3 Things that Make You Third Wave - and 1 That Doesn't

We just came back from the US Barista Championship, first Iinaugural Brewer's Cup Championship and SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) annual trade show in Houston.

It was 3 days of non-stop coffee drinking and connections.  I drank like a fish.  Drank coffee, that is./wp/wp-content/uploads/files/uploads/Screen_shot_2011-05-06_at_6_05_58_AM.jpg" align="left" border="20" height="250" width="215" />

One of the most interesting comments I heard from an industry veteran is "this whole trade show has evolved to currently serve about 20 coffee roasters"

He doesn't mean Starbucks.

He means the Third Wave Coffee Roasters.   Intelligentsia, Stumptown,  Counter Culture, Blue Bottle, etc.

What do these Third Wave Roasters have going for them and why does it matter?

1. Artisanal Coffee Roasted Light-to-medium.  In the form of single origns, especially single estate coffees.   American-style espresso.  It has less bite than Italian, in my opinion.  Sometimes single-origin espressos like from Costa Rica and Ethiopia.  In other words, interesting coffes.  Not ones named Breakfast Blend.  An emphasis on pourover.  Roasted light or medium (whatever is good for that particular bean) especially as a reaction to the flavor of dark burnt truck tires popularized by Starbucks.  Light roasting is a competitive response to Starbucks.   Specialty coffee usually tastes much more interesting when roasted light or medium.  The reason is that the darker the roast, the more coffee from all different origins taste the same.  With 16,000 locations, Starbucks virtually has to roast dark in order to create a similar taste across the beans it buys from around the world.  

2. Star Baristas.  In the US Barista Championship, the Ultimate Barista Challenge, and the Brewer's Cup.  These are the rock stars of the coffee business.  They're the Benihana of Tokyo chefs that bring flair and pizzazz to coffee.  These are the Michael Jordan / Kobe Bryants of the coffee industry.  They put a son et lumiere show on the whole industry chain from the farm to the roaster to the $15,000 Nuovo Simonelli machine that delivered a delicious cappucino in your cup.  They make your coffee interesting and exciting.

3.Hipness matched by a large marketing budget.   They've created brands for their coffee businesses. Before Starbucks, you just had Breakfast Blends and Moka Java Blends (or whatever) from no-name roasters.  Now the roasters have names.  Brand identities.   The whole marketing message is upscale and positive.  What used to be called drip coffee is now "pourover."  What used to be "gimme an espresso" is now "gimme a dopio americano soy skim latte."    It's ingenious.   Because the cup of drip used to cost you $0.99.  Now the cup of pourover or Clover-brewed cup costs you $2.50.   Honestly the coffee is genuinely worlds better than First Wave (Folgers) and Second Wave (Seattle's Best) coffee.

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Who benefits?

Well as a drinker you do.  The variety of single origins and preparation methods is mind boggling.  This is the best time ever to be a gourmet coffee drinker.  You can get coffee from anywhere in the world roasted your way by many artisanal roasters, prepared by well trained baristas.  And the number of roasters keeps growing.  Roasters compete fiercely to source great beans.  Their baristas compete and take their professions seriously. 

Who loses?

Your neighborhood low-cost coffee roaster.  If they don't create a brand for themselves, they may be marooned selling inexpensive coffees to low-margin customers.

These are the three elements of Third Wave, in my opinion.

The Limits of Third Wave

Heard of  Terroir Coffee, owned by industry veteran George Howell?/wp/wp-content/uploads/files/uploads/Screen_shot_2011-05-06_at_6_07_28_AM.jpg" align="right" border="10" height="215" width="320" />

He may have the most discerning pallete in the coffee industry. He sources unique beans often direct from small farms in Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere.  He travels to origin, sometimes buying up entire crops from the best farms.  He's literally writing the book about coffee quality.  Terroir's coffees are superb.   Terroir's owner George founded the Cup of Excellence series.  He's a Mandarin of the coffee industry.

But Terroir isn't getting the Third Wave publicity of Inteliigentsia, Stumptown, Counter Culture Coffee,  Ritual Roasters, etc.  In the past month, Terroir Coffee was Googled 880 times.  Intelligentsia was Googled 8,000 times.

Why?  First, I don't think that Terroir Coffee sponsors someone on the competitive barista circuit. (Well to be fair his coffee was used by the 2005 World Barista Champion to win in Seattle. But I haven't heard since.)   Second Terroir isn't coming up with fantasmal names for espresso like Black Cat, HairBender and RetroFit.  It isn't selling black T-shirts with a hip logo (or brown T-shirts -- the new black).  It carries only a handful of Fair Trade Organic coffees whereas Third Wavers think it attracts customers to sell FTO.  He's just selling amazing single-origins roasted to perfection.  In my opinion, Terroir is selling the best steak in the industry without the sizzle.

Is there demand for that?  Well in the wine industry there's always a class of customers looking for great estate wines.  Does specialty coffee?  Right now gourmet coffee is in a glitzy phase with publicty dominated by fashionable coffee roasters.  

There is a lot of sizzle in gourmet coffee right now, and it's more than buying, storing and roasting great beans.  It's sponsoring a champion barista to be in a Benihana of Tokyo - style demonstration, or a coffee version of a Japanese tea ceremony (whichever analogy you prefer).  It's about baristas with facial hair.  In addition to great coffee. It's about Fair Trade Organic coffee even though veterans argue that this certification favors only large industrial farms able to pay for the certification.  (I've spoken with Hawaiian farmers, for example, that won't pay to get the Fair Trade Organic Certification because the cost is prohibitive to small farmers -- just the segment that Third Wave Coffee claims to benefit, in part).

The sizzle of Third Wave Coffee is bringing a lot of customers to gourmet coffee.  But is the coffee?   Terroir is the litmus test, in my opinion.

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