May 12, 2022

Exploring the language of specialty coffee


When you’re buying beans or visiting specialty coffee shops, you might come across terms like third wave, single origin, micro lot, or artisan. For those who are new to the specialty coffee sector, this language can be confusing.

As such, for coffee professionals looking to make the specialty coffee industry more accessible, there’s a simple first step: breaking down and defining this terminology. In doing so, they will give consumers the capacity to make more informed purchasing decisions.

So, what are the most common terms used in specialty coffee and what do they really mean, especially in the context of the wider industry?

To find out, I spoke to the author of Coffee: A Global History, Professor Jonathan Morris, and Head of Coffee at Rave Coffee, Ashlee Eastwood-Quinn. Read on to find out what they told me.

You may also like our article about redefining “specialty coffee”.

coffee roasters speaking

Craft & artisan

The terms “craft” and “artisan” are common in many industries around the world, including the coffee sector. The Oxford Dictionary defines craft as “an activity involving a special skill at making things with your hands”, while an artisan is defined as “a person who does work that needs a special skill, [which involves] making things with their hands”.

Craft and artisan are notably used throughout several food and beverage sectors; they are attached to segments such as craft beer and artisanal bread. Essentially, these terms are used to indicate a more premium, higher-quality product, generally as a result of the skills needed to produce them.

In the specialty coffee industry, the words “craft” and “artisan” are most associated with roasting, and are often used alongside terms like “hand-roasted”.

Jonathan Morris is a Research Professor in Modern European History at the University of Hertfordshire. “Craft or artisan insinuates that a skill has been learned over time using applied knowledge,” he says. “There is a human element involved, rather than a mechanised one.”

But as the specialty coffee industry becomes more automated, are coffee brands still able to market themselves as craft or artisanal?  

Ashlee believes that automation only serves to enhance skills used in coffee roasting. 

“We use technology to help us be more consistent,” she says. “Technology, such as temperature probes and roasting curves, are used alongside a roaster’s knowledge, so you use technology to your advantage.

“The care and knowledge of the product is then passed onto the end consumer.”

brewing pour over coffee

The third wave of coffee

The term third wave coffee is believed to have been coined by Timothy Castle in 2000, but it started to become far more widespread after Trish Rothgeb used it in a 2003 newsletter for the Roasters Guild

In the newsletter, Trish stated that there are three waves of coffee. She refers to the first wave of coffee as to when consumption in the US was rapidly increasing during the early 20th century. As coffee was becoming more commercialised, the availability of roasted and ground and instant products was skyrocketing. This made coffee more popular and accessible than ever before.

After this came the second wave, which began in the 1970s. This is where we saw coffee defined as an experience, rather than a commodity, with the emergence of the coffee shop experience. Household coffee shop names of today like Starbucks (founded in 1971) led the charge throughout the second wave.

Furthermore, second wave coffee shops also provided customers with a “third place” – people could visit these coffee shops and socialise for hours.

The third wave of coffee follows from this concept. It emerged in the early 2000s, largely influenced by Scandinavian coffee culture. At this point in time, it was generally believed that Scandinavian consumers preferred lighter roasts over darker roasts, which were common in the first and second waves of coffee.

Third wave coffee culture emphasises the craft of making coffee to highlight the more delicate flavours in light-to-medium roasts. It also entails a greater appreciation for the barista and their technical skills, as more of the focus is on preparing high-quality specialty coffee.

“It’s about the move away from ‘standard’ coffee shops to more of a focus on the coffee itself, including origin and brewing techniques,” Jonathan explains.

As third wave coffee consumers express more interest in learning about where coffee comes from, there is more focus on the wider coffee supply chain, particularly on producers. 

Customers want to know more about the person who grew the coffee they’re drinking, as well as how it was grown. This means learning more about the variety, the elevation at which the coffee was grown, which processing method was used, which tasting notes you should be able to identify, as well as a range of other factors.

This has also led to a growing demand for transparency and traceability, which both help to inform third wave coffee consumers about the provenance of their beans.

coffee waybill

Single origin, micro lot & nano lot

In specialty coffee shops, it’s common to come across both blends and single origin coffees. While blends are a mix of different coffees (usually beans from several countries), the phrase “single origin” can have a range of definitions.

Single origin broadly indicates that the coffee was grown in one country, but the term can be more specific. It can refer to a certain region or area of the country, for instance. However, as traceability becomes more important to specialty coffee consumers, single origin has generally come to mean that the coffee was produced from “a single farm, estate, or co-operative”, Ashlee tells me.

