Riding the Waves

10 Jun

So my previous post reminded me of a further issue with the vocabulary we use within coffee. I’m specifically referring to the term third wave, and what it means, or atleast what it means to me as it seems to be somewhat subjective.

As I understand it; Third wave refers to the antipodean style coffee shops serving espresso based drinks in a range of about 6-10fl. ounces with (ideally) a heavy focus on the quality and passionate baristas. Second wave is espresso bars serving 12-20fl. ounce drinks, most likely with a large array of syrups and a fairly dark roasted blend. And first wave are serving bulk-brewed drip coffee that sits on a burner until it’s drank or turns to treacle and is usually served with immense amounts of cream and sugar.

One of my issues with a term like third wave is that it implies a superiority to second wave coffee, and while I’d venture that it’s probably the case that at most 3rd wave shops you’ll get better coffee than at most second wave shops, a third wave shop that’s missed the point when it comes to the push on quality and passion (or simply doesn’t know better) would not be as good as a second wave style shop where the barista really cares about their craft but doesn’t know about ‘third wave’ or is constricted by an owner who is afraid of changing a working formula. So if there were a further evolution to a forth wave it would most likely overshadow the third wave.

I also find myself coming back to the problem of alienating our customers aswell as newcomers to the industry, third wave is a somewhat arcane term, being that it refers directly to the evolution of coffee shops in a way that bears no relation to the difference, it just provides a stepped, linear path and in using terms like this we create a hurdle of communication in general.

The issue of the very segmented stepping between waves I find contentious and counter-intuitive to the developmental-experimental attitude that is fostered by every good barista I can think of. There are shops through the spectrum of the third wave that are doing vastly different things, now I don’t think that we should start decimalising this terminology, as it then becomes even more confusing and alienating when we start talking about a 3.5rd wave bar and anyone who doesn’t get along with maths gets very confused.  Not to mention I’m sure there’d be shops who just want to become a 3.1415926535-rd wave shop, which is just silly.

And while on the subject; are we starting to see the emergance of the forth wave, would a venture such as Square Mile’s Penny University (only brewed coffee with no milk or sugar in the shop atall) be considered a 4th wave coffee shop? Or is it a further, or alternative evolution of third wave? Or could it be considered a careful regression to first wave with a third wave mindset?

As always, any opinions, suggestions, corrections or picking apart of my theories are welcome.

“We think in language; therefore, the quality of our thoughts is only as good as the quality of our language.” — George Carlin


3 Responses to “Riding the Waves”

  1. aristipposian 4 August, 2010 at 11:33 pm #

    “One of my issues with a term like third wave is that it implies a superiority to second wave coffee, and …”

    Is it not that “third waves” refers to a third phase in the long history or developement of coffee in the western world and much less to a bettered quality?

    • Alex Redgate 5 August, 2010 at 6:58 am #

      I would deffinately agree with you that the “waves” terminology indicates development, but I feel that it is a term that is too clunky and too ill-defined.

      It can mean different things to different folks and the large catch all is uncomfortable for me to use if I’m trying to make a consise point.

      I also feel development is a continuing curve rather than stepped graduation.

      • aristipposian 5 August, 2010 at 8:04 am #

        Yes, it is perhaps to ill-defined. But I never ever saw it as a sign of quality. I consider it an interesing and historically important phase for the coffee world, but not at all – as you also pointed out – as a synonym for high standard. Similar to the term “modern”. A modern machine in many cafés means NOTHING, just that it is technologically “more” advanced.

        I commented on the aspect you are pointing out in one of my posts some time ago by comparing two exceptional coffees I tasted on one single day within one hour in Berlin. One of the places is very much “in”, very much “third wave”, surely among the top in Germany. The other place does not even have a website and the (Italian) barista did not even know that some baristi travel for barista competitions or that they sometimes measure the pressure used by tamping.

        So, yes, third wave is fine, but we (every single barista) must offer much more than being in the third wave phase. Luckily I experience that many do.

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