What Is The Independent Coffee Movement?

Written by:
Claire Iverson
Photography By:
Mitra Mohammadi

Coffee means different things to different people.

In 15th century Arabia, tribes used coffee as a stimulant to stay awake through long religious ceremonies, and as a means of trade with neighboring lands.

And for as long as coffee has been around, the grounds have been used as fertilizer. It’s the best smelling compost you’ll find!

But about twenty years ago, the world got introduced to something special: the independent coffee movement. For the first time, coffee became so much more than a stimulant or fertilizer. Folks shifted from brewing watered down cups of joe at home to seeking out well-made coffee at colorful cafés.

As a whole, the independent coffee movement pushed for more ethical and sustainable sourcing. It introduced an American coffee culture that encouraged the customer to not only understand where their coffee came from, but also what they wanted from a cup of coffee — whether it be an espresso to kickstart a day, a latté to sip throughout the morning, or a cappuccino to hold on a first date.

Furthermore, the original independent coffee movement of the late 90s formed a basis for the current independent coffee movement, also known as the “third wave coffee.”

Third wave coffee companies care about quality beans, quality practices, and quality coffee. Coffee is not just a commodity but a delicacy.

But before diving into what this most recent wave of coffee means, let’s look at what came before it.

What Is First Wave Coffee?

Containers of Folgers Coffee

First wave coffee is cheap to buy and easy to make.

For a few dollars, you can have coffee for weeks. Think Folgers or Maxwell House. And since those brands pre-grind their beans, anyone can turn it into a beverage.

So what’s the catch?

Since just about every part of the bean-to-cup process is low-quality, the coffee is bitter and strong. You drink it in the morning — not for flavor but for the caffeine high that carries you into your first meeting.

Introducing The First Independent Coffee Movement: Second Wave Coffee

A holiday cup from Starbucks Coffee, Part of the Independent Coffee Movement

In the 1980s and 1990s, companies such as Starbucks and Peet’s saw room for profit in the coffee industry.

They started cafés — imagine the café from Friends, decorated with plush velvet couches and stools, large rugs, and greenery, where community and relationships are valued. You’re told you where your beans came from and the complex stories and vibrant communities behind each one. These cafés even had fancy machines to curate a “specialty” cup of coffee — and the flavors would leave your mouth watering.

In the second wave, people shifted the way they thought about coffee. They started caring about the bean, the sourcing, the people, and the final product.

Coffee was no longer a caffeine-high to get you through your morning. It was delicious and something to share with friends and family.

Advancing The Independent Coffee Movement: Third Wave Coffee

A magazine spread of Railway Coffee, a leader in the independent coffee movement

Photo by Railway Coffee

“Third wave is all about quality,” says Railway Coffee owner Brooks Harris. Harris is talking about quality in all forms: the coffee bean, the roasting process, the flavor, and the experience.

Third wave coffee requires high-quality beans. The Coffea plant from which farmers derive the beans must grow under appropriate conditions and with appropriate care. The fruit must be ripe before it’s picked. The rotten cherries must be thrown away.

The big names of the third wave include Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Counter Culture Coffee, and Intelligentsia Coffee.

Bryan Gibb — the owner of Bolt Coffee, a third wave roaster based Providence, Rhode Island — says, “The third wave is kind of represented by a real push towards skills and technique and science.”

Companies must take into account various processes — the washed, the dry, or the semi-washed — and degree of roast and roast profile, and the coffee’s “transparency” and “freshness.”

The process must also be ethical and sustainable. Companies should work with producers and farmers at origin to build the business and the local and larger communities.

The product must be delicious. You might taste nectarine, or maybe red grape, or dark chocolate.

And finally, grabbing a coffee becomes a full experience. Sweet aromas swarm you, the hum of conversation invites you, and the soft clanking of espresso machines excites you. Every barista tells you something about the bean or the process.

Railway Coffee’s Harris says that in the Third Wave, roasters “moved away from an elitist attitude of ‘we are going to to tell you what good coffee is’ and more towards really understanding what quality coffee means.”

Consolidation In The Coffee Industry

infographic showing consolidation in the independent coffee movement

Infographic by CB Insights

As with any industry, the large players noticed the success of the smaller ones. Rather than try to replicate that success, they offered to buy them out.

In 2012, JAB Holding Company bought out second wave darling Peet’s Coffee. Since 2012, JAB has also purchased other second wave brands like Caribou Coffee and Keurig Green Mountain. In 2015, Intelligentsia and Stumptown Coffee Roasters were bought out by Peet’s, which again is owned by JAB. In 2018, Nestle bought Starbucks.

The major buyouts of formerly independent coffee shops left a hole in the industry. There was a corporatization happening that mimicked the acquisitions of craft breweries by larger corporations. But, the third wave continued into contemporary times with neighborhood coffee roasters like Railway, Bolt, and Tandem Coffee replacing larger, regional third wave players.

Is There a Fourth Wave Of Coffee In The Independent Coffee Movement?

Bay Area’s Wrecking Ball Coffee Co-Founders Nick Cho and Trish Rothgeb coined the term “fourth wave” to describe high-quality coffee sold at an affordable price in an effort to include customers of lower socio-economic status.

However, others see it differently, which raises the question of whether the fourth wave actually exists, and what it means.

“I think the fourth wave will be a reverting back to hospitality,” says Bolt Coffee’s Bryan Gibb. “Because at the end of the day that’s really what coffee is about — it’s a habitual drink that facilitates a lot of interpersonal-type special moments between family and friends.”

Harris agrees. He sees the fourth wave as creating community: “Working with the community, the university nearby, local businesses and artists.”

But some experts are thinking less about community and more about refinement and purification of coffee. As Coffee Training Expert at the Pauling Barista Institute Jori Korhonen says, “The fourth wave celebrates the science of coffee and the obsession to detail and perfect taste experience.”

Whatever the fourth wave holds, we’re excited about the possibilities of the continuation of the independent coffee movement.

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