Third Wave Coffee: A History

Elizabeth Childers traces Germany’s relationship with coffee, from first to third wave… 

The term Third Wave Coffee gets a lot of use these days in Berlin – and is often met with confusion. Does it mean expensive coffee in small cups with strange names like Long Black and Flat White? Is it the reputation for baristas with strict rules about how to drink your coffee? And if this is the Third Wave, what were the preceding two? Before we get into it, it’s worth a brief orientation into Germany’s centuries-old coffee culture — which, naturally enough, is accentuated with obsession and invention.

Zimmermann Leipzig Katharinenstr. 14-16,1720jpg
Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Katharinenstraße 14, Leipzig. A popular spot, Bach’s Kaffeekantate was likely performed here. Engraving by Georg Schreiber (Detail), 18th century.

European coffeehouses opened in the 17th century. In most (England was especially strict), women were banned from sitting inside — although not in Germany. Unlike other countries, German women frequented coffeehouses, and their own coffee clubs, in order to fulfil their coffee and social needs. From time to time men protested what they saw as women’s gossip-fuelled meetings and the term kaffeeklatsch was born.

So much was the love for coffee (or debate over its virtue) embedded in German culture that, in the 1730s, Johann Sebastian Bach penned the comical Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht  — “Be still, stop chattering” — a.k.a. Kaffeekantate. This comical piece centres around an argument between a daughter who is obsessed with coffee and refuses to give up the habit (she must have a drink at least three times a day!), and her father who is convinced she will never find a man to marry because of it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering how German women had taken to coffee so strongly (or had been allowed to), the first drip coffeemaker was patented in 1908 by a Dresden woman, Melitta Bentz. Bentz wanted a tastier and more efficient way to brew her coffee at home. At the time you could essentially choose between a Turkish coffee with grounds in the bottom of your cup, or you could strain the grounds through a dishcloth.

The latter worked, but was messy, staining and time-consuming. Solution: Bentz took a regular piece of paper from her son’s school workbook, fit the paper inside a small metal pot she’d punctured holes through, and, well, I think you see how this is going to work. The design – the container as well as the innovative disposable paper filters – was patented with the catchy title: “Filter Top Device Lined with Filter Paper.”

Bentz went into business. She established a company, Melitta (still in existence), to sell her product. Less then fifty years after Bentz’s nifty invention, the first electrical drip coffeemaker, the Wigomat, was also patented in Germany, 1954. The electrical version wasn’t better; it only required less effort from a human.

American Trish Rothgeb is considered the first to write about three different coffee ‘waves’. In her  famous article, published in 2002 after a stint working in an Oslo roastery, she writes: “First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave: this is how I think of contemporary coffee. There seem to be three movements influencing what [has been] termed Specialty Coffee. Each approach has its own set of priorities and philosophies; each has contributed to the consumer’s experience—and our livelihoods. Occasionally, the waves overlap; and one inevitably spills over to influence the next.”


While mainland Europe has had regionally different coffee traditions, the ‘Three Waves’ coffee culture commentators refer to are centred around America, the UK, and Australasia — which is why so many Third Wave baristas here in Berlin are from these countries. But that isn’t to say that the waves were non-existent in Europe – merely that the timeline has been different.

The First Wave culminated in post World War II freeze-dried instant coffee (there were patents for instant coffee as early as 1893, but the technology that enabled freeze-drying was only discovered through research done during wartime). This vacuum-packed form had a long shelf-life, which made the coffee readily available, and was cheap.   

First Wave in Deutschland: CARO commercial, featuring German tradition of adding condensed (or sometimes powdered) milk to coffee. 

In her article, Rothgeb defines the cons of the First Wave as those that made bad coffee commonplace: “Look who created low quality instant solubles, look who blended away all the nuance, look who forced prices to an all time low!” she writes. “They were and are the mass-marketers. While coffee has steadily grown in popularity since it’s discovery, the First Wavers made it their mission to increase consumption exponentially.”

At the worst end of the First Wave Coffee spectrum, what was being consumed was as much like real coffee as Spaghetti-Os are to pasta bolognese — like General Foods International Coffee French Vanilla Cafe (which was pretty delicious, but arguably not really coffee).

Germany’s Melittas and the Wigomats could be associated with the First Wave of coffee. But it seems Germany was stuck in the First Wave for a long time. For years hotels and restaurants in countries like France and Italy kept a drip brew coffee pot especially for Germans who had no taste for espresso drinks.

In contrast to the standard Wave timeline – with the Second Wave mapped from the opening of Peet’s Coffee and Tea in Berkeley, California in 1966, to the Starbucks boom of the 90s – Germany’s First Wave lasted for so long that the Second Wave was delayed and stunted. In short, Germany didn’t start really using espresso machines until the 80s.


Meanwhile, Second Wave cafes focused on ‘Specialty Coffee’ – an emphasis on the coffee beans’ origins, as well as how the beans could be roasted to achieve different flavour profiles. This was when coffee started to be thought of in terms more like wine. It was the pendulum swing away from instant and packaged pre-ground coffee, with its low quality and limited taste variations.

