Third Wave Coffee Roasters: Who They Are and What They Do

Illustrated cover image for article by Office Libations about Third Wave Coffee Roasters

Coffee is more than just drinking– it’s a culture and experience. It involves everything related to the art form, including harvesting, roasting, and brewing the perfect cup

We often come across the phrase “third wave coffee” in coffee shops or online. But what does it actually mean? How is it different to specialty coffee? And what’s this about the first and second waves?

You’ll hear different explanations everywhere you go. In many ways, third wave coffee is the glorious geekification of coffee. It is a movement to produce high-quality coffee and a way of appreciating it. It’s about the coffee we’re drinking and the way we think about it.

Third wave coffee does not accept old traditional ways of growing coffee or making coffee. Instead, it focuses on the art of brewing and the ethics behind their supply sources.

Brief History Of Third Wave Coffee

Third wave means a first wave and a second wave exist, right??! 

YES! 

First wave coffee was defined by the introduction of instant-coffee, somewhere around the 1940s. Its theory was making coffee widely available to everyone, with the sacrifice of quality. (Coffee to consume)

Second wave coffee is typically understood to have started with Peet’s Coffee and seen its peak with Starbucks in the 1990s. It is defined as the movement to high quality beans, espresso based drinks and darker roasts. As people wanted to fix the loop that the first wave created, the second wave was developed for the improvement in the quality of the coffee. (Coffee To Enjoy)

Third wave arose in the 2000s in the U.S, as some neighborhood coffee owners believed the coffee Starbucks and Peet offered could not meet the quality they demanded. (Starbucks tended to roast their beans towards the darker side). 

On the other hand, they had to find a way to compete with Starbucks, therefore they had to make their coffee better. That was the third wave, which still focused on the quality of coffee, but in a different way.

It was “from farm to cup” theory, which started from the origin of the beans, the work of the whole production chain consisted of farmers, exporters, producers, roasters, and baristas. Third wave provided a more sustainable livelihood to farmers. As a result, third wave people focused more on single-origin beans, with a lighter roast, brewed using different devices.  (Coffee to appreciate)

What Sets Third Wave Coffee Apart?

Image of third wave coffee roasting process
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

So if you still don’t know what the heck third wave coffee is, here are the key features you need to know:

  • Third wave coffee aspires to the highest form of culinary appreciation of coffee, so that one may appreciate subtleties of flavor, varietal, and growing region.
  • Third wave coffee is a response to both the darker roasts and the more mass-produced brewed coffee and espresso drinks.  Beans are also sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean, hard, and pure. 
  • On the roast side, new roasters felt that a lighter roast better shows off the true coffee flavors as opposed to only the flavors created by roasting. It means that the third wave beans are much lighter.
  • On the brewed coffee side, third wave roasters are trying out many new brewing methods to best extract the flavors from their beans.  These can include pour-over (of many different varieties), french press, aero press, siphon, etc.  
  • On the espresso side, third wave roasters are pulling a much sweeter, thicker shot of espresso that some more traditional-minded folks would scoff at. These shots are almost always double ristrettos (around 20g of espresso per shot as opposed to the previous norm of around 9g.) 
  • Third Wave cafés usually have a layout that allows customers to watch baristas prepare their drink. Third Wave baristas also do more than just prepare coffee as ordered. Their roles share some similarities to that of a wine sommelier, they blend and brew according to their own opinion and experience to bring the best out of their beans. 
  • Globally, third wave coffee can be seen as part of the specialty coffee movement. Third wave baristas also pride themselves with steaming milk to perfect pourable microfoam. They prove the perfection through the latte art they can create even on a diminutive macchiato.

All in all, The third wave is all about making the consumer feel special. Part of that is customer service, but another part is sharing the story behind the cup. This story is one created by producers, importers, roasters, and baristas. It explains why a specific coffee is distinctive, why a consumer can taste certain notes, and why high-quality coffee takes so much work.

Who Are The Third Wave Coffee Roasters and What Do They Do?

Image of coffee roasting by third wave coffee roaster
Photo by Yanapi Senaud on Unsplash

Specifically, some people believe a good cup of coffee does not simply lay in the hands of the farmers and producers. It was also the roasters’ work in producing a good cup of coffee.  

Like any food stuff with so much complexity in flavor, provenance, and preparation methods, there is endless room for experimentation and Third Wave roasters are searching for that elusive perfect cup of joe. 

Third wave coffee roasters bring their own unique background, history, and skillset to the beans they serve, making each brew a little different from the next. 

Therefore, compared to previous waves, third wave roasters are going even further on coffee quality by focusing on the cultivation, processing, and storing of beans. Any good third wave coffee roasters will carefully match grind, dosing, water temperature, etc. to match the equipment and present the coffee in a visually appealing manner.

