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Plat du Jour: Tuesday April 17, 2012: Third Wave Coffee

On The Subject of Third Wave Coffee Roasters and Cafes

It’s always fascinating to see the various waves of dining and drinking trends coming and going in America’s metropolitan centers. Some chef in New York starts making pork belly a hit and then every neighborhood bistro from La Jolla to Pittsburgh has a riff on pork belly. A bartender starts making his own syrups and fruit juices in Portland, then the term mixologist is born and used nationwide. The same can be said of course for a myriad of trends: farm to table/local/sustainable ingredients, upscale pizza, upscale burgers, gastropubs, communal tables, izakayas, pop up dinners, anything with the word “artisan” in it, the list goes on…

However, one of the most striking trends and least talked about, is the “third wave” of coffee movement the past few years, that has had astounding exponential growth just in 2011-2012. A quick little primer on the waves of coffee movements: the first was in the early 20th century when Folgers and Hillstone Brothers in San Francisco started serving coffee…not good coffee, just coffee. Peet’s in Berkeley and Starbucks in Seattle in the 70’s launched the second wave, which now one can find in any mall or street corner of the U.S. It’s a wave that brought “artisan” coffee into the American mainstream and of course your triple soy macchiato lattes with low fat whip into our language. The third wave has no definite starting place or time. It really has been the past decade where young baristas in Portland, Seattle, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and all across the country started challenging the status quo of what coffee should taste like. Instead of being a passive drink, it should be a captivating one, whether drip coffee, espresso shots, espresso drinks with foam art, or even challenging that iced coffee need not iced cubes to dilute the beverage.

These baristas started putting the care into their bean sourcing that an expert winemaker does into selecting the particular grapes for a particular vintage of a particular wine. Except coffee bean sourcing is on a much, much massive scale than wine grape sourcing. Show up at a third wave coffee bar like the outstanding Sightglass in San Francisco’s SoMa and the beans will come from Uganda, Bolivia, Madagascar…you name it. Third wave coffee bars often sport coffee filtration systems, like the one for the Kyoto iced coffee at Blue Bottle in San Francisco’s Mint Plaza, or the drip coffee filter at Balconi in West L.A., where the machine belongs more in a lab at M.I.T. than a cozy neighborhood cafe.

There are a couple requirements for a third wave coffee cafe with the first being that you roast your own beans. Don’t just roast your beans, roast them by hands in a machine easily visible in your main cafe. It’s the same effect as an open kitchen in a restaurant. Customers today want to see the source. At the same time like with produce, a shorter roaster to cup time for the bean, the more vivid the coffee flavor will be. That is the other main requirement for third wave coffee: a much stronger, bolder flavor bean than anything the generation before would recognize. These coffees are the Dogfish Head-jolly Pumpkins of craft beer and the wines created by daring, meticulous winemakers throughout the country today. Starbucks is Two Buck Chuck and Coors. The third wave coffee roasters present big, brash, but fully rounded flavors that demand attention like how Eric Asimov would approach a wine. The espresso at Four Barrel is a tad sour and nutty, while at Blue Bottle there is more stone fruit and cardamom hints…third wave coffee is a more affordable, approachable way of wine tasting. Unlike with wine, you can taste in the morning and all day too!

Then there are the unofficial requirements of a third wave coffee cafe, which may explain why much of the population over the age of 30 or so still doesn’t know much about the changes in coffee culture. The wardrobe of a cafe is skinny jeans or “jorts” with flannel shirts. The music of cafes switches between house, ska, Adele, Regina Spektor, and plenty of alternative bands you’d find at Coachella. There is no car parking, but plenty of bike parking. There is probably wi fi and a few dogs chilling on the floor. There is no menu per se, usually just a listing of where the beans were sourced. Of course you’ll pay on an ipad.

What I am describing is of course how the third wave coffee movement is directly related with the hipster culture seen nationwide. Decades from now we food historians will look back on this movement and see exactly how the two became inter-connected. How did biking become related to latte art? There is some reason I believe to the rationale I use, with the source of this third wave coffee trend being in Portland and Seattle, where the hipster trend also began around the same time.

The number one complaint of coffee drinkers about this trend is that the expert baristas often find themselves so into their coffee and their own personal “coolness” that service badly suffers.  Recently I found a bad case of this at Barefoot Coffee Roasters in a Santa Clara mini mall in the Bay Area, not exactly one of the region’s more hipster neighborhoods by any stretch. The music was hypnotizing in the bad way that dreadful techno does. The barista not once made eye contact with me or smiled. He was just swaying and nodding his head, making me very unsure if he had any idea I was talking to him. Despite these hurdles, there’s no doubt this is excellent coffee. There may be a lack of service industry skills among these young baristas, but they know how to make coffee.

Then comes the question of why in the world are the majority of cafes still serving watery, bland espressos, and drip coffee that may as well be tea. I’ve recently been to too many supposedly great cafes boasting of their Lavazzo espresso and their Illy espresso from Italy. Both were airplane quality. In Italy, is espresso simply more watery? I went to Peet’s the other day though, the same watery mess.

Luckily, the new generation is changing how we view coffee. I used to only drink coffee when in cold climates to stay warm. Now, thanks to the third wave coffee movement, coffee is as fascinating and dense a subject to taste as fine wines and riveting cuisine. It’s a wave that has rapidly expanded recently, so here’s hoping it continues to reach more and more cafes in cities everywhere, without some of the attitude. Think of this third wave as the wave to end bland, watery coffee and espresso.

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