The third wave coffee movement is a movement led by both consumers and manufacturers to consume, enjoy, and appreciate high-quality coffee. This movement considers coffee an artisanal food, like wine, whose consumption experience can be enhanced with greater education, connoisseurship, and sensory exploration beyond just a cup of coffee. While all coffee comes through a similar value stream, third wave coffee seeks to highlight the unique characteristics that result from the diversity of coffee bean cultivars, growing and cultivation methods, processing methods, roasting methods, and the variables in beverage preparation.
Distinct from the first two waves, the third wave of coffee disrupts the more commodity-focused trade of coffee and prioritizes taste quality, unique flavors, and equitable relationships over low prices and standardizations in flavor.
The term "third wave coffee" was most widely attributed to coffee professional Trish Rothgeb in 2003 in an article for the Roasters Guild newsletter titled "Norway and Coffee," with the first mainstream media mention in an National Public Radio piece about barista competitions. There is a lesser known reference to "third wave coffee" in a 1999 article in an obscure trade publication  called "Tea & Coffee Trade Journal Asia" by specialty coffee pioneer Timothy Castle.
The first wave of coffee is generally understood as the era when most coffee consumers understood coffee to be just "coffee," without any differentiation as to origin or beverage type. Instant coffee, grocery store cans of coffee, diner coffee, and free-refills were all hallmarks of first wave coffee. Generally speaking, first wave coffee is focused on providing an accessible, low-price, consistent cup of coffee that can be corrected with additives like sweeteners or dairy creamers.
The advent of the second wave of coffee is generally credited to Peet's Coffee & Tea of Berkeley, California, which in the late 1960s began artisanal sourcing, roasting, and blending with a focus on highlighting countries of origin and their signature dark roast profile. Peet's Coffee inspired the founders of Starbucks of Seattle, Washington, which evolved into arguably the most famous multinational coffee chain in the world. The second wave of coffee introduced the concept different origin countries to coffee consumption, beyond a generic cup of coffee. Fueled in large part by market competition between Colombian coffee producers and coffee producers from Brazil through the 1960's, coffee roasters highlighted flavor characteristics that varied depending on what countries coffees came from. While certain origin countries grew to be prized among coffee enthusiasts and professionals, the world's production of high-altitude grown arabica coffee, grown in countries within the tropical zone, became sought-after as each country had particular flavor profiles that were considered interesting and desirable. In addition to country of origin, the second wave of coffee introduced coffee-based beverages to the wider coffee-consuming world, particularly those traditional to Italy made with espresso. So while the first wave relied primarily on coffee's complexity but was not endeavoring to make it delicious on its own, the second wave brought wider enjoyment of coffee by a greater focus on how coffee can make for a pleasing specialty beverage experience.
Third wave coffee is often associated with the concept of 'specialty coffee,' referring either to specialty grades of green (raw) coffee (distinct from commercial grade coffee) or specialty coffee beverages of high quality and craft.
The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet's and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.
In the US, there are a large number of third-wave roasters, and some stand-alone coffee shops or small chains that roast their own coffee. There are a few larger businesses, more prominent in roasting than in operating – the "Big Three of Third Wave Coffee" are Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea of Chicago; Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland, Oregon; and Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, North Carolina, all of which engage in direct trade sourcing. Intelligentsia has seven bars – four in Chicago, three in Los Angeles, together with one "lab" in New York. Stumptown has 10 bars – five bars in Portland, one in Seattle, two in New York, one in Los Angeles, and one in New Orleans. Counter Culture has eight regional training centers – that do not function as retail stores – one in each of: Chicago, Atlanta, Asheville, Durham, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. By comparison, Starbucks has over 23,000 cafes worldwide as of 2015.
Both Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea and Stumptown Coffee Roasters were acquired by Peet's Coffee & Tea (itself part of JAB Holding Company) in 2015. At that time, Philz Coffee (headquartered in San Francisco), Verve Coffee Roasters (headquartered in Santa Cruz, California) and Blue Bottle Coffee (headquartered in Oakland, California) were also considered major players in third wave coffee.
In 2014, Starbucks invested around $20 million in a coffee roastery and tasting room in Seattle, targeting the third wave market. Starbucks' standard cafes use automated espresso machines for efficiency and safety reasons, in contrast to third-wave competitors.