Last updated on December 8th, 2023

When Did Specialty Coffee Start & What Is It? Third Wave Coffee & How To Spot It

The term is no doubt popular, but the meaning of specialty coffee can seem elusive. So what is the definition of specialty coffee and when did it start? Finally, how does the third wave coffee movement fit into this picture?

Coffee lovers worldwide have never had this much access to amazing coffee shops and roasters, and the popularity of high quality coffee is only growing.

A picture of specialty coffee equipment, introducing an article on specialty coffee meaning.

From the coffee farms to the artisan roasters, I would say this is a golden age of specialty coffee! So let’s explore what specialty/third wave coffee is and how it manages to provide you with such delicious coffee!

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What Is Specialty Coffee Meaning? Here’s the 101

Specialty coffee, often called third wave coffee today, refers to coffee that has the highest quality at every stage of production. It usually refers to single origin coffee, which is coffee that comes from the same geographic region. The high-quality standards of today’s specialty coffee include each step of the process from growing, to harvesting, to roasting, to brewing.

The majority of coffee you will find in North America—for example, at gas stations and restaurants—is not specialty quality. However, the growing popularity of artisan cafes in North America over the last 20 years shows how popular this specialty wave of coffee has become.

When Did Specialty Coffee Start?

Erna Knutsen first used the term specialty coffee in 1974 to describe the type of coffee that came from specialized climates and had the best flavor. Following that, craft coffee slowly grew in popularity as people cared more and more about making the best coffee possible. Companies in the 1970s like Starbucks propelled the second wave of specialty coffee. By the 2000s, the third wave of specialty coffee firmly existed in many countries.

What Is the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA)?

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) is a trade association that helps set the standards for what constitutes specialty coffee. They score coffee on a 100-point scale that accounts for many standards along the coffee production chain including:

  • Allowable defects in beans
  • Selective hand-picking at coffee cherry’s maturity
  • Water standards
  • Brew strength

In addition to setting and raising these standards, the SCA also aims to connect the coffee industry worldwide and embrace a fair and sustainable approach to this wave of coffee. They host an annual event called the Specialty Coffee Expo where professionals and enthusiasts can gather to connect and learn.

What Is the Third Wave Coffee Movement? The Specialty Coffee Meaning Today

As a gesture toward the multiple waves of social movements, third wave coffee refers to the third major shift in how culture approached coffee. The wave began with specialty coffee’s advent in the 1970s, but Timothy Castle first used the term in 1999. Coffee professional Trish Rothgeb also used it in a 2003 article.

what is specialty coffee and when did specialty coffee start? a graphic describing the answer

The first wave of coffee in the United States would be the initial popularity of coffee in the culture, with an emphasis on affordable prices and consistent taste. Canned coffee at the grocery store and diner coffee all fit into this first wave.

The second wave dates to the 1960s and began in conjunction with famous coffee companies like Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks. With this wave, people began paying attention to a coffee’s origin and flavor profiles. High-altitude arabica coffee from the tropical zones became the most popular.

Lastly, the third wave changed the specialty coffee meaning the most. This wave involves companies like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture Coffee. By the 2000s, the third coffee wave was in full effect with more and more shops opening. The emphasis is on sourcing from specific farms and choosing light roasts that bring out a bean’s unique tasting notes.

What Is a Speciality Coffee Shop?

The term “specialty coffee shop” refers to a cafe that takes the time and care to brew coffee at the highest level, which most accept to be a score of 80 or above on the SCA Cupping score sheet. The contributing factors that determine whether a shop serves specialty coffee include:

  • Aroma
  • Flavor
  • Aftertaste
  • Acidity
  • Sweetness
  • Mouthfeel

While they often roast their coffee in-house, a shop can still serve specialty coffee roasted by others, so long as they take the care to brew it properly.

Is Starbucks Third Wave Coffee?

Is Starbucks third wave coffee?

While many people associate Starbucks with fancy drinks, standard Starbucks is not third-wave specialty coffee. Starbucks is instead one of the primary driving forces behind the second wave of coffee during the 1960s and 1970s, along with other big names like Peet’s Coffee.

However, there are a select few specialty cafes that Starbucks started in 2014 (their Reserve coffees) that target the specialty movement.

So while the standard Starbucks cafes that you see in every airport and shopping mall are not specialty coffee, the company does have special shops to target the growing popularity of third wave specialty coffee.

Specialty Coffee Explained via The Coffee Supply Chain

Everyone in the supply chain of quality coffee has to do their part to make the finished product delicious, and any slight error can ruin the delicate flavor. So let’s explore the journey your coffee takes from being the seed of a plant to your morning brew.

The Coffee Farm

No matter your barista skills, you cannot make amazing coffee without the hard work and dedication of coffee farmers. It is easy to forget that a coffee bean is the seed of a fruit, the coffee cherry. And all of the details behind growing the coffee plant—the soil, temperature, elevation, harvest time, etc—affect the final product.

A coffee producer is often part of a family that has spent generations perfecting the craft of growing and processing coffee. To avoid low-quality and defective beans, they sometimes nurse a coffee plant for years before harvesting. And when quality is more important than profits, sustainability also goes up.

Green Coffee Buyers

The person who buys green coffee beans, or unroasted coffee, has to have a sensitive palate to decide which ones are the highest quality. Through a process called cupping, these buyers decide if coffee is specialty grade and provide subtle tasting notes to help roasters understand the bean. They may even pass on roasting suggestions and other information to the cafés and roasters that buy through them.

coffee cupping to grade beans and meet the Specialty Coffee Association standards

The Roasters

Next in the chain is the specialty coffee roaster, which transforms the bean from its unusable green form to the heavenly smell and flavor of roasted coffee. Skilled roasters experiment with specialty coffee beans until they find the roast profile that best captures the unique flavors of that bean. By roasting in a small batch with utmost control over the details, the quality can be consistent from batch to batch.

