Premium Coffee Beyond the “Third Wave”

This originally appeared in the March issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.

“Third wave” is the latest buzzword heard in discussions around coffee. The idea that coffee evolves along a set path—from the emergence of easy at-home brewing in the first wave through the transformation of coffee into a high-end, almost wine-like commodity in the third—is helpful in many ways, but also inherently limited. The coffee industry is simply too complex to fit precisely into such a simplified model.

There have been some interesting activities in coffee that reject aspects of the third wave but are too premium to fit neatly into the first or second. Premiumization of coffee is taking many paths, presenting opportunities for high-quality coffee beyond the third wave.

Premiumization outside the third wave

Though not explicitly defined, third-wave coffee tends to demand a high level of time, money and/or knowledge—not only from people at all steps in the supply chain, but from end consumers as well.

For many consumers, this is a trade off they are willing to make, and they are happy to put a little more time and effort in if it means they get a better cup of coffee. This is not true of everyone though. Some consumers want quality coffee but are not interested in bean origins or a proper pour over. There are times when consumers are also turned off by the sense of elitism that can pervade third-wave coffee. This has created a small, but significant, number of coffee drinkers who want a quality cup of coffee but would prefer it to be simpler and convenient.

Embracing simplicity

Consider, for example, the emergence of specialty instant. While instant coffee is struggling in general in Western markets, there have been a number of small, high-end instant brands appearing within the last few years. Sudden Coffee, perhaps the most prominent, recently partnered with Intelligentsia to release a line of single-origin products that would fit squarely into the third wave. Casual observers may have thought the third wave had left instant behind, but Sudden Coffee shows that there is still plenty of room for convenient coffee that does not sacrifice quality.

Yes Plz is another brand operating in this space. Their subscription service offers one option—a package of beans that is pointedly a blend. The brand’s founders grew disenchanted with the direction of third-wave coffee and believe that single-origin coffees are being offered because that is what is expected rather than leading to better coffee. Their offering of a premium blend is meant to be a counterpoint, proving that you can have a good cup of coffee without the need to fully buy into all aspects of the third wave.

Sometimes, it is not even about the coffee itself. Black Rifle Coffee Company has seen rapid sales growth by correctly realizing that some consumers in a polarized America were turned off by the left-leaning political stances of many people in the coffee industry. The company built a brand of high-quality coffee designed to appeal to conservatives. The qualities like sourcing the coffee itself is not unusual for a brand in the premium space. The branding and marketing is what differentiates Black Rifle Coffee Company from others currently operating in premium coffee, appealing to groups like gun rights activists who are not traditionally associated with the third wave.

The multiple roads to good coffee

Neither Sudden Coffee, Yes Plz nor Black Rifle Coffee Company would exist without the work that the third wave has done to raise quality expectations among consumers. Yet the core appeal of all three is that they are not like other third-wave brands out there in some way. Third-wave coffee will continue to be hugely important in the industry, but the success of these brands shows that it is not the only option for finding quality coffee.