Specialty Coffee VS Third Wave Coffee: A Detailed Exploration

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Coffee has evolved significantly over the years, transitioning through what is popularly known as “waves.”

Each wave has brought its own perspective on what makes a great cup of coffee, from the mass-market appeal of the first wave to the quality and experience-focused third wave.

But among these, two concepts stand out: specialty coffee and third wave coffee.

Both emphasize quality but differ in their approaches and philosophies.

Let’s explore what defines specialty coffee and third wave coffee, how they compare, and why they matter to coffee enthusiasts around the world.

Understanding Coffee Waves

The Journey from First to Third Wave

Coffee’s popularity in America kicked off what is now referred to as the first wave, where coffee was widely consumed but largely undistinguished in quality.

Brands like Maxwell House and Folgers made coffee a household staple, focusing on accessibility and affordability.

This era laid the groundwork for coffee as an essential daily beverage.

As consumer preferences evolved, the second wave began, marked by a growing awareness of coffee origins and quality.

This wave saw the rise of coffee giants like Starbucks, which not only offered better-quality coffee but also transformed coffee shops into social hubs where people could enjoy a variety of flavored beverages and experience coffee in a new way.

The third wave of coffee, which focuses on the quality and origin of the beans, has redefined what good coffee means.

It emphasizes artisanal brewing techniques, direct trade, and sustainability, turning coffee drinking into a more refined, almost culinary practice.

Third wave coffee is about appreciating the unique characteristics of each coffee bean and the story behind it, enhancing the consumer’s experience.

We’ll talk about Third Wave coffee in more depth shortly.

Is There a Fourth Wave?

As the coffee culture continues to evolve, there is speculation about a fourth wave that might focus even more on the scientific aspects of coffee production and consumption.

This prospective wave could integrate technology and coffee science to develop new brewing techniques and enhance flavor profiles further.

It might also prioritize sustainability and traceability even more profoundly, using technology to track the journey of coffee beans from farm to cup.

This next wave could potentially make the coffee industry more transparent and sustainable, ensuring that coffee lovers can enjoy their brew knowing exactly where it comes from and how it was made, possibly even tailoring the coffee experience to individual tastes through precise, scientifically backed methods.

What is Specialty Coffee?

Defining Specialty Coffee

Specialty coffee is distinguished by strict standards set by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

To be classified as ‘specialty’, coffee must score 80 points or above on a 100-point scale.

This grading is done by certified coffee tasters and considers factors such as the coffee’s flavor, aroma, aftertaste, acidity, body, and balance.

These criteria ensure that only high-quality coffee beans, which have been grown and processed under the most favorable conditions, achieve the specialty status.

The Unique Traits of Specialty Coffee

The quality of specialty coffee is unparalleled due to meticulous sourcing and specific cultivation practices.

These beans are often grown in ideal coffee-growing climates, which are typically found at higher altitudes providing a richer flavor profile that is difficult to replicate in lower quality beans.

The unique traits of specialty coffee extend beyond its superior quality; they also include diverse and distinct flavor profiles, ranging from bright and acidic to deep and complex.

Roasters and consumers of specialty coffee often cherish the traceability of the beans, knowing exactly where and how their coffee was grown, and the story of the people who made it all happen.

This level of detail not only ensures quality but also supports sustainable and ethical farming practices.

What is Third Wave Coffee?

The Hallmarks of Third Wave Coffee

Third wave coffee is distinguished by several key characteristics that focus on enhancing the quality and experience of coffee drinking.

Light roasting is one of these hallmarks, which allows the natural flavors of the coffee bean to shine, rather than being overshadowed by the taste of the roast itself.

This method highlights the unique attributes of the bean, such as fruity or floral notes, which are often lost in darker roasts.

Direct trade is another crucial aspect, emphasizing ethical and direct business relationships between coffee roasters and farmers.

This practice ensures fair compensation for farmers and fosters a closer connection to the coffee’s origin, which in turn promotes higher quality and sustainability.

Innovative brewing methods are also central to third wave coffee, with techniques such as pour-over, cold brew, and siphon brewing becoming popular.

These methods are chosen to extract the best flavor from high-quality beans and are often more labor-intensive and precise, reflecting the artisanal approach to coffee that defines the third wave.

Third Wave Coffee as an Experience

Third wave coffee isn’t just about the drink; it’s about the entire coffee-drinking experience.

Coffee shops that embrace this movement focus heavily on the story behind each cup, including the origin of the beans, the lives of the farmers who grow them, and the process that brought them to the cafe.

This narrative enriches the customer’s appreciation and enjoyment of their coffee.

Customer service in third wave coffee shops is also part of the overall experience.

Baristas are typically highly knowledgeable and passionate about coffee, ready to share details about the flavors, processes, and origins of their brews.

The design of third wave coffee shops often mirrors this attention to detail and quality, creating an inviting and informative atmosphere for customers.

Comparing Specialty Coffee and Third Wave Coffee

How They Differ

Specialty coffee and third wave coffee, while sharing a focus on high-quality beans, differ significantly in their approach and philosophy.

Specialty coffee is primarily defined by the quality of the coffee bean itself, which must meet specific grading standards set by the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

These standards ensure that only the beans with the best flavor profiles and fewest defects are classified as specialty.

