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

Being interested in coffee, I talk to a lot of people about coffee and their approach to it. One of the things that surprises and interests me the most, is how different someone’s perception of a good cup of coffee can be from mine. More specifically, when I start talking about coffee, I am taken aback when someone steers the conversation towards “Gourmet Coffee.”

I am not a coffee snob and I don’t mind what coffee you drink or what you put in it. I have and do drink coffee in the bottom tiers of quality on occasion. That being said, gourmet flavored coffees are unpalatable to me, I can’t bring myself to drink them. I’m not mad at you if that is what you like, I’m just not going to drink it.

This of course begs the question, what is gourmet coffee and how does it differ from Third Wave coffee like the coffee sold by Angel’s Cup?

Defining Some Terms

When trying to understand the differences between gourmet coffee and Third Wave coffee, it helps to have a base definition of each. Here is the “view from 30,000 feet,” brief fly-over of a few of the common terms.

Gourmet coffee- This term is actually a little up for interpretation. It doesn’t have a specific meaning in itself but it does have a connotation. As a general rule of thumb, if a roaster is referring to their coffee as gourmet, you can probably expect these things:

  • There will be a heavy emphasis on flavored coffee
  • They will probably describe their coffee as having a “shelf-life” or expiration date (15 months on one website!).
  • The majority of the coffee will come out of extremely large coffee farms in Brazil.

There is no set standard for gourmet coffee, it is more-or-less a marketing term that can be used at the discretion of the roasting company.

Specialty Coffee- This term was first used in 1974 by Erna Knutsen as a way of differentiating a segment of coffee away form the “Gourmet Coffee” label. Specialty coffee is defined as being rated 80 points or more on the 100 point coffee grading scale. There is a governing organization, The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), that monitors quality and standards of specialty coffee.

Third Wave Coffee- This term is refers to a smaller segment of specialty coffee. It is a group of roasters, cafes and consumers that view the process of roasting, brewing and drinking coffee to fall into the artisanal and specialty foods category. Coffee is more than a commodity to this group. With Third Wave coffee you can typically expect sourcing from small farms, single origin coffees and lighter roasts. There will be an emphasis on coffee being consumed fresh, as well as, roasting in a way that highlights the origin characteristics and processing method of the coffee.

Three Important Differences

Besides the obvious differences that can be seen from the basic definitions of the terms, there are a few other differences that should be noted. Although some of it applies to gourmet coffee in general, these differences focus on gourmet flavored coffee as I believe this is the greatest misrepresentation of the word “gourmet.”

Flavored Coffee versus Coffee with Flavor

Support for gourmet coffee comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of coffee and coffee flavors. There is a general misconception that coffee tastes bad and we need things (sugar, flavoring, whimsically named creamers) to make it drinkable.

Third Wave coffee is good on it’s own merits, without additives. A good cup of coffee has all sorts of interesting and delicious flavors both subtle and not so subtle. Coffee can have a natural sweetness, an enjoyable complexity or creamy smoothness (take a look at this coffee tasting chart). Do not underestimate the potential of a quality coffee.

As with most food related tastes, artificially flavored coffee is no match for the natural flavors that a quality Third Wave coffee can have. Don’t opt for “Blueberry Pie” gourmet coffee. Search out coffee that has blueberry in the tasting notes.

Chemical Process Versus Natural Processes

One of the things I love about coffee is the roasting process. Did you know that you can roast coffee at home? You cannot, however, roast gourmet flavored coffees at home. The chemicals used for such a process are too dangerous to sell to an average consumer. (They typically use propylene glycol… yikes!)

The processing that a coffee goes through to produce it’s natural flavors are, as you may expect, 100% natural. The country of origin and how it was picked and processed impact the flavors immensely.

Don’t spoil your morning ritual with an unappetizing mixture of coffee and flavoring chemicals.

Mega Farms Versus Micro lots

Most coffee for gourmet flavored coffee comes from large farms in Brazil. These giant coffee plantations use the most convenient (cheapest) methods for growing, harvesting and processing your coffee. This means you are getting an inferior product and the roaster has no choice but to add flavors or over-roast the coffee in order to make it “palatable.”

A great majority of Third Wave coffee comes from small farms. In many cases, there are people and organizations working with these farmers to improve their coffee crop. These small farms typically expend tremendous amounts of effort to maintain, grow and harvest their product. The results of their efforts are small lots of unique coffees, prized for their flavors and quality.

Give Third Wave Coffee a Try

There are other things that differentiate between “Gourmet” coffee and Third Wave coffee but I hope you can see that there is huge quality gap between the two. Whether you are searching for a coffee for yourself or as a gift, I want to encourage you to consider Third Wave coffee (Angel’s Cup is also now available on Amazon).

You can, of course, drink whatever you like but don’t be fooled by the marketing gimmicks. Gourmet is a term that is often associated with connoisseurship and quality. Gourmet coffee is typically not either of those things.

If you are looking for a relentless pursuit of quality and craftsmanship, Third Wave coffee is where you want to be.

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