This new wave of coffee roasters seems a direct response to the Frappuccino world of Starbucks. From baristas to roasters, people associated with these cafes and roasting facilities seem obsessed with the craft and art of making the perfect cup of coffee. 

Lastly, operators of third wave coffee shops deal only with fair trade coffee, sourcing beans directly from farmers or agricultural communities instead of middleman merchants. In sourcing directly, it ensures that the farmers themselves are duly compensated for their labor instead of being forced to split their income with a third-party reseller.

So yes, third wave coffee roasters focus more than just about making great coffee, it involves culture and experience.

Bay Area Third Wave Coffee Roasters

The Bay Area has been at the epicenter of coffee roasting in the United States for over 160 years. As of writing, the top names (largest) in third wave coffee in America are Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea in Chicago, Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Oregon, and Counter Culture Coffee in North Carolina. On the local front, we have a number of brands that adequately fit the bill. Listed below are some of our favorites.

Verve Coffee Roasters

Image of coffee from Verve Coffee Roasters

One of the leaders in the third wave coffee movement, Verve is transforming coffee drinking into an extraordinary daily ritual. Verve totally lives up to all expectations– Great coffee, friendly staff and beautiful design in one. They believe that the coffee experience is their responsibility from seed to cup. They are bridging the gap from the farm level to street level.

Ritual Coffee Roasters 

Image of coffee produced by Ritual Coffee Roasters

Ritual Coffee Roasters started the coffee revolution in San Francisco. Their goal is to craft the very best cup of coffee available anywhere. To this day, their careful process is unchanged and seek to continue changing people’s lives through coffee. Its reputation is also built on flavorful beans and inclusive environments. 

Four Barrel

Image of coffee from Four Barrel Coffee

Four Barrel is an independent, locally-owned coffee roastery. They are definitely a favorite and one of the best in California, and they have die-hard, dedicated customers. They take coffee very seriously, from the process of choosing the right beans to roast. The team’s roasting style highlights the best qualities of each bean so that we can enjoy a great cup every time.

Highwire Coffee Roasters

Image of coffee from Highwire Coffee Roasters

With four locations all across the Bay Area, and many more cafes serving their beans, you’ve most likely seen Highwire’s striking packaging while in search of your morning cup. Highwire believes a coffee business can be a force for good. That means doing things that align with their values—including working with farmers and importers that they have close, trusting relationships with, honoring craft, promoting sustainability, providing pleasure, innovating, and connecting with their community.

Sightglass

Image of coffee from Sightglass coffee roasters

Sightglass coffee is produced locally in San Francisco and is served at some of our favorite local coffee shops. A “sightglass” is the window on the face of a coffee bean roaster that shows what’s going on inside the machine. 

Justin and Jerad Morrison named their now-5-year-old coffee operation after this obscure roasting term because they wanted to build an open-plan cafe where customers would be exposed to every step of the coffee process, from roasting and packaging beans to brewing and pouring cups.

Bicycle Coffee

Image of CBD coffee, water, mate, hibiscus, and cold brew coffee from Bicycle Coffee

Bicycle Coffee has the type of over-the-top scrappy origin story that makes it distinctly Bay Area. 

The roastery takes its name from their delivery method. All orders are delivered via bicycle, with the bags of coffee stacked into small trailers specially designed for the task.

They explain that relationships expand to everyone who walks through the door of each Bicycle location—either via a simple conversation while the coffee is brewed or through offering free cups of coffee every Friday. Also, everything is sustainable– their cups, utensils, and stirrers are all recyclable and compostable.

Addictive Coffee Roasters

Image of coffee from Addictive Coffee Roasters

Another favorite among coffee enthusiasts, Addictive Coffee is all about powering healthy obsessions through their coffee. Their team scours the globe for the most flavor-forward and high-quality harvests—always sustainably grown and ethically sourced. They have a passion for sourcing the highest quality arabica specialty coffees from countries like Ethiopia, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Sumatra, and others – then presenting blends and single-origins with quality and variety.

Summary

Coffee, in general, has evolved, from the humble instant coffee we drink with our breakfast, to designer drinks crafted in most well-known cafés. 

Being huge coffee buffs, we love trying different kinds of coffee. We are taking a step back and embracing a more carefully-curated cup. Enter third wave coffee.

Third wave coffee is a movement that aims to promote high-quality coffee by improving every step of the process, from growing the coffee plant to brewing. Third wave coffee roasters pay attention to where the beans are sourced, how farmers grow them, and how they’re roasted. They take coffee very seriously, latte art included.

However you define it, we believe we are lucky to be witnesses of the industry’s evolution. With an increased focus on production and quality, it’s leading to fairer, better coffee that benefits all parts of the coffee supply chain.

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