This being one of the first batch of articles I’ve written is not a coincidence. I think it’s important we set the record straight on important terminology like Specialty and Third wave. I keep saying with things like coffee and wine, you don’t have to be a connoisseur to enjoy them. You can choose how deep into it you want to get. I think this post is a good tool to test the waters. If it really clicks, you’re ready to dive deeper. If not, knowing the difference between Specialty and Third Wave is already a good conversation starter if you’re trying to hit on that hot Barista. Win win, ya know?
So What Sets them Apart?
Most of the time you’ll notice those two terms being used as if they were interchangeable, and in many cases, they can be. However, they represent different things. Third wave is, well a wave. It’s the stage where coffee’s at at the moment. It’s an aggregation of all of the components that characterize the current industry: recognition and appreciation of the myriad of flavours and aromas, direct trade, consumers being more interested in the story and ethics behind the beans, small batch roasters, transparency, more careful processing (link). It’s our behaviour as a society that created this movement and each and every novelty in the industry that determines where we are headed. Specialty on the other hand, is more objective and somewhat easier to define. The SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) is the body responsible for ranking coffees on a scale that goes up to 100 points. If a coffee is graded at above 80, it is considered “Specialty”. Contrary to what the name might suggest, it’s not just a coffee that is unique. In fact the term Specialty was mainly needed to set it apart from “Gourmet Coffee” which has no technical definition, and in an era of fake marketing can really mean anything.
So there you have it, a condensed comparison to warm us up. But there wouldn’t be room for debate among professionals if the line was so clear, would it? Well here is where the line gets blurry. Yes, Third Wave is about the approach, but isn’t Specialty also about the approach? I mean think about it, could beans that are not processed correctly, stored in the right conditions, ever pass the test? Not a chance. In fact, the SCA itself has been very explicit about what the term “Specialty” entails. On their website they state:
“Specialty coffee can consistently exist through the dedication of the people who have made it their life’s work to continually make quality their highest priority. This is not the work of only one person in the life cycle of a coffee bean; Specialty can only occur when all of those involved in the coffee value chain work in harmony and maintain a keen focus on standards and excellence from start to finish.”
However, we can all agree on the fact that third wave (or any wave that will succeed) will continue to be a broader concept, regardless of what other parts of the chain could be considered specialty.
But What’s Missing from Third Wave?
Well in my opinion we’ve failed at one very important aspect of Third Wave: Communicating it to the customers. If wine was marketed the same way coffee was and still is from 80% of the industry, we would be seeing very minimalistic wine labels: “Red Wine”, “White Wine”, “Wine from a blend of high quality grapes” (Read: who cares about varietals and origins), Rosé might not have even made the cut. So where did we go wrong?
I like using the cinema-film analogy. Third wave is the cinema from where you can experience the film (specialty coffee), right? Well if the seats in the room aren’t comfortable, no one is going to want to watch the film. I think we need to try harder to make those seats comfortable, make third wave more inclusive and get rid of the specialty=hipster stereotype so that people can be willing to see the beauty in Specialty. For many people it’s the first step that’s intimidating rather than the whole third wave approach. That’s mainly because we lack information, and because the third wave community needs to be more inclusive.
“The third wave is, in many ways, a reaction. It is just as much a reply to bad coffee as it is a movement toward good coffee.” – Trish R. Skeie, Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters
In the words of many “Third Wave needs Specialty, Specialty doesn’t need Third Wave”.