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To a growing number of passionate coffee aficionados, coffee is more than a caffeine delivery system. Sometimes viewed as coffee snobs – and just a little bit nuts about coffee – these coffee lovers are reshaping the way that the rest of us view coffee. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on who you’re talking to. To some, the idea that coffee is anything more than a hot, strong, caffeinated beverage is nothing more than a pretension.
Coffee is coffee. As long as it’s drinkable, it’s all good. They’re the coffee drinkers who can’t imagine paying $7 a pound for coffee, let alone the $20+ that some specialty coffees command.
And then there are the diehard coffee fanatics who will tell you – and tell you and tell you – that professional coffee tasters have identified more distinct flavors in coffee than anyone has ever found in wines. They’ll explain that coffee is an artisanal food product, similar to wine and craft beer, bread and cheese. Yes, you can content yourself with the cheap stuff, but if you dive in, you’ll discover so much more in the cup than you ever imagined existed.
Among this second type of coffee lovers, it’s common to refer to today’s specialty coffee industry as the Third Wave. The term was coined around 2002 by Trish Rothgeb, currently a partner in Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters.
Coffee’s First Wave began in the early 1900s. Before then, most people bought their coffee beans raw and roasted them at home. The advent of packaging ground coffee in an airtight can made it easier to get coffee to the consumer and kicked off the coffee flavor wars. The mid-20th century marked the beginning of marketing coffee for flavor. Coffee roasting companies first began emphasizing such things as “Arabica coffee” and “hand-picked coffee beans” and “gourmet coffee.” Remnants of the First Wave include Colombian coffee as the gold standard for excellence, restaurant quality coffee at home and “good to the last drop” marketing.
Second Wave coffee began in the 1970s and early 1980s. It revolved around the coffee roast and country of origin. While a few brands became household names – Starbucks and Peets among them – the real stars of the show were single origin coffees. The Second Wave ushered in little independent coffee shops, French presses and espresso drinks. It also was notorious for French and Italian roasts and snobby baristas.
Beginning in the early 1990s, coffee buyers and roasters began to emphasize many aspects of coffee that had been largely ignored before. It was no longer enough to serve Colombian coffee or Nicaraguan coffee. Roasters increasingly talked about coffee-growing regions within the countries, and the farms and estates where those coffees were grown. They openly discussed the differences between wet-processed coffees and dry process coffees, and consciously worked to bring out the essence of a coffee with the roast. Darker roasts fell out of favor because they obscure the innate flavors of the bean. Consumers look for more transparency as well. They want to know where their coffee was grown, how it was sourced and how it is roasted. If availability was the mark of the First Wave and origin was the legacy of the Second, the Third Wave of coffee is characterized by transparency and traceability.
In many ways, the evolution of the specialty coffee industry seems to be following the same trajectory as the specialty wine industry. In the 1960s, anyone who asked for something more specific than a red wine or a white wine was often seen as a snob. By the 1980s, most people could tell the difference between a Chablis and a Chardonnay, and had at least heard of Sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. Likewise, coffee consumers are slowly growing to recognize and appreciate the different varieties of coffee. While many people still simply ask for a cup of coffee, it’s no longer unusual for someone to seek out coffee from a specific origin or a particular coffee roaster.
Interestingly, while many in the craft end of the specialty coffee industry look down upon single serve coffee systems like the Keurig, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters may have had the single biggest influence on raising awareness and appreciation for origin coffees and specialty coffee blends. K-cups make it easy for coffee drinkers to expand their coffee palates by minimizing the investment. Variety packs make it even easier – you can sample coffees from many different countries and learn which ones you like without making a commitment to buying coffee you don’t like.
Perhaps the biggest indication that Third Wave coffee has moved from the fringe to mainstream acceptance, however, is the number of major coffee roasters – the big roasters who sell their coffees in cans on the supermarket shelves – have begun featuring their own single origins and specialty blends. When companies like Nestle and General Foods start putting out Grand Crus and Limited Edition coffees, it’s clear proof that the market for specialty single origin coffees and blends has reached critical mass.