For Third Wavers, It’s All About Character

March 29, 2011

ROASTe wants no coffee drinker left behind, so if you don’t know coffee waves from coffee beans, don’t feel bad. Though it’s the third wave already, it’s no big deal if you missed one and two. Many of us are in the same boat, riding waves we don’t bother to count. But, so that you’re not left behind by the time of the fourth wave, we’ll get our feet wet with a short description of the wave phenomenon in the coffee culture.


The wave concept was actually first described in 2002 by an American writer in the Roasters’ Guild magazine.  The idea has been picked up by coffee connoisseurs in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway, but it basically shares the same connotations as “specialty coffee”.

Participant at the World Barista Championship. By: James Hoffmann [1] Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/73211554@N00/149499088/ If you remember the 80’s, you probably remember the coffee shop coffee and the bottomless cup idea – think Bunn drip coffee. Some of us can still remember the burned taste from the bottom of the Bunn. That’s first wave. At the crest of that wave, coffee came packaged in air-tight cans. First wavers gave us Folgers, Maxwell House and pre-ground portion packs.  Coffee was served black or with cream or sugar, or both. Philosophically, coffee was seen as a commodity, like wheat. It was an accompaniment to dessert or a cramming companion for students. But the focal point of a café? Not yet.


The mermaid icon symbolizes the second wave. New breakthrough coffee drinks appeared and we learned to say cappuccino, latte, macchiato and breve. Coffee cafés became restaurants specializing in coffee: the sandwich and pastries sometimes seemed less relevant than the beverage. Flavored coffees appeared with gelato and Italian soda, and much of the coffee culture became all about Italy. Coffee, made in machines, was brewed a cup or two at a time instead of in big pots. Specialty coffee bars were birthed everywhere and expanded into chains. People started “going for coffee”, which became a goal in itself. The plastic-lidded can became old hat in preference for bags, which we filled ourselves with whole beans unless we ground them in the grocer’s grinder. The second wave is when coffee became the new wine.


We’re riding the crest of the third wave right now. Specialty coffee is going more artisanal (could you even think that word two years ago?). Coffee making has become a craft, as more attention is being paid each cup; some baristas have raised their product to an art form with their signature latte art. Each coffee product has its own persona and unique character highlighted by the barista. We have microbrews and microlots, as opposed to mass production. Coffee is sold and discussed by geographical regions, length of roast, and sizes of grinds, and in fact, the ability to manipulate all three is becoming a science. The automated espresso maker is being replaced - by a few baristas - by the even more time-intensive pour-over method, one cup at a time.


Philosophically, the commodity paradigm for coffee becomes even more obsolete as consumers have become used to coffee as a consumable luxury/indulgence and have made it recession-proof, something that remains in the lifestyle when the spa memberships and beauty parlor appointments might not be renewed. Coffee on shelves is returning to the airtight metal cans, now with a more upscale tight-fitting metal lid, but you can find the gourmet coffee shops that sell many varieties of beans out of bins.


Some writers dare to predict the characteristics of the fourth wave, but we won’t go there yet (although there’s a hint about it in this discussion). It’s enough to just enjoy the present wave and the wonderful coffees that are available to us now.



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