Confessions of an Addict: On Third Wave Coffee
In 2011, I began my career as a real barista. In the beginning of that year I found myself at an old wooden table in the tiny café I would eventually work at. My older brother gleefully brought me a 32-ounce French Press. This jug of milky dark liquid would soon become a staple of my diet and livelihood.
He brought the coffee with a smirk , as if to suggest he and this pot had undergone a lifelong affair, and only now would he finally reveal its legacy. I was naïve then, having only ever sipped my mother’s pale and tepid mix of milk and coffee. I had tasted a swirling blend of stringent sweet with subtle bitterness; I declared that I despised coffee. I would see classmates carrying their travel tumblers proudly through the early morning hallways, not having yet realized what these contained. Was it that same tan liquid that I detested, or something much more serious?
My older brother picked up his new job late into his junior year. He used to frequent the old wooden home, and became friendly with the twenty-something year old baristas, who worked fervently, rocking their tattoos and five o’clock shadows.They seemed like mythic beings to me back then, exploited coffee elves methodically packing brown sand into metal portafilters. My brother soon developed the taste for coffee, but to me it still remained incomprehensible. It was a drink for grown ups, an age-old stimulant that either tasted like dirt or maple syrup.
There I was, maybe fourteen, awkwardly lifting the pot of coffee and pouring my first real cup. “Do I add milk? Sugar? Should I just drink it?” My brother just laughed. He probably made some snide remark, as baristas almost always do.
I hated it. It tasted grainy, dirty, sour: all wrong. I couldn’t wrap my head around how people actually drank this stuff every morning. After drinking 32 ounces three times a week, my body had no choice but to acquire a taste. It had to justify the addiction somehow. The journey from then to now has been a caffeinated tailspin. I drink maybe eight cups a day.
The coffee industry is now in its Third Wave, a term originally coined in a 2002 article by barista Trish Rothgeb. It stands in contrast to the carelessness and mass-production commodity model that epitomized the first and second waves. The development of coffee culture as it is today, really began in the Sixties, with the opening of shops like Peet’s Coffee. These foreshadowed the kind of specialty shops found in every major U.S city that began popping up later in the nineties. However, the Third Wave is distinguished for an emphasis on origin, quality throughout all stages of production, and consistency among baristas. In the Third Wave, coffee is conceptualized as a specialty beverage, not unlike wine. Professionals strive for innovation and precision, involving new brewing methods and measuring devices. There are latte art throwdowns; world competitions for multiple categories including brewed coffee, latte art, cupping; and an official Coffee Con.
This past January, some coworkers and I ventured out to Brooklyn to check out the newest shop in the New York coffee scene. La Devoción is an exclusively Columbian café, and the owner claims all the beans are retrieved from the red zones. I don’t really know what that means, but the coffee brewing device, the Esmeralda Pour-Over, was immaculate.
Later that same month I revisited La Devoción with a coworker. All the au courant baristas would be there shortly, gathered around for the monthly Thursday Night Throwdown. This event occurs once a month. It is a sight of gauged Millennials and coffee legends alike, pouring steamed milk into espresso to make intricate designs, all drunk off of Brooklyn Lager. Coffee sourcing has become incredibly important within the industry. Like anything, people like to know what they’re putting into their bodies, or more importantly, their grinders.The term Varietal describes the different types of coffee trees. Certain Varietals have characteristics differing by flavor and quality as determined by their regions. Think of Varietals like the many kinds of apples. Granny Smith and Red Delicious vary in sweetness, acidity, color, and texture. It is similar with coffee; Sources choose specific varietals according to desired traits. This type of precision and scientific approach categorizes the Third Wave, but also creates problems. The emphasis on quality has created a hierarchy, with farmers receiving the brunt of the variation. Farmers ideally get paid more for lower-yield and higher quality beans, but unfortunately are often exploited. Their beans can be marketed as micro-lot, or high quality coffee without them knowing it.
This vast subculture has undergone an incredible evolution since its inception, and is growing faster than ever. Specialty shops and roasters across the country are making enormous strides in fair-trade practices to remedy farmer mistreatment.Customers are becoming more aware of who grows their beans, whether the farmers are paid fairly, along with how the coffee cherries were grown. The transformation has been drastic. Watching it unfold from the inside has truly been a privilege.
I now work full-time at my second café on 56th and Lexington. Little Collins is an Australian-inspired vision, featuring delectable light dishes and a range of coffee drinks. At Little Collins, I am lucky to serve Counter Culture Coffee. Counter Culture is considered among the leaders in sustainability and high-quality coffee. I work with one of the most elegant espresso machines on the market called the Modbar. Coffee consists of many variables including: water temperature, brew times, extraction rates, types of filters, sizes of the grind, and age of the coffee. The science is complex and expanding quickly. The industry’s pioneers are competing and sharing their new discoveries.
Jono Moehlig of Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee has competed twice in the Big Southern Regional Barista Championship sponsored by the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) The top placers go on to the US competition and then on to the World Championship. Moehlig competed with 28 other individuals and ended up in the top ten both times: “I was disappointed not to place, but it is more about the community than winning or losing.” This sentiment seems proverbial. The event consists of many sponsors, displaying new equipment and methods.
Moehlig got his start in the coffee business having never worked with coffee, before promptly managing a café. As one of his first hires, we experienced the process of coffee education side-by-side. He sells mostly Rwandan beans and believes in instilling change through coffee. After the 1992 genocide conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi, Rwanda suffered from a devastated economy. Coffee became a large source of revenue for the country. Through coffee and fair wages to farmers, Moehlig strives to assist in rebuilding the structure of Rwanda, while simultaneously providing delicious coffee to his community.
It seems to be working. In the 2011 Rwanda National Export Strategy report, the government predicted an increase in coffee revenues of 55 million dollars over the next four years. Moehlig’s story is definitely inspirational, but not entirely unique. The work his company does and his personal journey within the coffee world are now commonplace. The coffee world loves to educate and encourage everyone to participate in the culture.
Reflecting on my beginnings, I can’t help but sympathize with the Starbucks crowd or coffee critic. Most of the time coffee seems either mundane or elite. There is a pervasive illusion of extremes: either a muddy cup from a 24-hour diner or an enigmatic coffee bro staring at you with his nose pierced. As the science of coffee develops, so does the professional’s ability to articulate it. With shops on every street corner, coffee is perhaps more readily understood now than at any other time. Shops such as Everyman Espresso and Boxkite make active efforts to share the love for caffeine with the world, hosting hour-long coffee tastings known as “cuppings.” Coffee offers community, elated conversations, science, style, art, and economic and environmental stability. It often feels like an assumed part of our routines, but it has become a sophisticated force for change.
Coffee isn’t just crushed up beans mixed with hot water, and it certainly isn’t an esoteric snob-mob. Thousands of farmers make their living off our enjoyment of the beverage and we should exalt that commitment. Every morning our coffee connects us across the globe from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Guatemala, to Colombia.
By Jacob Weber
Photos Courtesy of Stephanie “Jonesy” Jones.
Special Photo Thanks and Acknowledgement to Gary and Coffee Rx (6903 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11209), as well as Little Collins Cafe (667 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10022).