The Third Wave of Coffee

Daria and I were at work the other day, looking over our cafe’s new barista certification study guide. Even though I’ve been making coffee for several years at this point, I’m constantly learning new things. Usually, the gist of each lesson is that I know even less about coffee than I thought I did.

The first question of the study guide was, “What do you know about Counter Culture coffee?” I answered, “We get our coffee from Counter Culture, and they typically make light- and medium-roasted coffees.” Daria told me this was correct. I admitted that I didn’t know much more than that, and that there must be something else to say for the lovely people that send us up over one hundred pounds of coffee every week. What else is there to know about Counter Culture?

Daria began by saying, “Counter Culture is a third-wave coffee roaster….” What she was going to say next, I’m not sure, because I had to know—“What’s third-wave coffee?”

To appreciate what third-wave coffee is, you would have to go to the beginning. You know, first-wave coffee. These waves apply to the American coffee-drinking experience, so we don’t have to go all the way back to the goat herder who discovered coffee. First-wave coffee can be best described as what everyone started drinking state-side after the end of World War II.

Young Americans were returning from the cafes of France and Italy, and they wanted to take a little something with them. What they got was freeze-dried coffee in a can. If you’ve seen those old commercials where men belittle their wives for making terrible coffee, try to imagine the context. They went from getting Americanos at a little bistro in Paris to getting coffee that was ground months ago; God only knows when it was roasted. Of course it’s not going to be good! Why are you blaming your wife? She works so hard!

Second-wave coffee took its time coming around, but once it got here, it made one hell of an impression. Second-wave coffee is of a relatively higher quality, with an emphasis on blends of coffee roasted dark. The end result is a coffee that goes well with milk and sugar. Enter Starbucks.

Starbucks turned coffee from something men complained about their wives over and turned it into a multi-billion dollar industry. Their menu includes a variety of recipes with any number of flavor syrups and sugary sweetness. The darker-roast coffee goes well with those kinds of additions, so instead of just milk and sugar, we start seeing things like Cubanos, mochas, and Spanish lattes.

Second-wave coffee was largely comprised of blends rather than single-origins. One pound of coffee could come from one country but several different farms, each with an entirely different method for growing and harvesting their beans. Imagine buying a bottle of wine that was a combination of five different grapes from California, Chile, Australia, and Italy. It mattered less that the coffee was coming from multiple locations, because when you roast a coffee dark enough, you lose those subtleties that make a Kenyan coffee distinct from an Ethiopian one.

What you end up with is a dark-roasted blend that is well complimented with milk, sugar, or flavor syrups. It is this movement that introduced millions of Americans to the latte, the cappucino, and the mocha. Instead of men yelling at their wives for making bad coffee, they have taken to the cafes, to yell at baristas for giving them too little foam.

Some people saw Starbucks popping up on every street corner, and said, no. It doesn’t have to be this way. The coffee doesn’t have to be burnt to be enjoyed. We don’t need enough caramel and vanilla to send us into diabetic comas. We want to know where our coffee comes from.

This is the third wave of coffee.

Third-wave coffee is something of a response to the second wave. While there had been blends of coffees in which a single bag could represent several different regions, single-origin coffees allowed you to say, “this coffee came from this farm from this specific elevation at this specific latitude and longitude.” Several third-wave coffee roasters include this information, along with tasting notes and a personal history of the farmers that grew the coffee in each bag.

Instead of roasting coffee to best accommodate the addition of milk, third-wave roasters try to find the best way to accentuate the flavor of a specific coffee. A lot of African coffees will have a fruity or floral flavor. A good roaster will try to find a way to bring out the best tastes in their coffee—for instance, to highlight a citrus note. When you get down to it, coffee is a lot like wine. Elevation, rainfall, and region have a lot to do with the end result, and what was good one year may not be the next. Third-wave roasters look to take those qualities and turn into some damn good coffee.

