In case you hadn't noticed, we are now smack in the middle of what is being called the "third wave" of coffee culture. You might say that the second wave was the Starbucks-driven era of the Frappuccino and the first, oh, let's say somewhere around 1946, which is the year, according to the International Coffee Organization, that coffee consumption peaked in the U.S.
The third wave is powered by coffee obsessives focused on bean origins and low-tech brewing techniques that preserve the integrity of those beans. Purists debate whether to drink "pour over" coffee, which involves pouring hot water through a cone filled with freshly ground beans, or French Press, in which you plunge the beans in a special device, to stove top espresso or cold brewing (usually used in iced coffee). These variations are a giant leap from the drip-drip-drip brew from the "Mr. Coffee" commercials of yore, not to mention the percolator that workers gather around during coffee breaks.
Boutique coffee brands are sourcing beans and roasting them with an attention to detail that is more often found in wine production or craft beer making, and with an ethical commitment to sustainability and supporting farmers. It's led to cafés in hip urban neighborhoods where coffee drinkers can choose from sustainable blends or "single origin" beans - from one coffee plantation - or even try a coffee flight. At the new Forty Weight Coffee in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, partners Andrew Ballard and Matthew Marks offer single-origin choices daily, with one each from Africa, Asia and Central America.
Another new Brooklyn café is Toby's Estate Coffee, which is the U.S. bow of a 14-year-old company from Australia, where the third wave of coffee is well underway. In the shop, baristas offer flights of single-origin coffees and discuss the tasting notes with customers. Owner Toby Smith sums up the craze succinctly. "Coffee is becoming more like wine," he says.
The Celeb Players
Leonardo DiCaprio has teamed with one of the power coffee brands of this third wave, La Colombe, to create a new brand of sustainable coffee they're calling "Lyon." 100 percent of net proceeds will benefit organizations supported by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Film director David Lynch is also in on the action, with a line called Signature Cup Organic Coffee. These are blends, not single bean, but he offers a light and medium roast, and even a decaf.
From movie stars and directors to rock stars, coffee is having quite the celeb moment. James Murphy disbanded his popular band LCD Soundsystem with a string of farewell shows at NYC's Madison Square Garden late last year, Now he's hinted that his next move will be more caffeinated, less musical. He too, has an espresso brand in the works. He'll join fellow musician Bonnie "Prince" Billie, a cult indie singer-songwriter, who also recently launched his own brand.
While the coffee makers themselves haven't become celebrities yet, some are starting to approach rock-star status, including La Colombe's Todd Carmichael, Duane Sorensen of Stumptown and Doug Zell of Intelligentsia.
Starbucks isn't running scared from these newcomers in the third wave - yet. The company reported a 7% increase in revenues, to $3 billion in its 2011 fiscal year. But according to Andrew Ballard, owner and roastmaster for Forty Weight, Starbucks has taken notice of this new breed of roasters. He says that the coffee giant introduced its new blond roast recently to appeal to those who have been turned off by what they perceive as the burnt taste of Starbucks. "Quality-based specialty roasters have introduced to the public how beautiful non-burnt, fresh-roasted coffee can be, and people are choosing Starbucks less often," Ballard says. "If this wasn't true, Starbucks wouldn't be taking steps to imitate these roasters."
For now, the upstarts are hoping to get coffee consumers to drink smarter, which may make anyone in the business of selling coffee have to watch their level of detail. Besides the ethical commitment to sustainable beans, third wave leaders are educating about how to make coffee at home, including using a grinder (or for true obsessives a burr grinder, which features two metal discs, or burrs, that grind the beans at a distance from one another). "In the past 20 years, while overall coffee consumption has increased and, generally, people have drastically improved their coffee brewing at home, there still persists some questionable practices," says Peter Giuliano, director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture, a Durham, North Carolina coffee company specializing in single-origin beans and home brewing education.
Forty Weight's owners advise that grinding beans releases carbon dioxide almost immediately, so the flavor begins to deteriorate rapidly. The Specialty Coffee Association of America also counsels to use enough coffee: about a scoop and a third per six ounces of water. "We want to educate and inspire people," says Smith of Toby's Estate Coffee. "There may be people who aren't drinking coffee because they've had bad coffee. When you have good coffee it's, like, 'wow.'"
Any way you pour it, this third wave of coffee means better beans are more widely available. It's just that you may need a glossary to order that 21st century cuppa joe now.
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