On Third Wave Coffee

March 17, 2012

New member Barkingburro just logged his first blog post here on Roaste, entitled The Third Wave Coffee Club.In it, he covers some of his findings of the "third wave" scene, including the snobbery and detachment from consumers. Before I start, I should demolish any pretense and just say I don't disagree with anything he's written! We don't have the same perspective necessarily, but there's no argument to be found in this post. (Also, as I finished typing the whole thing below, I felt the need to add that this isn't entirely in response to barkingburro, but rather was spurred by his post, and is almost entirely fueled by my weekend at Coffee Fest. So, barkingburro, please don't feel like I'm trying to steal your thunder!) 




To begin, I do want to hit on that term, "third wave." The more I read about the history of the term and its promulgation, it seems the more I've found it's been...well, extended beyond its original intent. It's that sort of reading that's caused me to grimace whenever I see it used nowadays, as it's become a bit muddied. Apparently, pro roaster Trish Rothgeb used it quite casually in an interview a few years back, to differentiate what those in specialty (or progressive, to some) coffee from what, say, the local Starbucks is doing. Over time, it seems to have been coopted to classify any cafe that serves a cup of coffee with a splash of snobbery. That's just the average usage, I find. Now, that's certainly not to say it has no place in common parlance, but that my own opinion is that it's been overused and has lost its intended meaning. For my own purposes, I'll stick to "specialty," as while that term too has been coopted by the trend skitchers, it at least implies there's something different to the brew.

Now, I know we all know the horror stories of cafes that treat customers like money mules; the "leave your humanity at the door, it's just coffee and cash in here" kind of vibe. The place that reminds us of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi (the customer service sucks, but man, is that good soup!), or at least we wish it did, if only the coffee were actually worth it. Somehow, some people who work in coffee lost sight of the fact that their business is meaningless if people can't be compelled to walk through the doors every day. Service. The bright point is, though, that some people, including power players in specialty coffee realy do understand that service matters. I had the pleasure of hanging out with Sam Lewontin, from Everyman Espresso in NYC, and the palate and brains behind Craft Coffee, who is adamantly pro-service. Now, one thing that's absolutely important to understand is that service does not mean "get the customer everything they want upon request." If coffee cost $150 per seat for the experience, as some restaurants do, there may be more reason to bend over for a customer's whim. However, coffee being just a moderately lucrative venture, one must cut losses at some point. Sam explained that while he would always try to make the best cup of coffee possible for a customer, snob-free (no "Uh, what? A caramel macchiato is a peasant's drink"), he may be forced to accept that the customer has something in mind that he cannot provide. A triple tall blended skim thing? Not at Everyman. However, he may very well apologize for not being able to meet the customer's needs, and provide the name of a shop that can blend up a mean skim thing right down the street. Service. It's not just about providing your product any way the customer wants, it's about making sure whoever walks in your door walks out thinking that they at least had a positive experience. Even if their money is going somewhere else.

Do you see much of that in coffee? Not really. Hell, you don't see much of that anywhere at all. If there are kids behind the counter, they're probably - with some exceptions - not likely to care where you go or how happy you are if you're not contributing to their cut of the tip jar. But turning somebody away in the nicest way you can may well be an investment in a future customer (Chris Brogan and Julien Smith hit this very same notion in their book, Trust Agents), certainly more so than making a customer feel stupid for walking into the wrong cafe for sugar and cream - and more on that below.

Snobbery is a problem in specialty coffee, not a hallmark; at least, it definitely should not be a hallmark. In my mind, it's a symptom of an overeducated ego, a desire to show off how cool you are for knowing all this crap about coffee that the guy with the money doesn't know. There's something wrong with the barista that believes he is somehow better than his customers - we all have our strengths, our skills, our passions. The lawyer who's come in for a cup before meeting his client knows far more about law (oh, what a kneeslapper, amiright? -kidding!-) than the hipster kid knows. And imagine if he flaunted that the way the kid flaunts his Burundi small-crop caturra? It would go over about as well as any snobbery does.