We take that damn good coffee and find that a third-wave cafe has a menu similar to but slightly different from a second-wave cafe. We still see a lot of the same drinks, like lattes, cappucinos, and espressos, but we trade the mochas and Spanish lattes for macchiatos and cortados. Instead of drinks being made distinct by flavor additions, they are made distinct by their milk-to-espresso ratio.

This emphasis on single-origin coffee encourages direct trade; instead of large roasters buying lots of coffees from lots of sources, smaller roasters are dealing directly with the farmer and giving them fairer prices. The people who are roasting will know what kind of environment this coffee came from, and that will inform how they roast it. They, in turn, will pass that knowledge on to the barista, who can recognize the distinctions in this coffee that will allow them to pour better espresso.

The third wave has given us not only a new approach in how coffee is grown and roasted, but also a new approach in how we educate ourselves and others on the subject. We start to recognize all the variables that come with a 2 ½ ounce drink and how any number of factors influence that final result. Nothing is certain; there is no standard. No one country can be proclaimed best producer of all, because next year, they might have a drought. Maybe another country’s beans will be roasted by someone who tries something different. Or maybe we’re pouring the espresso really well, but if we grind it just a little finer, it will unlock some magical properties. We recognize that the world of coffee is made up of opinions rather than facts.

In short, there are many elements to these different movements of coffee—far too many for me to go into here. I haven’t even gone into the cup sizes! My aim in this entry is similar to my aim in most of my entries: there is way too much information and knowledge on these subjects, and I can’t possibly write it all here. I can only share with you what I have learned, in the hope it may spark an interest for you, as it has for me.

So, I would like to leave you with some information in the hope that it may inspire you to ask questions about where the coffee you’re drinking came from. I would also like to leave you with the thought that this history of how we approach coffee is not unique to coffee. As I was researching this subject, I couldn’t help but notice how similar this is to the American experience with beer. But that is a topic for another time.

The next time, I hope.

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Latte Art 101

Latte art is the creation of a design on a beverage through the skillful pouring of steamed milk over espresso.

Simple, right? No. Wrong. Bad. Latte art is difficult to explain, difficult to teach, difficult to learn. Because I can, I’ve already cheated by limiting my definition above to include only “free-pour” latte art.1 So let’s start with how it’s made, then move on to whether or not it’s cool and/or good.

How It’s Made

The pouring of latte art can be divided into two main phases after the espresso and milk are prepared: (1) the barista sets up the dark background, and (2) the barista pours the design on the surface of the beverage.

In the first phase, a steady stream is poured from higher above the cup into the espresso. The stream of milk falls beneath the surface in the cup, mixing with the espresso and leaving a dark canvas for art at the surface.

In the second phase, the barista brings the pitcher down as close to the surface of the beverage as possible, still pouring a steady stream. Now the white steamed milk from the pitcher doesn’t fall beneath the surface, but flows out across the top, contrasting with the previously solid brown background.

A new barista’s first try might look like this:

Baristas create different designs in bevs by manipulating the pitcher during the second phase. After learning a few moves (shaking back and forth, changing the position over the surface, and lifting to pour back through the design), a barista can pour a heart or a rosetta (“fern”).

Here’s a really awesome Rosetta by Mia at Pavement:

Is It Cool/Good?

“But who cares?” you ask. “Isn’t latte art just an excuse for baristas to show off their technical prowess in the field of aesthetic whimsy-making? Doesn’t it not really guarantee a delicious bev at all? Didn’t the field of aesthetic whimsy-making become obsolete after Dorian Gray or something?”

Right. Or, rather, sort of right. First of all, Dorian Gray is a fictional character; you probably mean Oscar Wilde. As to the rest, it’s true that latte art doesn’t make a beverage taste any better. But, on average at least, the bevs with latte art I’ve been served have tended to be higher quality than those without. It’s one of those causation vs. correlation situations—or, put more fancily as a rhetorical question by David Walsh on his blog The Other Black Stuff:

I might observe that cappuccinos that I have received that have latte art on them tend to taste better on average than those that do not. Does latte art cause the cappuccinos to taste better? Or is it more likely that there is a confounding variable?

