Third-wave, gourmet, and artisan coffee — learn which labels are legit.

A quick glance through the coffee aisle of your local market shows the many ways to describe coffee, and many likely sound interesting but are they all legitimate indicators of quality? Today we are going to cover three often-used, seldom-described coffee labels: third wave, artisan, and gourmet.

Third wave

The third wave coffee label is a bit like the boogieman — most of us have heard of it but few of us really know what it means… and likely for a good reason. While there is no universally accepted definition of third wave coffee, most pundits agree that the concept encapsulates an appreciation of the bean and the coffee-making process from seed to cup. This may be easier to understand within the greater context of American coffee waves. The first great coffee wave occurred in the late 1800s / early 1900s, with coffee’s entry into the large-scale, general American market. First wave coffee is frequently referred to by its brand name (e.g., Folders or Maxwell House) with no attention to or mention of coffee quality, origin, or roast. First wave is also referred to as ‘turn and burn’ coffee and includes everything from traditional dinner coffee to instant coffee.

First wave coffee held court until the emergence of second wave coffee in the 1960s / 1970s. Second wave coffee emerged alongside craft and artisan roasting and blending. Second wave coffee exposed consumers to different espresso-based drinks, the concept of origin coffees, new roasts, and the art of coffee blends. Second wave coffee really focused on creating a memorable, unique, perfectly prepared cup and, in doing so, elevated coffee from a standard beverage into a luxury drink. Second wave coffee is most frequently associated with Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks.

Third wave coffee essentially takes a deep dive into second wave coffee, exploring, exposing, and gleefully reveling in the details of a coffee’s origin, growing conditions, farm, processing, and roasting. Whereas second wave coffee wanted to give you a tasty, luxurious drink, third wave coffee wants you to appreciate the coffee and prioritizes that recognition and appreciation over the actual quality of the product. Third wave coffee does not have any criteria or standards though it is often associated with Specialty coffee, which is a high-quality coffee designation. Whereas first and second wave coffee focused on the final product, third wave coffee strives to enrich the consumer experience by connecting the customer with the coffee growers and coffee origination through education, traceability, flavor breakdowns, and full-process transparency. Hallmarks of third wave coffee are highly detailed coffee notes and educational materials about the coffee’s origin, growers, and processing. Essentially, first wave coffee was just coffee to drink, second wave coffee gave you a set of luxurious, arabica bean and beverage options, and third wave coffee takes you from being a coffee drinker to a coffee connoisseur.

Artisan / Craft

Artisan coffee refers to the art and skill involved in the roasting process. Coffee labeled artisan is typically roasted onsite (some roasting companies send their coffee out to a third-party roaster) and is roasted by a highly-skilled, talented, professional roaster who evaluates each bean and roasts and / or blends the beans to extract their best qualities. Artisan coffee is roasted by a roasting artist. Artisan coffee is also often referred to as craft coffee.


I regret to inform you that Gourmet is just a marketing term. It does not signify quality at any level. If gourmet is the only quality mark you see on a bag, pass.

To learn more about coffee terms, labels, and classifications, visit the following blog entries:

What is Specialty Coffee?

Bird friendly, Organic, Fair Trade…coffee has a lot of certifications. Here’s what they mean.

Direct Trade or Fair Trade?

Single origin, microlot, co-op, small farm: what’s the difference?


What (Exactly) is “Third Wave Coffee”?

What Is “Third Wave Coffee”, & How Is It Different to Specialty?

Third wave of coffee

A Guide to Buying Coffee on the Internet: Gourmet, Specialty, & Third Wave Coffee Defined

The Differences Between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Wave Coffee

3 thoughts on “Third-wave, gourmet, and artisan coffee — learn which labels are legit.

Add yours

  1. Chuckling hard at that last one. I mean, we see gourmet put on $1 bags of gummi bears, for crying out loud. It really is a term that’s been squeezed dry of all its juice.

    Wonderful post!


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