Skilled roasters will even alter their roasting profiles depending on the brewing method they plan to recommend for a particular bean.

The Coffee Shop and Barista

A picture of a siphon coffee maker, a hallmark of specialty coffee brewing

After roasting, the next crucial step towards delicious coffee is brewing it correctly, which includes details of grind size, water chemistry/temperature, the ratio of water to coffee, and many other details. The fantastic taste of siphon coffee is a perfect example of the dedication that specialty baristas have to craft delicious coffee.

A specialty coffee shop with an expensive espresso machine dials in their coffee each day to make sure the taste is up to standard.

**Burr Grinder vs Blade Grinder: Why the Pros Use Burrs**

The SCA has a certification for baristas that many shops require. But even without that certification, a specialty barista knows all about the coffee’s origins and flavor profiles. They pay attention to all of the brewing details so that they can extract the best flavor possible.

The Consumer

What is specialty coffee when it comes to you, the coffee consumer? By caring enough to seek out specialized beans and brewing, you help sustain the third wave coffee industry and promote access to delicious coffee. And since specialty coffee also promotes fairness and sustainability, you also improve the lives of people throughout the coffee supply chain.

Specialty Beans and Roasts

Since you are probably not going to any coffee farms and grading beans yourself, let’s explore some of the basic characteristics of bean type and roast level that most specialty coffee has.

Arabica vs Robusta Beans

There are thousands of species of plants in the Rubiaceae family of plants to which coffee belongs, but Arabica and Robusta are the two species whose seeds we drink. Of these two species, Arabica has more complex tasting notes with a smooth balance of sweetness and body. Robusta beans tend to have a harsh and bitter flavor.

Third wave specialty coffee uses Arabica beans because of the better flavor, and these plants require tropical climates and high elevation to grow.

Read more about different coffee beans and their caffeine levels.

Roast Levels

Roasting coffee is a science and an art, with so many crucial details like temperature curves and time. The most relevant detail for the consumer is the roast level, which ranges from light to dark. Lightly roasted coffee brings out subtle flavors and delicate acidity, while dark roasts will cook away those tasting notes and replace them with a roasting flavor (nutty, burnt, etc).

coffee roast levels

That is why a specialty coffee bean generally tastes best at lighter roasts. Specialty coffees are rarely roasted to a dark level, although you can occasionally find blends that push into the dark category.

Blends vs Single Origin

Most coffee people consume worldwide is a blend—beans combined from several sources to make a balanced flavor profile (for example, house blend coffee.) But the specialty coffee industry puts a lot of emphasis on single origin beans, or beans that come from the same harvest. Beans from one origin allow you to appreciate the subtleties of a single coffee variety, and you can even notice how it changes from year to year.

But blends are also common amongst third wave coffee roasters, especially espresso blends.

Popular Specialty Coffee Examples: The Best Third Wave Coffee Brands

Third-wave coffee is constantly evolving, with new roasters opening all the time. Keep an open mind and be willing to try anything new, but understand that sometimes the most convenient way to order fresh specialty coffee is online.

3 Most Popular Third-Wave Brands

Intelligentsia Light Roast House Whole Bean Coffee
  • 12-ounce bag
  • Flavor Notes of Milk Chocolate, Citrus, and Apple
  • Direct trade
  • Blends change seasonally for ultimate freshness
Counter Culture Coffee Big Trouble Blend
  • Top specialty coffee brand since 1995
  • 12-ounce bag whole-bean coffee
  • Medium roast
  • Tasting notes: caramel, nutty, round
Stumptown Coffee Roasters Hair Bender Medium Roast
  • 12-ounce bag of whole-bean coffee (100% Arabica)
  • Hair Bender Blend: Latin America, Indonesia, and Africa
  • Direct Trade
  • Flavor notes: sweet citrus, dark chocolate, raisin

Those three are by no means a complete breakdown of the best specialty coffee brands as many companies operate on a smaller scale in their local communities. Luckily, even these small roasters often offer an online coffee subscription that delivers freshly roasted coffee in the mail.

But in terms of pure size, some of the biggest and best third wave brands include:

And, some of my favorite roasters, those that I regularly order beans from online, include:

Common Questions About Specialty Coffee

Now that you have a better idea of this coffee movement, let’s finish by answering a few of the most commonly asked questions on this topic.

What is specialty grade coffee?

Coffee is considered specialty grade when it scores above 80 points on the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA’s) Cupping score sheet. The coffee must have strong enough qualities in factors such as aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, sweetness, and mouthfeel.

Who coined the term specialty coffee?

Erna Knutsen originally coined the term specialty coffee in 1974 as a way to talk about a growing movement to source coffee from specific climates and farms with an emphasis on capturing the best flavor possible.

When did specialty coffee begin?

The third wave of coffee began in more subtle ways during the 1970s, but specialty coffee particularly took off with the popularity of companies like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture Coffee in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, specialty coffee artisan cafes are popular across North America and the world.

Why is specialty coffee special?

Specialty coffee starts with green beans that have a high rating and remain special so long as everyone along the coffee production chain—roasting, brewing, etc—follows proper protocols that bring out the best flavors possible.

What Does Specialty Coffee Mean: Final Thoughts

So what does specialty coffee mean? Hopefully, you have a clear understanding now and this article has inspired you to join the third-wave coffee movement. Instead of buying the standard coffee grounds at the grocery store, you can buy special beans from specific farms and grow to appreciate the subtle tasting notes from different coffees.

And remember that at the end of the day, specialty coffee is not about being a snob—it is just a reminder that everyone should try to make the best coffee they can!

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