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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