Coffee purists rejoice: Intelligentsia is coming to town! Born in Chicago, and long esteemed as one of the best spots for coffee in LA, Intelligentsia is finally roaring up the coast to sit pretty in a town whose coffee culture it helped to birth. Next to Counter Culture of Durham, N.C., and Stumptown of Portland, Intelligentsia sits as a godfather of the movement that brought direct trade, roasting in microbatches, latte art, and coffee's geographic roots into public focus. But with the likes of Ritual, Four Barrel, Sight Glass, Ecco, Verve, and Blue Bottle, San Francisco is already riding this artisan coffee wave at full throttle. And in the past two weeks, we've gotten café from Wrecking Ball (the coiners of the term "third wave,") and a second Stanza (the newest of the breed and the first to bring connoisseur-level coffee to the Haight). So the question is this: Do we want another? What happens when you crowd the scene?
"Good things happen," says Richard Sandlin of Fair Trade USA. "These places aren't in competition with each other. They're in competition with old consuming habits -- drinking coffee out of a big tin Folger's can, going to big chains for your coffee. A rising tide lifts all ships, and Intelligentsia does exciting things."
Sandlin travels worldwide for Fair Trade USA, touching base with every step of the coffee supply chain. The "old habits" he speaks of represent what industry folks call the first two "waves" of coffee's evolution. The 19th century brought big tins of mass-produced, preground dirt-in-a-tin that tasted like rusty mud on a lumberjack's gumboot. Later, coffee got upscaled and proliferated in a second wave by places like Starbucks and Peet's that began labeling regionally and standardizing espresso drinks in the '60s. Now, we're in the third wave, 10 years after its conception by a small niche of passionate roasters.
Third wavers see coffee much like vintners see wine: an "expression of terroir" that's infinitely variable. Coffee is from somewhere. Properly nurtured and fully expressed, coffee breathes with all the depth and nuance of a good and spicy pinot. These days, we know the Kenyan cooperatives and Nicaraguan fincas from which our coffee comes; your barista may have even been there. Espresso is marketed with War and Peace-sized flavor profiles. We watch our coffee get processed through machines from the pages of Jules Verne's sketchbook, coaxed into its full, poetic expression by baristas who could tell you that your Colombian drip hints of cedar-roasted huckleberry and caramelized black walnut. But at 8 a.m., do we really care?
Maybe not, says Sandlin, but that won't stop the third wave. We know now that the percentage of people who can discern fine wine is much smaller than it pretends to be. If coffee is likewise untasted, how can the third wave survive? Despite the abundant tasting notes on coffee shop chalkboards, it's not about that.
"The third wave doesn't have to be about whether or not you can taste this or that. When you walk into a third wave roaster or outlet, you can tell by the way they've set it up: something special is happening here. It's a beautiful place. You are part of an experience that's paying homage to a supply chain, part of a story. The third wave is all about the coffee's story," Sandlin said.
This is good news for all the non-supertasters out there. And thanks to San Francisco's strong anti-chain laws, third wavers have it easier than their old second-wave friends. Since Prop. G in 2006, independent business are allowed to multiply while large chains sit waiting at the gates under stacks of extra permits. In August alone, five new specialty coffee shops or roasteries either opened or announced plans to open, including the new Front Café in Potrero Hill that roasts in batches as small as 2 kilos. Other coffee darlings like Four Barrel and outlets like Coffee Bar are landing on the culinary scene in other ways too, collaborating with bakeries and chefs for new storefronts or pop up dinners. You'll also find some crazy expressions of love for coffee in places like Coffee Bar, which periodically hosts events like latté art competitions (with big screens) or visits from those on the coffee world's main stage. How could you not want to watch an emceed milk-pouring throwdown complete with judges and the tightly wound competitive tension of a reality TV show? If this tells us anything, it's that San Francisco isn't getting tired of the third wave anytime soon, even if it feels like we are reaching a saturation point. Or are we?
"It's definitely possible to be oversaturated, but we're not even close," says Chris Reinhardt of Stanza. "Just look at Portland; you can't get really bad coffee there. In San Francisco, that is still quite possible."
Bad coffee might be around, but Intelligentsia will be one more place that you can't find it. We get the impression that folks in the industry are pretty excited about the newcomer's innovative vibe.
"Intelligentsia is going to challenge the status quo like it always does, and it's going to bring us exciting places," said Sandlin. And from the sounds of it, we're going to drink it right up. Intelligentsia has seven bars across the country, split between Chicago and L.A., with one "testing laboratory" in New York. The new location opening on Potrero Hill is a combination café/roastery, wherein Ecco Café will merge with Intelligentsia to become the "Ecco Project," though the space will go by Intelligentsia San Francisco. The roasting operation is already functional, and we can expect the doors to open by September 2013.
Intelligentsia's arrival signals something we already knew: Coffee is more than just a morning fix; it's a full-blown artisanal fetish, thanks to the third wave. It may be intimidating, it may be absurdly obsessive, but San Francisco thrives on being the esoteric Wunderkind of the culinary world. There's some great mead being made in basements, prosciutto infused by a carefully curated pig diet of hazelnuts and scotch, and some of the world's most inventive ice cream. Why not love the curious expertise. You don't have to care about the "pine-roasted butterscotch" nuances of your morning cup, but let's all be glad that we're not still stuck in the land of Nescafé.