The Third Wave in its Third Year

By: Trish R. Skeie, Director of Coffee

This article also appears in the April issue of Barista Magazine, be sure to grab a copy!

A little more than a decade ago, I tasted my first espresso. After having already been a barista and coffee roaster for about eight years, yes, I tasted it–for real–for the first time. It was heavenly, and all at once I became confused, forlorn and strangely hopeful. Why didn’t I know about this before? Who else knew about this? Where are they and how can I talk with them? Is this crazy? Did anyone really expect this level of espresso to become the standard?

And then the daydreaming began. In my perfect world, there would be a way to get this kind of coffee every single day. There would be more than a mere handful of professionals able to produce this coffee, and I would know many of them by name. I could conceivably walk into a shop halfway around the world and know the barista, the roaster and even the components of the blend! And we could travel to coffee producing regions and meet up with each other. Baristas would know everything they need to know about coffee! Baristas would be asked for their opinions and recommendations!

Little did I know that the wheels had already been set into motion toward realizing this dream. My personal espresso rebirth was just one sign of great things to come. Perhaps it doesn’t seem like such a farfetched idea to a third-waver, but for me (as someone whose entrance into coffee was decidedly second wave), the contemporary coffee world is literally a dream come true.

And we’ll call it the third wave…

About three years ago, I wrote about what I was experiencing in an article for the Roasters Guild Flamekeeper newsletter. The idea was based on three movements in specialty coffee: first, second, and third wave to be specific. These waves are just another way to describe the viewpoints that stand behind coffee consumption and preparation, as we know it. And while I decided to actually put terms to it with the whole wave thing, it seemed there was already some agreement out there about the emergence of a fresh thought process in coffee.

“The first wave is all about consumption,” says Nick Cho of Murky Coffee and portafilter.net fame. “The second wave is about enjoyment and defining specialty, and the third allows the coffee to speak for itself. The third wave appreciates each coffee for what it truly is and takes whatever necessary steps to highlight the amazing unique character in every coffee.”
Without having read the original article, Cho made these observations naturally. He has been living this for the past three years, ever since his espresso bars in the Mid-Atlantic region opened for business.

It’s fitting that espresso has been the fuel of choice for the third wave. Espresso is fussy and impossible. The machines used to produce it are expensive and intricate contraptions. We seldom achieve espresso coffee in its perfect form. It defies convention and replication, and what could be more innovative than that? Espresso is inherently about discovery. The third wave stops at nothing to discover…and ask…and discuss…and challenge. But how did Cho, and others like him, get so comfortable in their third wave skins?

In recent years, specialty coffee has developed into one gigantic think-tank, it seems. Pretty much anyone who has an opinion or an idea is welcomed at the table. Groups, forums and programs have emerged that support this new climate. Perhaps these systems of communication and information have developed as a byproduct of the quest for coffee nirvana. Either way, the third wave is all-inclusive and growing.

There will be regular exchanges of knowledge and meetings devoted to coffee!

The third wave is, in many ways, a reaction. It is just as much a reply to bad coffee as it is a movement toward good coffee. Both the Specialty Coffee Association of America-operated Roasters Guild (RG) and the Barista Guild of America (BGA) can, in part, credit bad practices for their existences.

Since its inception, the Roasters Guild has been the coffee connoisseur’s club for the industry. Members check their business cards at the door (figuratively speaking) as they meet annually at the famous Roasters Guild Retreat, an event based on the exchange of coffee knowledge and camaraderie. The RG grew quickly after it was established in 2000, and now boasts more than 400 members worldwide. Recognition for the roasting profession came almost overnight with the advent of the RG. Members have spearheaded projects such as the Roasters Code of Conduct, which all members must sign, as well as the Roasters Accreditation Program, which aims to certify a roaster’s knowledge and expertise. These are arguably the two most important legacies the RG can offer the coffee world, and it seems clear they were developed in answer to problems that plague a rapidly growing sector.

But where the Roasters Guild might have things to fight against, the Barista Guild of America (BGA) seems more about fighting for something. Established in 2003, the BGA was initially designed to secure a voice within the upper echelons of the specialty coffee industry for the barista profession. While this has been slow in coming to fruition, it has progressed thanks to the Guild and it’s third wave proponents. Another of their core objectives was to activate baristas on the local level with peer exchanges, or “jams”. This also was slow in it’s beginning, but has since picked up the pace with at least five of 10 U.S. regions hosting BGA Jams for members and the barista community at large.

And what about the World Barista Championship and the regional competitions that feed into it? What have they contributed to the third wave? They have functioned, globally and locally, as a kind of default clubhouse for baristas and organizers. Through regular meetings during competition season, coffee people are able to socialize, showcase styles and theories, and discuss coffee trends. The champions of these events go on to become clear and respected voices in a sometimes lonesome pursuit for excellence. Without really realizing its own impact, the WBC has become the first organization to set brewing standards that are regularly tested and challenged on the world stage. The beverage tested is espresso- a drink that is remarkably classical, avant-garde, understood, misunderstood, and universal in its scope.

And when we have tasted all we can within the four walls of our shops, we won’t hesitate to venture out!

Another innovative feature of the third wave is that it is largely virtual. In order to get answers and/or connect with peers, we no longer need to wait to attend workshops or classes offered only at trade shows. It seems the entire third wave community resides online. Some of the most interesting subjects and active debate evolved out of online forums like the BGA and RG bulletin boards.

Take for example, the naked portafilter revolution. When a couple of guys at Zoka in Seattle decided to chop the spouts off of one of their portafilters to expose the filter basket, the rest of the community knew about it within hours. The next day, there were multiple reports of baristas who had followed suit. Tasting notes, pictures, QuickTime films, detailed descriptions of flavor profiles, and endless theories on extraction abounded. The only limit to the discussion was the attention span of the participant, it seemed.