This means that single origin coffees can sometimes be traced back to the individual farmer who grew them, or even a to specific plot of land.

Furthermore, the demand for more traceable coffee has led to a growing number of micro lot and nano lot coffees. Micro lots are coffees sourced from small plots on farms, which are then harvested and processed separately from other coffees on the same farm. This helps to retain the unique qualities of the coffee.

Nano lots are similar to micro lots, but are produced on even smaller plots of land. Farmers sometimes use more experimental processing techniques, such as anaerobic fermentation or carbonic maceration, for micro and nano lots to help drive up the price. This allows them to create more dynamic and complex flavours, alongside giving them more control over the fermentation process.

As a result of the smaller harvest sizes and more experimental processing, micro and nano lots are usually marketed as being more exclusive and rare in an effort to receive a higher price.

picked coffee cherries

Sustainability, traceability & transparency

Over the past few years, sustainability, traceability, and transparency have all become increasingly important for specialty coffee consumers. But what are the differences between the three concepts?

In general, “sustainability” means meeting the needs of current societies without compromising the needs of future generations. Similarly to social responsibility, sustainability covers environmental, social, and economic factors.

Jonathan explains: “When talking about sustainability, you have to ask a question: if we do everything in exactly the same way across the coffee supply chain, will we be able to do it in the same way ten years from now?

“Can you still have the same quality coffee with the same economic benefits to everyone in the supply chain, without causing any environmental damage?” he adds. “If we carry on growing coffee in the same way, will the land still be productive in ten years from now, with similar coffee yields?”

Ashlee explains more about economic sustainability. “At Rave, we buy coffees from the same farms year-on-year, which is one of the best ways of providing more economic sustainability in the coffee industry,” she says. “We agree to forward buying, which means we’re committed to buying over a longer period. This provides farmers with more financial security.”

However, sustainability also ties into traceability and transparency, as Ashlee explains.

Traceability is about knowing where your coffee comes from, while transparency is about knowing as much about your supply chain as possible,” she says. “This means knowing who is involved at every step, including the farms, mills, co-operatives, shipping companies, exporters, and warehouses.”

With transparency in particular, there is growing pressure from consumers for brands to publish how much every stakeholder in the supply chain is paid.

This is especially important because making sure farmers are paid more equitably for their crop has become a major talking point across the coffee sector, highlighting some of the various longstanding inequities in the coffee supply chain.

coffee producer on farm

Social responsibility

The National Coffee Association’s 2022 National Coffee Data Trends report found that coffee consumption among 18 to 24-year olds was up 14% since January 2021. This demographic, (which includes Generation Z), as well as millennials, are more conscious about which companies they purchase from.

In the 2015 Cone Communications Millennial CSR Study, it was found that more than 90% of US millennials chose to purchase from more socially responsible brands. Undoubtedly, this number has at least remained stable, if not increased, over the past seven years.

While the term itself is not as far-reaching, social responsibility is a concept that is starting to become more prominent in specialty coffee. It can be defined as any activity a company conducts out of a desire to improve outcomes across the supply chain, whether that’s with a community, environmental, or economic focus.

For example, a coffee shop can address its social responsibility towards the environment by encouraging customers to bring reusable cups more often, or by contributing a certain percentage of profits to improve infrastructure at origin.

The British Coffee Association’s Bean to Bin and Beyond report sets out seven principles in which to reduce coffee waste across the supply chain. This includes shifting to zero-waste packaging by 2025 and reducing carbon emissions from the transportation of coffee.

However, social responsibility projects can take place at any level of the coffee supply chain. 

Ashlee tells me how Rave Coffee is involved in a social project in the town of Pitalito, Colombia. As part of the green coffee trader Raw Material’s Red Association initiative, Rave works with farmers from the El Carmen co-operative. 

“The Red Association helps to build infrastructure which enables smallholder coffee farmers to process their coffees in more reliable ways,” she says. “The project aims to improve coffee quality and increase the base price for the farmers.”

As part of the project, Raw Material and Rave helped to build a washing station for the El Carmen co-operative, which allowed them to retain more value for their coffees.

roasting coffee

The language of specialty coffee can be confusing for consumers who might not be as well-educated. However, by learning the meaning behind these commonly-used terms, consumers can build their knowledge of specialty coffee remarkably quickly.

However, to help more people understand more about where coffee comes from and the effort that goes into producing it, it can be helpful to try to break this language down and demystify it where possible. By doing so, we will equip more and more consumers to improve their understanding and appreciation of specialty coffee.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how we can make specialty coffee more accessible.

Photo credits: Nicole Motteux

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