. And if you enjoyed the article, please remember to share!

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