In much of Europe, by 2000, the Second Wave was experienced at home via capsule-based brew methods such as Nespresso. With a variety of flavours available in singular pods, came the ability to individuate your coffee, as opposed to sharing from one big pot of filter brew.

Second Wave cafes relied heavily on the espresso machine, drawing from what was seen as an artisan craft from countries like Italy and France. They did something right: by offering people a wider variety of coffee drinks (cappuccino, mochaccino, latte etc.) and flavour profiles, these cafes became as popular and omnipresent as the preceding grocery market big-brand coffee producers like Folger’s or Nescafé. Mass consumption, as during the First Wave, remained a strong focus.

I worked at a couple of cafes during the Second Wave. At an independent-owned cafe in a college town, I was shown the ropes by another barista.  It was all quite casual: press a button here, put the milk in the steamer here, try not to burn it, cool. Conversely, at a Starbucks in San Francisco, new employees were sent to “coffee school” for a day, taught about roasts, brew times and how to steam and froth different milks. Both used semi-automatic espresso machines.

For Second Wave cafes, this secured maximum profit for time and baristas didn’t require much training to operate the machines. What this meant is that, in terms of coffee origins and roasts, yes, quality had improved vastly from the First Wave, but it hadn’t yet improved as much as it could. Eventually creative and curious roasters and baristas had to take things to the next level.


Third Wave is the response, the level up. It picked up where the Second Wave left off in terms of quality control – e.g., origins and roasting styles – but went deeper. This is called ‘Seed-to-Cup’, which  means being aware of where coffee comes from, and most Third Wave roasters are committed to knowing exactly where they source their beans.

Seed-to-Cup supports direct-trade rather than fair-trade. That is to say, sourcing beans from the growers instead of through a third-party co-op, and thereby directly supporting the farmers. Most Third Wave roasters can show you photos of their growers, whom they often visit, and some even offer customers to join them on a trip. Coffee is actually a fruit — what we call beans are in fact seeds — and in the mentality of Seed-to-Cup, roasting lighter coerces the natural flavours out of the bean, whereas standard darker roasts heavily caramelise the bean’s sugars and can burn out more nuanced flavours.

On top, the barista’s role being between you and the roaster is clearer. They know the beans’ origin (place, elevation, season, growers), and the roast. They are dialling in the grind, the extraction pressure and time; and they are monitoring the water quality and temperature. This is how the Third Wave competes with Second Wave:  “okay, you like coffee, but have you really tasted it?” Third Wave asks you. “Let me show you what the best coffee tastes like, carefully and expertly prepared.”

“So kompliziert ist Kaffee bestellen heute.” – an example of a Second Wave cafe with waaaaaaaay too many options. Third Wave is the exact opposite, thank goodness.

In some cafes you don’t order drinks, you choose from milk-to-espresso ratios. At the very least, the menu board is far more simplified than from the vast menus of Second Wave fast-coffee bars. Foamed milk has changed too, for the better. Microfoam is sexy; it’s smooth, thick, and, with the right milk, sweet.

Third Wave has not only moved away from the semi-automatic espresso systems, but also away from electric drip brews; that is to say, how to prepare the regular cuppa’ Joe. There are impressive mad scientist ways of preparing, for example with the Syphon or through immersion and pressure via the Aeropress. There’s also the resurgence of classic pourover methods – coffee prepared like good ol’ Melitta Bentz did (e.g. Hario V60, Kalita Wave and Chemix). Aeropress and pour-over methods are super easy to prepare at home too – and you can buy the beans from your local roaster.

No music. No edits. Just the sights and sounds of pour-over coffee brewing and some running subtitled commentary.

So Third Wave is not simply some new espresso drinks with funny names or some kind of absolutist fascism for drinks you “shouldn’t” add milk and sugar to. It is, simply, really good coffee, ethically sourced and made so you can actually taste the actual coffee. The focus is on authenticity as opposed to speed; the product is seen as an artisanal food rather than a commodity. In this sense Third Wave has much to do with movements like Slow Cooking – and Slow Travel – and the overlap is not coincidental when you consider we seem to be ready for movements which bring back a more hands-on, human aspect to life.

If you’ve never been to a Third Wave cafe, don’t be intimidated by rumours of snobby baristas. They’re not – or at least not all of them. They are passionate and eager to educate and share. Ask questions or go to a cupping (coffee apparently has more flavour profiles than wine). It’s all part of connecting the people to the process, not just consumer to product. And, yes, some cafes may seem to hide the sugar and milk; they just want people to try their coffee that way— there’s a lot of love, obsession, and time put into that cup!

Oh, and it’s probably worth noting here that the original Turkish word for coffee is kahve, derived from the Arabic gahwah. Gahwah means “a type of wine.” In fact, coffee was referred to as “the wine of the berry.” Our words coffee and Kaffee, are directly linked via the Italian caffè, which originated from the Turkish kahve — a beverage meant to be appreciated like a wine.

Check our round-up of Berlin’s best Third Wave Cafes here

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