Starbucks vs. Third Wave Coffee

This is how it was explained to me at my first higher-end coffee job: First-wave coffee was Maxwell House and Folgers. Second-wave coffee includes Starbucks and Peet’s. Third-wave ushers in craft roasters who focus on farm-to-mug fair-trade practices.

As I get more involved in the coffee scene, the information gets a little dizzying. There is so much to pay attention to when drinking a cup of coffee that people have started likening the experience to drinking wine. And it’s not too different, considering the time, care, and thought that goes into making both of these beverages. As a coffee-hobbyist, I often encounter the problem of redefining coffee in terms that do not align with Starbucks’ mission. Executive Chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, made clear that his goal was to bring the Italian coffee experience to the United States. This also meant tweaking coffee recipes to match the American palate, which (in general) leans towards extremes in all directions.

I’ve seen a shift in public perception of coffee, where more people express that they believe third-wave coffee is “better than Starbucks”. In my previous cafe jobs, customers often will utter the name Starbucks in hushed voices, as to not offend the baristas. Honestly, no one really cares whether you talk about Starbucks in a third-wave cafe, and it’s hard not to anyway. Starbucks revolutionized the cafe experience and laid the groundwork for third-wave coffee to exist. It also created some odd trends in how Americans expect coffee to be served.

I don’t care too much about how you like your coffee. People have different palates, and I respect that some people can find as much joy in a frappe as I find in an Americano. While doing a coffee tour in Seattle, my travel partner remarked that coffee-drinkers are “willingly consuming a product that tastes like ass”. I’m fine with that. The problem is when people enter a third wave cafe expecting a Starbucks experience. Many third-wave cafes do not serve any kind of blended drink at all. They do not measure sweetness with “pumps” and drinks do not come in “venti” sizes.


Baristas still face these misconceptions, just because Starbucks is considered the United States coffee standard. It’s the middle ground between garbage coffee and great coffee, and it’s a metric that everyone can use to gauge their coffee experience. I believe that this needs to change. I think there is a huge audience of people who want to learn more about coffee (myself included), which would ease the third-wave cafe experience and, in my opinion, heighten our capacity to enjoy coffee.

Stumptown Coffee and Blue Bottle Roasters offer public coffee cuppings, or tastings, to explain their product, process, and practices. In Portland, you can take walking tours of different cafes in order to get a feel for what coffee culture is like in the city. Roasters and baristas want to share information about why coffee is so interesting and how it is changing, and these resources are a great start. But it shouldn’t stop here. More tools and resources, whether it be classes, websites, or books, are needed to bridge the gap to bring the third-wave coffee movement to a wider audience.

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