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Friday, August 2, 2013

Riding the (3rd) Wave

Imagine, if you will, you are a surfer.  Not just any surfer, but a pretty good surfer.  One who competes on a national level, if not global.  (I don't really know anything about surfing so this analogy may be a wipe out, pun partially intended.)  So say there are different types of waves.  And also say that there are some new waves that are completely different than any waves ever before.  Maybe better, maybe not.  But a lot of people like them and all the top performers will only surf these waves.  They roll different and you can do different moves on them, all in ways that have not been done in a long time, if ever.

This is like third wave coffee.  It is something new and different and people like it.

The Short History of the Coffee Waves
First wave: Commonly accepted as the introduction of freeze dried, mass produced coffee such as Folgers and Maxwell House.
Second wave: The rise of Starbucks and national chain coffee that brought about consistency and recognition of what a latte was.
Third wave: Coffee that's treated like an artisan product, such as wine, and being from a specific region.

So there, that's third wave coffee, thanks for reading.

Well, maybe there is a bit more to third wave coffee.  Third wave coffee is a lot of things.  If you look at the first wave, you have a solid foundation of coffee drinkers.  Second wave built the institution in which we all live, the foundation if you will.  Third wave is pretty much everything else.  The siding, the paint, the carpet, the furniture.  Third wave coffee is really a lot of things.  I will try to go over most of the aspects of third wave coffee and what they mean to the employer, employee, and consumer.

The biggest thing about third wave, to me, is taste.  It's all about taste.  Making coffee taste like it smells.  Just like there are many different varietals when it comes to apples and they all have a different taste. But if you take 5 different kinds of apples and make apple sauce out of them you just end up with a general apple taste that doesn't really say anything about the individual taste of each apple.  The same with oranges and orange juice, but then who wants to compare apples to oranges?  It is the same with coffee.  For the most part, consumers didn't really know much about coffee.  It was all just coffee.  There was not any Ethiopian coffee or Costa Rican coffee.  It was all just mixed together to some extent.  So coffee was roasted in a way to provide consistent taste which meant that they were roasted to a darker level to pass the individual characteristics of the coffees and let it all taste the same.  Third wave coffee focuses a lot more on lighter roasting to accentuate the profiles of each individual origin.  Bringing out the specific aromatic and flavor notes of each varietal.

I would say that a close second would be quality.  Bringing the highest standard to the process.  Making every cup consistent.  Not in the same way as the previous waves but more specific.  If you always order a Mexican Chiapas Chemex, you want it to taste the same from day to day and week to week.  So having standards about grind size, water volume, water temperature, amount of coffee, and brew time are very important.  There is so much more attention to detail in third wave.  The goal is to create a product that is so diverse and specific that it rivals that of wine and beer.

There is also a cultural aspect of third wave coffee.  One seeded in rebellion and difference.  Breaking away from the norm in production is based just as much on the social aspect of coffee.  This is not your grandpa's coffee. And it's not made by your grandma.  There is so much culture that goes hand in hand with third wave coffee that I couldn't really do it justice in this article.  That will have to be a topic for another day.

Basically, third wave is the pursuit of quality.  But on a grand scale of quality that starts all the way back at the farm with the processing, and goes all the way from shipping to roasting, brewing, and consumption.  Making improvements along every link of the chain because if something goes bad on any one link the end result suffers.  You can't roast bad coffee into good coffee, you can only mask some of the bad.

But achieving this quality is not just a matter of saying you want to make it better.  Money makes the wheel go 'round.  Just in the final stages where the barista is preparing the coffee requires a lot of investment.  You have to properly educate the barista on how to use every piece of equipment.  You have to teach them how to identify the correct grind for each brewing method and how to do each brewing method correctly.  They need to know how the water temperature, grind size, and coffee to water ratio can change the end result.  Even barometric pressure can have noticeable changes in some methods.  And there is something new happening almost daily in the specialty coffee industry.  You can imagine how much it costs in training just to get to the point where the barista can do these things, and that doesn't even include the price of product you have to use for training.   A barista in training could easily run through $100 of coffee before they sell a single drink.  That is a big investment for an employer, especially when you have 10-20 employees.

Now consider the roaster.  Making a profile for each varietal, which changes every year, requires several batches to achieve the optimal profile.  This process alone can consume 100 lbs. of coffee for each varietal.  That is a heafty price to pay for one varietal, let alone the 5-15 varietals the roaster may offer.

Another drawback for third wave coffee is the time investment.  A drip brew machine can make 10 or more cups of coffee in a 5 minute period whereas a third wave pour over method would probably average about 4-6 minutes per cup.  And if you are commuting to work, making an extra 20 minute stop for coffee might not be worth it if you can get in and back on the road with a drip brew in about 5 minutes.

Third wave coffee is a great thing.  It is fueling progress.  It is working on the farms to create better and healthier growing practices, for the coffee and the farmers.  It is working in the roasteries to create a better profile for each coffee to shine.  And it is working in the cafe to bring awareness and education, and great coffee, to the general public.  In the end it is another trade off.  A little more investment of time and money for a better product.  First and second wave are still very much alive and kicking and I don't see them going away any time soon, but third wave is fueling the industry for yet another wave in the future.  And I, for one, can't wait to see what that fourth wave looks like. I hear it would be the windows of our house that would let you see all the way back to the farm.

What do you think about the third wave of coffee, and what do you think the fourth wave will look like.  Let me know in the comments and don't forget to subscribe to this blog, follow me on twitter at @fpcoffee, like me on facebook and google+ and on instagram as freshpresscoffee.

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