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In The Family
What Is Third-Wave Coffee?

What the wonky term means—and what’s coming next.

The term “third wave coffee” is a lot like “postmodernism”—something that’s easy to recognize but hard to define. You know it when you see it: minimalist cafés with bare wood and Edison bulbs, light-roasted beans with flavors compared to blueberries, and ambient music that’d fit in at a college town’s used-book store.

As distinct from first-wave coffee, which referred to the Italian immigrants that brought coffee culture to the U.S. in the 1800s, and second-wave coffee, immortalized by the Frasier and Friends aesthetic of dark roasts purveyed by yuppie-friendly espresso bars such as Starbucks, third-wave or specialty coffee is really about putting the beans and brewing process under a microscope to deliver the fullest and most distinctive flavors into your cup. That means small-batch production attuned to the nuances of a particular bean and lighter roasts that preserve more of that bean’s raw flavor.

But if you ask some coffee professionals, they’re most excited about what comes after the third-wave movement: taking the lessons learned from exacting coffee experimentation and making them more accessible to everyone. That means new and efficient but quality-focused forms of mass production that’d allow for lower prices, as well as a greater focus on sustainable coffee agriculture on a rapidly warming planet where small farmers usually get a raw deal. We’ll drink to that.

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Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.