Third wave vs second wave coffee? What's the difference?

In the decades since coffee became a widespread commodity, it has transformed from a simple drink to an entire culture and experience. This journey can be marked by distinctive phases, which you might have heard of referred to as waves. But what exactly is second and third wave coffee, and what’s the difference between the two? Here is everything you need to know.

What is third wave coffee?

To define third wave coffee, sometimes referred to as ‘speciality coffee’, we need to take a look at first and second waves. In a nutshell, these waves are defined as follows:

First wave

First wave coffee can trace its roots back to the 1800s when entrepreneurs saw a market for providing coffee that was both affordable and “ready for the pot. At this time, there was almost no focus on where the coffee originated from or different kinds of coffee drinks. Now, first wave coffee usually refers to the lowest quality commodity kind, like instant coffee, supermarkets own-brand coffee or coffee that comes out of a vending machine.

Second wave

Occurring after the first wave, the second wave marks the influx of coffee shops, where brands like Starbucks and Costa began to introduce a wider array of coffee experiences. They did this by displaying the countries of origin and offering speciality drinks like lattes and cappuccinos. This wave is more about the experience than the coffee itself and is when coffee shops became a place to meet and socialise.

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Third wave

The latest wave of coffees, third wave looks at coffee as a premium product, paying careful attention not only to its origins but the unique qualities of the beans and how they are roasted. Third wave coffee is often prepared by the cup using manual brewing methods like pour-over or french press. Consideration is also given to the grind of the coffee, the brew time and the temperature of the water.

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Is third wave coffee better than second wave coffee?

While ultimately this will come down to personal opinion, there are a few things to consider when asking if third wave coffee is better than those that came before it.


While there are some sustainable second wave coffees out there, third wave coffee has a large focus on sustainability across the whole supply chain. This might include paying a fair price to coffee farmers, avoiding the use of harmful agricultural products and greater collaboration between everyone involved. The mass market appeal of second wave coffee means that, unfortunately, sustainability isn’t always a big concern.


There’s no denying that third wave coffee is usually more expensive than second wave coffee. But the higher price tag reflects not only the work that has gone into the process but the overall taste and experience you get. Just as wine lovers are willing to pay more for a top-quality bottle of wine, third wave coffee gives coffee lovers a unique drink with a story behind it. As with wines, you will find different, distinctive flavour profiles that you won’t find in a cheaper product. 


As touched on in our previous point, the experience is something that really sets second and third wave coffee apart. Third wave coffee shops are all about making the customer feel special, a stark contrast to the chain shop service we’ve become accustomed to. A good third wave barista will be able to tell you all about the producers, the importers, the roasters and the beans. They will brew your cup manually rather than wrangling with a machine. They will top your latte with ornate art instead of plopping a mound of foam on top. It’s as much about the process as it is the drink itself.


The manual brewing techniques of third wave coffee are vastly different from their second wave counterparts. These techniques are used in order to help bring out the flavour of the beans. When it comes to espresso, you will usually find that the third wave technique is completely different, producing a much thicker, sweeter shot that you will find in second wave coffee shops. There are also some key differences in presentation, whether it’s creating foam art or simply steaming the milk to the perfect pourable consistency.


Of course, the taste has to be taken into consideration when talking about the differences in second and third wave coffee. Because taste is so subjective, it’s impossible to say that everyone will prefer third wave coffee to second wave. However, because of the time and effort that is put into the process, third wave coffees will almost always have a more complex flavour with distinctive notes that you would never find in a mass-produced product. 

In third wave coffee, roasting is done to bring out the individual qualities of the bean and are focussed on a lighter roast profile. Second wave coffee, on the other hand, is more about dark roasts. This is why it will often have a similar, more bitter taste across the board.


As you can see, there are many key differences between second and third wave coffee, not just in the final cup but in the process it takes to get there. The end result is a coffee that has its own distinctive characteristics and unique flavour, and a supply chain of people and companies who have been paid and treated fairly every step of the way. We hope that we have inspired you to give third wave coffee a try, and here at Kaphibeans, you can do so from the comfort of your very own home. Click here to take a look at our range of speciality coffees and find your perfect cup today.

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