Third wave coffee, on the other hand, extends beyond just the bean quality to emphasize the entire coffee experience, from the farming and sourcing methods to the brewing and serving practices.

Light roasting, popular in third wave coffee, contrasts with the sometimes varied roasting preferences of specialty coffee, which may include medium and dark roasts depending on the desired flavor profile.

Consumer engagement is another area where they differ.

Third wave coffee places a heavy emphasis on educating consumers about where their coffee comes from, how it’s made, and why different brewing methods matter.

This educational approach is less pronounced in the specialty coffee scene, which focuses more on the product itself rather than the overall experience.

Can Specialty Coffee Be Third Wave?

Yes, specialty coffee can indeed be part of the third wave.

The two concepts intersect when specialty beans are used within third wave practices.

When third wave coffee shops use specialty graded beans, they are embracing the high standards of bean quality while also applying their philosophies of transparency, sustainability, and artisanal brewing methods.

This fusion emphasizes not only the quality of the coffee but also the story and craft behind it, enhancing the consumer’s experience and appreciation.

Brewing and Enjoying

How to Brew Specialty Coffee

Brewing specialty coffee at home allows you to savor the high-quality beans and their unique flavors.

Start with freshly ground coffee to preserve the beans’ natural aromas and oils.

A general guideline is to use about 2 tablespoons of coffee for every 6 ounces of water, but you might adjust this ratio based on your taste preference.

Water temperature is crucial; ideally, it should be between 195°F to 205°F.

Too hot, and your coffee will taste burnt; too cool, and you won’t extract the full flavor of the beans.

Use a kettle that lets you set or measure the temperature for best results.

For brewing, various methods can be employed, such as a French press, which allows the coffee oils and fine particles to remain in the cup, enhancing the flavor.

Alternatively, a drip coffee maker with a gold or stainless steel filter can also produce excellent results by allowing more oils to pass through compared to paper filters.

Lastly, make sure to enjoy your coffee soon after brewing.

Coffee is best when fresh, and flavors start to change as it cools and oxidizes.

Popular Third Wave Brewing Techniques

Third wave coffee enthusiasts often favor manual brewing methods that allow for precise control over every step of the brewing process.

The pour-over method is particularly popular for its simplicity and the clean, flavorful cup it produces.

To start a pour-over, you will need a dripper, filter, and a gooseneck kettle for controlled water flow.

Begin by wetting the grounds with a small amount of hot water to let them “bloom,” releasing any gas trapped in the beans.

Then, continue to pour the water in slow, circular motions to ensure even extraction.

The entire process should take about 3 to 4 minutes.

Another favored method in third wave coffee shops is the AeroPress, which uses air pressure to push hot water through coffee grounds, resulting in a rich and smooth coffee.

This method is quick, taking about 2 minutes, and it’s also versatile, allowing you to make anything from espresso-style concentrate to regular coffee.


Throughout this exploration of specialty coffee and third wave coffee, we’ve uncovered the nuances that make each unique.

Specialty coffee sets a high standard with its rigorous scoring system, focusing on the intrinsic qualities of the bean.

Third wave coffee, on the other hand, emphasizes the overall experience, from the bean’s origin to innovative brewing methods that highlight each coffee’s unique profile.

Both styles have their own charm and offer different experiences.

Whether you prefer the detailed quality of specialty coffee or the comprehensive approach of third wave coffee, exploring these options can deepen your appreciation for this beloved beverage.

We encourage you to try both methods and find which one truly speaks to your taste preferences and coffee journey.

Happy brewing!


What are the best places to buy Specialty Coffee Beans?

Specialty coffee beans can be bought from various online retailers, local roasteries, or specialty coffee shops.

Popular online platforms often offer a wide range of beans from different regions, providing detailed information about the taste profiles and origin.

Local roasteries are also a great option, as they often roast their beans on-site, ensuring freshness and quality.

What is the impact of coffee on health?

Coffee has been linked to various health benefits, including improved mental alertness, increased metabolism, and a potential reduction in the risk of several diseases, such as Parkinson’s and diabetes type 2.

However, it is important to consume it in moderation as excessive intake can lead to negative effects such as anxiety and disrupted sleep patterns.

Is there a Specialty Coffee Association of America?

Yes, there is a Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), which is a non-profit organization that represents coffee professionals from around the globe.

The SCA sets the standards for specialty coffee, which includes grading coffee beans based on various quality parameters.

What are the elements of a quality coffee?

Quality coffee is characterized by its flavor, aroma, acidity, body, and aftertaste.

The balance of these elements, along with the bean’s origin, processing method, and roasting quality, determine its overall profile and quality grade.

What is the best grade for coffee?

The best grade for coffee, according to specialty coffee standards, is often considered to be “Specialty Grade” which scores 80 points or above on a 100-point scale used by coffee graders.

This high score indicates superior taste and very few defects.

Is Starbucks second or third wave?

Starbucks is generally considered a pioneer of the second wave of coffee, which focuses on the enjoyment of coffee as a gourmet beverage and introduces consumers to different coffee flavors and origins.

However, Starbucks has also adopted some third wave practices, like offering single-origin coffees and emphasizing bean quality.

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Jacob Harris

Jacob is a coffee enthusiast who turned his passion into a career. As the owner and editor of Karma Coffee Cafe, he shares his extensive knowledge and recommendations, captivating fellow coffee lovers.

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