It is often pointed out that latte art is a sign of an (at least somewhat) experienced barista. David Walsh’s point is that baristas who pour latte art or manually brew or wear skinny jeans2 may be “more likely to care about the taste of the end product,” but that those factors aren’t the cause of a delicious cup.

More important perhaps is that awesome latte art can’t be poured without awesome milk; attention to detail with latte art requires attention to detail with milk steaming. Milk must be the right texture, with microfoam (tiny air bubbles, as opposed to big frothy “dry” bubbles) incorporated throughout the whole pitcher. Art is also best poured with milk prepared at a good tasting temperature (sorry extra-hot drinkers! Your milk pours weird and tastes weird).

And since all ‘spresso-n-milk bevs cortado-n-larger are mostly milk, the sweetness and texture of the milk are way more important (IMHO) than the quality of the extraction of espresso.


1And because etching is silly and has no place in a cafe where either speed or quality is a priority. After the several extra minutes it takes for a barista to coax the surface of a latte into the image of a teddy bear, or (worse yet) my face, the beverage itself will have cooled and turned old-latte textured.

2The skinny jeans thing is a joke, please no angry pro- or anti-hipster emails to me or Mr. Walsh.

Drinking versus Tasting

We consume a lot of stuff in America—from coffee to computers to cars. We may not be in the era of the moonwalk anymore, but I don’t think that this consumptive, materialistic mentality has left us yet. France produces more wine than any other country in the world, and has the second-largest vineyard area (Spain beats it there). In Germany, beer has its own festival (the well-known Oktoberfest). In China, tea is considered one of the seven necessities to life (the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar). I suppose if we worship any drink here in America, it’s coffee. We consume it in such volume that there are, literally, places in the country where a Starbucks is situated across the street from a Starbucks. (Just ask Lewis Black.) But that’s just what it is—consumption. According to the International Coffee Organization, in 2009, Americans consumed just over 9 pounds of coffee per capita. We might not have anything on Scandinavia, but that’s still a lot of coffee. Yet, most of us still think that a dark roast has more caffeine than a medium roast. Many worship Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks as if they were gods, while ignoring the local cafés that bring us truly great drinks, for just a little added expense.

Luckily, the independent cafés are doing well enough to stick around, and even to open new ones—and I, for one, am grateful. As my bio on this site mentions, I wasn’t always a coffee drinker. It all started one Christmas day, when my uncle wanted me to play Texas Hold ‘Em and I wanted to go to bed. So, I had a cup of Maxwell House—and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t hate it. It took a while from there until I got away from the Folger’s/Dunkin’ Donuts stuff myself and graduated onto grinding my own beans from Trader Joe’s.

What I didn’t realize at first, or even appreciate fully when I first started grinding fresh beans, was the true complexity of flavors available in coffee. If you read the labels on bags of Counter Culture or Stumptown beans, it quickly becomes apparent that people who are serious about their coffee talk about it very similarly to how wine aficionados talk about their favorite merlot or shiraz. You start seeing mentions of floral aromatics, chocolate and butterscotch, cherry jam and toasted nuts. Who knew you could find all of that in a cup o’ Joe?

I’m not a great taster—in fact, I’m terrible at it. On a good day, I’ll be able to pick out something obvious in a wine, like blackberry or nuttiness, but most of the time the best I can do is say, “Hey, I really like this one!” I will never be a sommelier. But I also refuse to believe that tasting is an innate talent, not an acquirable skill. We do a lot of drinking in this country, but not necessarily a lot of tasting. So, this holiday season, take a step back, take a deep breath (literally—so much of tasting is in the nose), and take a sip—of coffee, or wine, or beer, or tea. Don’t just drink it; try to figure out what’s in there. You might be surprised by what you find. And even if you can’t discern any particular flavor, you may at least begin to recognize the complexity of the tastes in your mouth. You may never look at your morning coffee the same way again.