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Monday, December 26, 2011

Dear Coffee: What Are These Waves Everyone Is Talking About?

Posted By on Mon, Dec 26, 2011 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge Four Barrel, yes, but how many waves? - AMBER FOX
  • Amber Fox
  • Four Barrel, yes, but how many waves?
In an attempt to demystify the sometimes vague and pretentious world of coffee, we're introducing a sporadic column that aims to clarify the confusing and define the most basic of coffee terms. It's a hard coffee world out there, and we'd love to help be your guide through it.

Dear Coffee?: I keep hearing references to the various "waves" of coffee. Could somebody explain what these are and why they exist?

In 2003, Trish Rothgeb of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (formerly of New York, now setting up shop in the Bay Area) penned a piece for Roasters Guild periodical The Flamekeeper acknowledging the existence of what she deemed a "third wave" of coffee. This referred to the latest, taste-forward, roaster-retailer, highest-quality-coffee-you-can-muster incarnation of the century-old American coffee business.

Rothgeb's "waves" were simply a way to delineate the three distinct eras that the grand ship coffee has floated across on its way towards modernity.

Defined retroactively, the first wave of coffee is the early, early days of coffee giants like Maxwell House and Folger. It was a grim time. The maxi-producers saw big money in shoveling cheap, badly flavored beans to the masses with an emphasis on getting the biggest bang for your very measly buck. Coffee was watery and thin and tasted like shit-stained nails, but America was hooked.

This led to Bay Area staple Alfred Peet and his Peet's Coffee, which incited the second wave in the 1960s. Tired of terrible coffee and keen on what could come from well-roasted, well-sourced beans, Peet focused his efforts on small batches of artisanally roasted beans. Peet was the inspiration for a little company called Starbucks and its founder Howard Schultz, who in turn brought terms like "espresso," "latte," and "americano" in to the American everyman's lexicon. This second wave continues to define coffee for many of today's drinkers.

The third wave is now. Brought about by coffee roasters like Chicago's Intelligentsia, Portland's Stumptown Coffee, and North Carolina's Counter Culture, third-wave coffee focuses on sourcing from individual farms and co-ops and a lighter roasting style that accentuates the individual flavors of the beans. Scales are used, high-tech machines are dallied with, beans are discussed like expensive bottles of wine -- this is coffee on the next level.

Local third-wavers include Sightglass, Ritual, Four Barrel, and Verve. If you've consumed a cup of any of these local roasters, you've indulged in the glistening existence of third wave coffee.

Though many specialty coffee aficionados balk at the idea of a century of the American coffee experience defining the historical overview of coffee, new roasters are already being labeled as "fourth wave" coffee, a vague cloud of a label, still yet to be defined.

A recent SFist headline cheekily referred to standout Four Barrel as a "Fourth Wave" coffee house. We asked Four Barrel's Matthew Hein about "waves." His response:

"I haven't seen anything to convince me that there's a fourth wave happening right now. Just as Thomas Kuhn wouldn't have thrown around the term 'paradigm shift' as much as professors and businesspeople do today, we should watch ourselves about identifying 'waves.' Or maybe we should all just lighten up. I'm working on it."
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Noah Sanders

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