We’ve all been told that coffee’s self-fabricated Third Wave has brought many improvements and options to our enjoyment of coffee. Whether you subscribe to this wave theory or not, quality coffee has experienced an unmistakable renaissance over the past decade or two.

Chicago's Logan Square got literal with itOf course, the same could be said for olives, olive oil, vinegar, cheese, pork, cured meats, beer, scotch, tea, chocolate, and even salt — even if these examples are all technically “waveless” (we prefer wave-free). And although we’ve been encouraged by the state of quality coffee in recent years, we’ve also been thinking about how limiting and confining this so-called Third Wave has been by engendering its own copy-cat behaviors.

Many of these confinements may not seem obvious today, because we’re still momentarily dazzled by the novelty. But if you subscribe to a wave theory of coffee, just what will future waves have to say about where we are today? This post is the first installment in a series of three on this subject.

Why Waves?

Before we explain the shortcomings of the current wave, first a moment to explain why we find this whole wave business dubious to begin with. The moment you declare yourself in some sort of wave is the moment you’ve dated yourself. This has been true whether you’re a drummer for Blondie, a director of French cinema, or a writer of science fiction.

I'm thinking it's Decaf Noir time...Having grown (groan?) tired of the contrived generational analogies in music, cinema, and the Web, we’ve always felt that a term like Third Wave represented a sort of self-ordained self-importance combined with an aching desire to always live in interesting times — even if it means building an unwavering belief, a benign form of mass hysteria, that your own times are more interesting than they actually are.

History is littered with political and sociological examples of this. It’s no coincidence that many of these examples, including coffee’s Third Wave, originated among younger people convinced they had discovered something the world had never experienced before — mistaking naïvité and newbie-ism for enlightenment and wisdom. (In speaking with impressionable college students who wax poetic upon just discovering Ayn Rand and Objectivism, I’ve personally lost count of how many eye rolls I’ve had to restrain over the years.)

Many coffee veterans shake their heads, thinking, “If only they knew how often these industry changes come and go.” Many of coffee’s Young Turks shake their heads, thinking, “Forget that old guy — he’s not very Third Wave.”

We refute the idea of waves simply because coffee quality has been an evolutionary, and not revolutionary, process. Claims of “revolution” largely come from those newest to the business who have the least amount of context, and coffee has too many centuries of history to suddenly favor a more myopic viewpoint.

A Necessary Twilight for Third Wave Coffee Fads

Make mine a shot of Brasil Chapadão de Ferro-Microlot 494But waves or no waves, quality coffee is currently mired in industry fads that, in due time, will seem at least as antiquated and primitive as some of the coffee drinking fads we can look back upon today — things like percolators, instant coffee, “charcoal” roasts, flavored coffees, etc.

In our next installment, we’ll examine some of Third Wave coffee’s biggest qualitative fads — and why we must get past these fads for accessible quality coffee to continue to evolve:

  • Single-origin coffees
  • Medium roasts
  • The heavy-handed use of cuppings

And for the last post in our series, we’ll controversially cover the impact of some of its major social fads and how these, too, are holding back quality coffee’s evolution:

  • The focus on baristas
  • The role of coffee geeks


Links to other parts of the series: