In Food + Drink

What Exactly Is ‘Third Wave’ Coffee And How Is Australia Paving The Way?

A deep dive into Specialty Coffee ‘movements’, each with its own set of priorities, philosophies, and contribution to the consumer experience.

Third Wave Coffee. You might have heard the phrase thrown about with your morning cup. Or perhaps you haven’t – while the rest of the coffee-drinking world seems to be going through its ‘Third Wave’ moment right now, Australians continue to slurp down what they’ve always known simply as ‘good coffee’.

What’s the deal with this Third Wave you hear so much about over in Europe and the US? What were the First and Second Waves? And why don’t we hear that much about all this in Australia?

“First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave: this is how I think of contemporary coffee,” wrote Trish Rothgeb, roast master and latter day coffee prophet at San Francisco’s Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters.

In her 2002 article published in the Roasters Guild, Rothgeb conceptualised coffee’s modern evolution: three Specialty Coffee ‘movements’, each with its own set of priorities, philosophies, and contribution to the consumer experience.

Coffee as a “psychic-cultural space”

The First Wave of the early-mid 20th Century had one main priority: mass commodification. Think Folgers, Nescafe, vacuum-sealed packs in every kitchen. Then, from around the start of the ’70s, consumers began to view coffee more as an experience to be enjoyed outside the house. In America, small-time outlets like Peets and Starbucks began to introduce espresso to the bean-loving masses, as terms like ‘drip feed’ and ‘robusta’ cleared the decks for ‘arabica’, ‘crema’, and ‘French press’.

But the most important term born of the Second Wave was ‘Specialty Coffee’ itself: coffee of superior quality that scored at least an 80/100 when graded by a ‘Q grader’, or coffee sommelier.

Much more than a mere commodity, coffee had turned artisanal. When Peets and Starbucks started to become massive powers in the early ’90s, many thought the Second Wave had compromised its artisan charter for the lust of ‘big bean’.

In rolled the Third Wave: “a psychic-cultural space”, to quote coffee rag Sprudge, crashing on the shores of the US, UK, Japan, Australia, NZ and Scandinavia in the form of single-origin espressos and directly sourced bean. Origins, craft, and quality were the new order: an emphasis on sustainability, a tendency towards lighter roasts and subtle flavours. Direct trade with smaller farms allowed independent retailers to communicate the story of each batch to their customers, including the bean’s place of birth, the lives of its harvesters, and every step that helped metamorphose it from green to lusty brown.

“Third Wave coffee is essentially just a greater understanding of coffee,” says Tom Gunn, chief slinger at Melbourne’s bean bastion Proud Mary. “We have come a really long way in coffee – it wasn’t that long ago that baristas were keeping their blends ‘secret’, or essentially, they didn’t know what was in the coffee they were using.”

Australia’s specialty scene

Gunn likens the way we think of coffee today to how we view wine: “The equivalent of where we were with coffee is the same as walking into a bottle shop and seeing ‘French wine’ and ‘Australian wine’ instead of the particular area, vintage and varietal, which is so common now.”

He agrees that Australia’s Specialty scene – like those in Europe, the US and elsewhere – is thriving. Yet unlike those markets, the ‘Third Wave’ expression rarely gets a mention here.

“Third Wave was never as ubiquitous here as it was in the States or in Europe,” says Tuli Keidar of Sydney’s Mecca Coffee. “But there’s no doubt that we fit under the same umbrella: the Australian roasters who first started to roast lighter, import their own beans, market their coffees based on their individual back stories, etc., were directly influenced by pioneer roasters overseas.”

If you ask Dan Yee, co-owner of Artificer Specialty Coffee Bar & Roastery in Sydney’s Surry Hills, ‘Third Wave’ is ‘has-bean’ terminology that few (in the local scene, at least) use – except, perhaps, for marketing types from the larger companies. “Even then, I reckon they realise that term went out with grunge music (which I love) and hotmail accounts (which I still use to this day).”

So the Third Wave most definitely hit our shores, and it’s very much still here: our roasting and brewing methods are at the forefront of Specialty standards worldwide. It’s just that the term itself didn’t really stick.

Outgrowing the ‘Third Wave’ buzzword

The fact is, unlike other societies Australia’s coffee scene had a sophisticated head start. Coffee entrepreneur Peter Baskerville points out that, while the rest of the (non-Mediterranean) world was still downing drip feed in the early ’50s, our palettes were being matured by Australia’s espresso-loving post-War Italian immigrants and their shiny chrome Gaggias. Viewed this way, Australia’s Second Wave came much earlier, spawning a unique coffee culture that, in Gunn’s words, “allowed the Third Wave to come about early, and very, very fast”.

It makes sense, then, that in taking up the Third Wave philosophy and practice so readily, we outgrew the buzzword before anyone else. Given that we’ve been so ahead of the pack in a lot of ways, is it fair to suggest that the rest of the world is still catching up?

Not quite, says Yee: “We may have higher ‘average’ level of coffee at the café level than most places around the world, but as far as everyone catching up to us, no way. “There are some things I feel we do well – for our market. That said, I believe that with most things culinary we are quick to leave the baggage of tradition behind and progress faster than other cultures might.”

“Australia has been hugely influential on the world stage in coffee,” adds Keider, “but not in ways that can be understood within the banner of ‘Third Wave’. The greater influence, he suggests, has been the ‘Australian style’ café: table service, a full kitchen doing avocado on toast and eggs as you like them, on top off the high quality coffee for dine in and takeaway – something far less common in the States or Europe, where espresso bars serving pastries, or all day bistros with mediocre coffees are the norm.”

Gunn concurs on the local offer: “You get greeted at the door, helped to a table, you get offered coffee straight away, you don’t have to move, you just get it brought to you with a smile. You can look through a menu that would look like a top restaurant’s menu in other parts of the world.”

A different kind of cafe experience

So, on top of our commitment to quality bean, it’s our unique blend of service, passion and café experience that makes us a gold standard in the international Specialty scene (if not the invention of the Flat White alone).

So too our proximity to Asia – another “huge factor” according to Gunn – and the attention garnered from visitors who’re almost obsessed with Australia’s coffee culture. “I believe this tourism and international attention allowed Australia, and Melbourne, to be placed in the limelight where others weren’t,” he says.

As we know, waves surge before receding. Having surfed the Second Wave early, and the Third Wave too, one can’t help but ask: what’s in store for the scene when the tide shifts?

Will there be a ‘Fourth Wave’?

“I don’t think we’ll be hitting a Fourth Wave any time soon,” says Keidar. “The Third Wave is still very young – we’re constantly striving to improve how we roast, source and serve coffees to showcase their individual attributes best. Abiding by the tenets of the Third Wave is a lot of work. We’re still grappling with this, learning and refining our practices.”

Gunn takes the long view. “Right now there is a disease called ‘rust’ that is absolutely decimating crops globally, in particular Central America. In Rwanda in particular there is ‘potato disease’ which is a borer beetle that eats through into the green bean and results in a bizarre stench of potato wafting through the café when you grind it. This will all culminate in coffee becoming harder to access, and more rare, returning it to its place in the world before the first wave, when it was a special and sacred thing only used in ceremonies and celebrations.”

From that, though, Gunn sees another wave on the horizon: “the strongest and most influential there has been, where there is no commodity coffee, and farmers are rewarded for their highly valuable crop, allowing them to invest back into their farms, creating some of the best coffee the world has ever seen.”

Proud Mary’s offers a subscription services for one, three and six months. Photo: Proud Mary

Time will tell. Sprudge, meanwhile, suggests that while we’re not quite at the lip of the Fourth Wave, the ‘New Wave’ has begun: a caffeine parallel to the pop movement of the late ’70s.

Whether plague, proliferation, or mass corporate purchase, the future of coffee is unwritten, and anyone’s guess. In the meantime, it’s bean time: whatever Wave floats your moat, coffee has never been paid so much love and attention.

Give it yours. And make mine a double.

(Lead image: Nathan Dumbloa/Unsplash)

Published 14 August, 2017