Riding the waves: exploring the third and fourth wave of coffee

We embark on a journey to uncover the fascinating realms of the third and fourth waves of coffee. From the rise of the third wave, which celebrated the craftsmanship of specialty coffee, to the daring innovation of the fourth wave, pushing the boundaries of taste and experience.

Barbara Fassio
Barbara Fassio

Ah, coffee – the beloved beverage that has captured the hearts of millions around the globe. But did you know that coffee has undergone significant transformations over the years? We are not only talking about the spread of Specialty coffees, but in recent times, two prominent movements have revolutionized the coffee industry: the third wave and the fourth wave of coffee. In this article, we’ll dive into these waves, uncovering their unique characteristics and how they have reshaped our perception of the beloved brown elixir. 

The terms “third wave” and “fourth wave” were coined by coffee enthusiasts and professionals to categorize and represent the changing dynamics within the industry. While there is no definitive origin point or specific individuals credited with creating these expressions, they gained widespread usage over time. They became useful descriptors for understanding the shifts in coffee consumption, production, and appreciation. The waves serve as metaphors, illustrating the progression from traditional coffee consumption to a focus on specialty, craftsmanship, sustainability, and innovation.


The third wave of coffee represents a shift in focus from just consuming coffee to appreciating it as an artisanal product. It emerged in the late 20th century and gained momentum in the early 2000s. Coffee enthusiasts began to prioritize quality, sustainability, and traceability. Small-scale, specialty coffee roasters and independent cafes took center stage, emphasizing direct trade relationships with farmers, single-origin beans, and precise brewing methods.

The third wave of coffee emerged as a response to the increasing demand for quality and transparency within the coffee industry. It found its roots in cities like Seattle and San Francisco in the United States. This movement was driven by passionate coffee enthusiasts, independent roasters, and pioneering cafes that sought to redefine the coffee experience. Notable figures such as Alfred Peet of Peet’s Coffee and Tea, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, and numerous specialty coffee roasters played significant roles in shaping the third wave. These innovators emphasized direct trade relationships with coffee farmers, meticulous brewing methods, and a focus on single-origin beans to bring out the unique flavors and characteristics of each coffee.

This wave in facts celebrates the nuances of coffee, treating it like a fine wine. Baristas became akin to sommeliers, meticulously perfecting extraction techniques, adjusting variables such as grind size, water temperature, and brew time to extract the best flavors from the beans. Learn more about this in our article. Latte art flourished, transforming coffee into a canvas for creative expression. The third wave embodied a movement that sought to bring out the distinct flavors, aromas, and terroir of each coffee bean.

caffè e latte art

Building upon the foundation laid by the third wave, the fourth wave of coffee takes the art of coffee to new heights. It is characterized by a deep exploration of coffee origins, experimental brewing methods, and pushing the boundaries of taste experiences. This wave is all about pushing the limits, challenging conventions, and embracing innovation; it gained momentum in the late 2000s and continued to flourish in the following years. It was driven by a community of dedicated coffee professionals, including innovative baristas, roasters, and coffee entrepreneurs. Individuals such as James Hoffmann, a renowned barista and author, and Scott Rao, a coffee consultant and author, contributed to the evolution of the fourth wave through their expertise, research, and influence. These individuals, along with many others in the coffee industry, pushed boundaries, encouraged sustainable practices, and introduced new approaches to enhance the coffee experience.

In the fourth wave, coffee enthusiasts and professionals are driven by a passion for discovery. They explore exotic coffee origins, trace the beans back to their source, and learn about the farmers who cultivate them. This wave fosters direct trade relationships, ensuring fair compensation for farmers and promoting sustainable farming practices.

Moreover, the fourth wave encourages experimentation with alternative brewing methods like cold brew, nitro coffee, Brazilian cupping and unique infusion techniques. It embraces cutting-edge technologies to enhance flavor extraction and precision brewing. The fourth wave coffee experience goes beyond the taste; it immerses the consumer in a multisensory journey that encompasses aroma, texture, and visual appeal.


While the third and fourth waves represent distinct periods in the coffee world, they are not mutually exclusive. Many coffee establishments find themselves somewhere between these waves, combining elements from both to create a unique experience. This blend of tradition and innovation brings together the craftsmanship and precision of the third wave with the adventurous spirit and experimentation of the fourth wave.

As coffee consumers, we are fortunate to witness and partake in this ongoing evolution. We have the opportunity to explore a vast array of flavor profiles, support sustainable practices, and engage with coffee communities around the world. The third and fourth waves have elevated coffee to an art form, enriching our daily rituals and reminding us of the incredible journey from farm to cup.


The world of coffee continues to ride the waves of transformation. The third and fourth waves have propelled coffee from a mere beverage to a cultural phenomenon. They have encouraged us to appreciate the complexities of coffee, connect with its origins, and embrace innovation. So, the next time you savor that freshly brewed cup, take a moment to reflect on the journey it has undertaken, and raise your mug to the exciting waves that have shaped the coffee landscape.