But the Guilds were not the first to build a community of insatiable online coffee freaks. Canadian Mark Prince innocently took his coffee habit/hobby online when he launched the original “coffeekid” website in 1999. He instantly met up with other coffee enthusiasts, and he began documenting his observations before the idiom “blog” had become a household word. Since then, Prince’s hobby has become another full-time career and his coffeegeek.com website has grown into one of the most popular online meeting places for coffee enthusiasts numbering in the thousands worldwide. It has stirred up the discussion in a wholly unique way–coffee professionals and consumers now meet daily on Coffeegeek for meaningful dialog about coffee quality.

But it’s not enough to discuss or even purchase coffee online. We are literally going places. If you’re lucky, you can find “guest” espresso in your neighborhood cafe’s grinder, showcased for a limited engagement. Cafes have begun barista exchanges that reach beyond the boarders of countries in order to bring together passionate craftspeople. It’s almost as if commerce and competition is a nuisance to the greater goal – extraordinary coffee by any means necessary.

Everything we want to know will be available for the asking!

The results of all this discussion and technology, as so many other industries have experienced, are transparency and traceability. It’s no longer good enough to understand how to make coffee well. We must also understand why we’ve managed to make good coffee.

Countless tracking systems have emerged in recent years to help us get to the bottom of it. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) hosts an online GPS Coffee Origin Map where a member can begin at a continent, select a country, search a growing region, and drill down even further to a specific farm. Once there, they can collect all the information their heart desires. The Cup of Excellence program works along these same lines. In addition to tasting the lots, buyers can research participating farms before the auction begins. Roasters, importers, marketers, and baristas can watch the auction as it unfolds, and when it’s over, know which players have established relationships. Certifications are on the rise as well. Consumers have begun to understand the power they have to support various sustainable practices. We now know exactly what is in our cups, and by extension, where it came from, and every hand that has touched it along the way.

Coffee producers want to know, too. For years they have been sending their coffee out into the world, never sure exactly how it gets consumed. Trips by coffee buyers to origin have increased dramatically in the last decade. Consequently, growers have regular opportunities to gather real feedback on their yields. How is it being roasted? Is it good for espresso blends? What is the retail price per pound in consuming markets, and per brewed cup? In an effort to shrink the chasm that exists between producers and consumers, the Coffee Quality Institute unveiled the Coffee Corps in 2002. This program makes seasoned coffee professionals available to producers for volunteer projects in growing regions.

Three years ago, third wave baristas yearned for an upset in the coffee hierarchy. But the third wave does not belong only to baristas. Now we see that, with transparency at our fingertips, it is a viable concept for producers as well. Just by cupping their own coffee at the mill or on the farm, quality becomes a language we can all understand. Producers, coop managers, and community leaders at origin now know why their coffees fetch certain prices. This kind of illumination is arguably the greatest upset of all in recent years. The changes that we will see at the origin will continue to revolutionize coffee. With every relationship, roasters will demand more of producers- better processing, new certifications, and more traceable practices for sustainability. In turn, producers will answer with still more demands- how to cup, how to make espresso, how to roast, how to build retail outlets with a strong customer base, and…. can the farmer expect the same profit margin that the roaster enjoys?

All the world’s third wavers will understand and work to render bad coffee a thing of the past!

The potential downfall of the third wave is overconfidence. It’s not as if the first and second waves have stopped dead in their tracks just because the third wave is gaining momentum. Instead, we’re seeing more and more opportunity for all sectors of the industry. The demand for specialty coffee has increased dramatically, according to Judith Ganes-Chase, president of J. Ganes Consulting, LLC. A prominent market analyst specializing in coffee, she reports that “dual drinkers” (those who have added specialty to their usual commercial consumption) has grown from 38% of all coffee drinkers, to a 54% majority in the last two years. At the same time, consumption of coffee made from pods grows at an amazing 30% every year.

Our supermarket shelves remind us everyday that commodity coffee is here to stay. Just as the greenest of us search for environmentally friendly packaging on all fronts, first wave commercial roasters find ways to make sure their coffee cans live in our landfills forever, in the form of new gigantic red plastic containers, for example. Ironically, they’re nodding to the second wave with new product lines that include “French Roast” or “Mountain-grown Colombia.” A few months ago, one of my importers revealed why certain Fair Trade, Organic varieties had suddenly become so scarce. The big box stores had discovered that those certifications were interesting to about two percent of their shoppers, so they bought them all up.

Competition for the specialty coffee consumer stiffens, as Juan Valdez is no longer relegated to those majestic Colombian mountains. We see him opening a coffee bar in strategically relevant metropolitan storefronts. Voted the most recognized personality (fictitious or real) in the world, Senor Valdez plays up the images of relationship and sustainability in his stores’ decor. There is no mistaking the move of the second wave to reach into the third wave’s artisan arsenal. Starbucks now prepares some of their iced drinks in martini shakers, pods are being labeled by coffee origin, and special lots are separated out for Holiday promotions.

The projections, however, are that the supply of specialty coffee is growing at an annual rate of only 3%, according to Chase-Ganes. In the face of a must greater demand, how can the third wave continue to elevate quality and protect the value chain? A barista or roaster must to continue to hone their skills to help remedy an uncertain future. Probably more than any other, the barista has it in his or her power to solidify the understanding of true quality in the minds of the consumer. That’s huge. That’s a revolution… and a responsibility.

The good news is that there is a place for all of us in coffee. The great news is that there is enough business for the third wave to grow among other extremely competitive coffee giants. And that crazy dream? That’s the best news of all – you’re living it!