You know in the Chronicles of Narnia when Lucy stumbles through the old wardrobe and it ends up taking her to a magical new world? That’s how I’ve felt ever since working over at Prima Coffee, except the magical world is coffee and I’m not a six-year-old girl. When I started working at Prima I considered myself a casual coffee drinker. I could appreciate the difference in Starbucks and Folgers and I liked trying the different offerings at various coffee shops. But what I’ve discovered is that there is a whole new coffee movement that I was completely unaware of. Let me expand your coffee vocabulary and unpack this new “third wave” of coffee geekiness.
When looking at the recent history of coffee, there are essentially three waves. During the first wave, coffee was considered a commodity, kind of like wheat and rice. Bean origin and brew method didn’t really matter. Workplaces would brew a large batch of cheap coffee that would slowly scald as it sat on the burner for the next 2 hours while serving as a fountain of caffeine for the rest of the office. Coffee was, to quote an article over at Coffee Geek, consumed rather than enjoyed. When you hear first wave, think Folgers. This wave was a big step for coffee because it got the entire country familiar with the drink. The second wave, according to food critic Jonathan Gold, started in the 1960s at Peet’s and is typified in the popular establishments like Starbucks where espresso became more popular and the shop purchased higher quality beans labeled by country of origin. This is the coffee most Americans are still enjoying. A cup of Starbucks is generally preferable to the bulk coffee brewed at the office and beans can be purchased by country of origin allowing for more variety when brewing at home. For most, this is about as far as coffee goes. But there is a movement on the rise that’s introducing the world to what good coffee should taste like. Enter the third wave—a movement dedicated to delivering the highest quality of coffee to consumers and teaching them how to brew the same stuff in their own home. This is accomplished by overhauling every aspect of the process, starting from the purchase of the unroasted beans to the final product that lands in your cup. What lands in your cup won’t be what you’re used to; it will be a top quality brew that showcases the unique characteristics of the bean. Really quickly, I want to look at three areas that distinguish third wave coffee from the rest: origin, roast, and brew method.
When most people think of coffee origin, they think of the country. Third wave goes a step further and places value on which individual farm a bean was produced on. The cup I’m sipping right now is a bean from Nicaragua, but more than that, it was harvested on the La Gloria estate. When I taste this coffee I’m experiencing more than just a generic bean from Nicaragua. I’m getting to enjoy the specific flavors produced by an individual farm within the country. The differences between farms, even within the same country, are distinct. Third wave coffee generally guides customers away from blends of coffee because they hide the origin specific characteristics of the bean. For instance, if you had a piece of chocolate from Germany and another from Switzerland would you throw both in your mouth together or would you savor each one individually, appreciating the subtle differences between the two chocolates? It’s the same with coffee. High quality beans from a single origin are a key attribute of third wave coffee.
Roast is an equally important factor in producing a good cup. For most of my life I ordered the dark roast whenever I was in a coffee shop because I just assumed that darker coffee was more flavorful and manly then that limp-wristed light stuff. Little did I know, the darker you roast a coffee bean, the more of its flavors you will cover up. Most of what you are tasting when you go to Starbucks is the roast, not the bean itself. Third wave coffee emphasizes the importance of a lighter roast because that is what brings out all the unique characteristics of the coffee bean. It is possible to taste things like berries, honey, and chocolate in your coffee, but it won’t happen when your beans are roasted to a charry black. Freshness of roast is also important. Most of the coffee you’ve probably tasted was stale before it was even brewed. Coffee hits peak flavor anywhere from 3-10 days after its roast date. After that it begins loosing flavor and becomes completely stale after about a month. If Starbucks is offering you the stale toast of the coffee world, third wave coffee offers you a warm piece of freshly baked sourdough. The difference is that drastic.
Brew method is also an important step in the third wave movement. Most people get coffee by using an automated machine that haphazardly spews unfiltered, not-hot-enough water over a mass of old beans. You won’t find that in the third wave world. In fact, most of the brew methods used by third wave shops can be easily replicated at home. My favorites include the Chemex, AeroPress, and the Clever (more on those in later posts). Controlling each step of the brew allows for a customized process that can be adjusted to get different flavors from the bean. A good third-waver will grind his beans fresh, use hot water at an optimal temperature (195-205 degrees), and control the pour in accordance to how coarse or fine the bean was ground. A good cup of coffee is produced by paying attention to all these details. Even something small like prerinsing your filter to get rid of the pulp will take away the papery taste from your coffee. Good wine isn’t made by just throwing some grapes in a vat and letting them ferment, and neither is good coffee made by throwing beans and water in a machine and letting it run its course.
There are many other things that define third wave coffee, and I’m not familiar with all of them. I’m still very new to the world of good coffee and won’t pretend to be an expert. I’m appreciative of my informed and willing-to-teach coworkers over at Prima Coffee and also for all the helpful coffee blogs I’ve stumbled upon. I’m sure that some of you probably remain unconvinced and might even be laughing a little at my newfound coffee geekiness. However, I’m convinced that once you’ve had a real good cup of coffee, you won’t ever look back. If you want to get started brewing some quality coffee at home, stay tuned over the next few weeks. I plan on posting regularly about home brewing so that anyone willing to give it a shot will have some help along the way.