Now, on the topic of milk and sugar. I wrote a bit on this subject a while back, in my post about coffee being a product or a service. In the product vein, the coffee served at a cafe is presented in such a way that it represents the shop and the craftsmen behind it. Adding milk or sugar may, in the opinion of the crafstmen, be detrimental to the beverage. Thus, while you may not agree, since it is their shop and their product, they may not see it fit to purchase and provide the add-ins they believe detract from the quality of their product. Something like a restaurant not offering ketchup for your grass-fed steak. It's a decision that's tied closely to brand and business, and while it may seem bold or offensive now, I think the point is to desensitize people from tradition, and look at coffee differently. There are wine bars out there that serve nothing but wine, and yet cultural appreciation for the beverage allows those to exist without much blowback. Coffee should, in my opinion, be the same way. If you wish to put cream and sugar into your coffee, you have a few options: 1. buy the beans and brew them at home with all your fixin's, 2. go somewhere with equivalent quality products that affords their patrons the fruits of cow and cane, 3. bring your own - but expect to be asked to leave?

I run a personal project called Counter Talk, in which I meet others for an exchange of passions/inspirations/ideas/food/etc. My offering is my coffee, which I will grind and brew right there for the meeting, and though I take some requests, I do not provide milk or sugar. Your meeting with me is about both parties being open to whatever is offered, no judgment necessary. If you don't like my coffee, I won't be offended, and I'll gladly carry on with our meeting regardless, but I won't change my policy later on. My coffee represents me, and it does so without additives. I understand others have grown accustomed to, or cannot live without, cream or sugar in their coffee. But that is not the experience I prefer to provide. I'm sorry if that cannot meet everybody's needs universally, but realistically, that's not an achievable goal anyway. Plus, it's more to carry with me, when I'm already overflowing my only suitcase...

In a cafe, it's a bit different, of course, as there's an exchange of money, and a mental model of what should be provided. When the mental model is broken, the customer is frustrated. This has everything to do with transparency and education, both of which are two parts of an awful juggling act known as "Doing Things Differently." Still, the principle is the same, in that a product is something controlled by its creator as much as possible (ohai Apple and cohort), and part of that control will include the cafe experience. Milk, sugar, seating, to-go cups may not be part of that experience. Presumably that is because the market base has been identified, and they do not need the excluded items. All others can try it out, or peruse the competition. That's not a bad thing, that's a wonderfully free-market thing that really makes businesses distinct. It's not about you, the customer, being told you're wrong (you never should be told that in a cafe, I don't believe), it's just that you, as the customer, have to understand that any business is free to make their own decisions despite what you think. Your regular haunt may just have to be somewhere else. That's fine! If you want Delta prices, don't fly Virgin. If you want great service and all the amenities, fly JetBlue (or so I hear).

And to conclude this rant (my god that really ran away didn't it?), I'll say this on specialty coffee. It's not out there to convert everyone, it's not out there to please everyone. It's something that's evolving because the people behind it want more from coffee. You don't need to like everything about it (I certainly don't), but I think overall it's a very progressive movement. It's like the age-old fact about innovation, that innovators do what they do because they identify an unmet need, such as "man, I really wish I had this thing, it would be so helpful right now!", and then they make it. Many folks driving progress in specialty coffee are doing just that, they're saying "Man, last year's El Salv crop was so sweet and tangy, but this year it's just baggy," and they go back down the line to figure out how to bring the goodness back time after time. There are people that follow in their footsteps because they don't have the resources, or the energy, or the knowhow to plow the path, but are interested in improvement, and then there are leeches who grab ahold of all the newness and regurgitate it to sate their ravenous egos. The ubersnobs need to be destroyed, by refusing to buy into them. Refusal to offer sugar or vanilla syrup can be done delicately and professionally, or it can be done steeped in pretension, and unfortunately we're still at the point where it's mostly the latter.

If you made it this far, I'd love to hear your thoughts!





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