Third Wave Coffee, a Conversion :: Part 1

Subtitle: First Wave, Second Wave, 2.5 Wave and Third Wave.

I intend on defining the Third Wave concept, adding some personal points to the definition and giving my experience with Third Wave.

Third Wave.  That just sounds cool, doesn’t it?  I guess the first time I heard of  the concept called “Third Wave” it must have been on the Portafilter.Net Podcast.  What is Third Wave?  The theory was first proposed by Trish Skeie of Zoka Coffee and I think the best summary of it that I can find is

“Her theory goes like this. The “First Wave of Coffee” was the post-World War II era, a time when coffee was simply consumed, not enjoyed. The war forced the production of quick, easy foods and instant coffee reigned supreme.

“The “Second Wave of Coffee” started in the late 1960’s with the birth of companies like Pete’s and then Starbucks. Specialty grade Arabica coffees began replacing lower grade Robustas as cutting-edge roasters and baristas gained appreciation for the nuances of different roasts and origins.

I would like to add here that I think that the second wave is also probably best described as a “selfish wave.”  A wave of wanting to be identified with a brand.  For example, not starting with, but surely popularly inserted into the Mike Myers movie called “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)“, Hollywood started placing $B in movies and TV spots all the time.  A practice which goes on to this day.  Even when they either can’t get the “rights” or get paid for it via product placement, studios regularly will take a cup with a $Buxy style logo on it and put a heat sleeve around the cup and stick that cup in a actor’s hands in front of the camera.  Thus, American’s, especially, follow the stars and therefore people want to be identified with pop culture.  I think it is safe to say Starbucks was a big part of “Pop Culture” in the United States for the past 10 or so years.

Here I will add “a wave;” or better called a ripple:  Two and a Half Wave (2.5 Wave).    These are the “coffee shops,” bakers, deli’s, restaurants and other various businesses who are trying their best to whore off of the crest of the Second Wave.  Who have no desire for coffee, may not even drink the stuff, and could care less about any thing we would consider “best practices.” Their coffee is usually, gush, worst than Dunkin, Starbucks, or anything else decidedly Second Wave.

“Fast forward to 2007 and we find ourselves here in the “Third Wave of Coffee”. According to Trish, it’s the evolution of coffee drinkers toward a deeper appreciation for the uniqueness of different coffees. Today it is quite common for customers to ask for a certain country of origin (Ethiopian, Sumtran, etc) when ordering their coffee. Here at our Coffee Bar, many of our customers know the name of the farming co-op that grows their favorite coffee along with the roast profile and other unique attributes of the bean.”

——source:
Jody Treter. (2007). Bean Activist: Third Wavers, Decommodification of Coffee, Retrieved 08/18/08, from source.

Here is a walk on Google regarding Third Wave and it is very much worth reading from several sites and blogs on this topic.

To put it simply, Third Wave coffee is the love and appreciation of coffee.  Whatever benifits the coffee as a final product and what is in the coffee’s best interest is at the heart of Third Wave coffee.  Everything and everybody involved every step of the way is centered on the coffee; Not a barista, a roaster,  not money, not a company, not an individual, not a farmer, broker or real estate agent is more important than the coffee that fills a cup at the end of the chain.  To me, that is Third wave coffee.

So, what is the fuss?  I really don’t know.  I listened to all of the pf.net podcast and one thing I could garner was is the fact that Jay Caragay (pf.net co-host) was always thinking the concept was b.s.  The problem with that podcast is you never know when one of the host, or both, are b.sing.  So, he may well have been fully behind the concept, but calling b.s for the fun of the show.  There is a couple podcast where Trish is on the air with the guys and at least one podcast that has Third Wave actually part of the debate of the show.  BTW, Trish had a blog on Zoka and I read her post regarding T.W, BTW I can’t find her blog,  at all – even through Google.

So, not willing to “commit” to the concept of Third Wave I reluctantly would talk about it amongst baristas, roasters, and other coffee lovers.  I just didn’t feel comfortable, in fact, I felt awkward.  As much as I love coffee, and even though I have a two group Faema in my house running off of 220v and plumbed in, plus a professional food grade Mazzer Mini, a professional grade EspressoCraft tamper and can pour latte art (read “trying”) I still don’t fit in with baristi.  So, therefore I don’t feel comfortable talking with them about Third Wave concepts.

Imagine John Riley talking smack about espresso.

Imagine John Riley talking smack about espresso.

When I go to Octane in ATL, (and guys don’t take this wrong) I don’t fit in at all.  I know it may be because I am the only one there that is just sitting there talking about coffee.  It also could be that I probably intimidate the “daylights” out of everybody because I just pulled up across the street with a 80,000 lbs truck!  “What is that trashy truck driver doing walking over here?”  Everybody else is buzzing around talking about all sorts of crap and the ONLY thing we have in common is the Toscano in the grinder and in the cup.  Every coffee establishment I go to that is decidedly Third Wave I feel like I am freaking people out when I start talking about coffee in a dedicated, knowledgeable fashion.  Sometimes they slow down at whatever they are doing, listen a little, and look at me funny.  All I probably have said at this point is “Wow, the chocolate notes in this espresso is rather prominent.  Kind of Brazilian in nature.  Almost has a Sumatran kind of ‘zing’ to it, dontcha think?”  By this time, the poor barista is thinking of calling the manager up as if I was a customer with a gun! Just think of John C. Reilly (Step Brothers the movie) or even Jack Black (All sorts of stupid stuff) walking in and talking like that?  You would stare too.

When I introduced myself at Coffee & Crema to Shannon, said, “Hi, my name is Wilson Hines, I am a “coffee geek.”  Shannon smiled and quickly stuck his hand out.  I didn’t know how else to introduce myself, I figured he needed to know I had high expectations, as geeks do.  We have been friends ever since!  Oh man, Shannon and I have had some crazy coffee discussions.  We even refer to the pf.net podcast like Bible verses, LOL!  Such as, “According to PF podcast 52 Jay said……”  I don’t know why Shannon and I mixed so well together, but we did.  But, when I packed the family in the car and went to both Murky locations in D.C I had a mixed bag of descriptor!  We went to Arlington first and they thought I had lost my mind dragging a wife and two kids 220 miles for a shot of espresso and a couple of capps.  What can I say, I wanted to see the place!  When I pulled up at the Pennsylvania Ave location they already knew we were on the way!  They welcomed us warmly.  It was odd, one place thought we were crazy and the other place was like Shannon’s reception, we really had a good time at the Penn Ave location.  I bet Liz pulled twenty shots of different grind settings.  We were trying everything in and out of “the book.”

Out of the remainder of places I have been, I have had more of the “odd” look than the “excited to see somebody who cares look.”

I still think we have a long, long, long ways to go in educating our baristas, even at a Third Wave shop like Octane, Open Eye, Coffee & Crema or anywhere else, and I am not so sure if we will ever get to the point the Third Wave concept envisions.  The fact of the matter is you must have employees.  The second matter of fact is you can’t do but so much to ensure those employees are truly in love with the product.  You can have certifications, mandatory training at a roaster or in-house, or any other method you want, but at the end of the day, you still have got to hire somebody and that somebody you have probably doesn’t come home at the end of the day after pulling shots to sit at the computer “learning lingo,” working Barista Exchange, and posting or whatever on Coffee Geek or Home Barista.   In fact, I think BE has had a good and effective impact on getting the Average Joe Barista online and communicating with others.  And lets face it, BE is decidedly Third Wave!  One thing I don’t buy about the Third Wave concept and I don’t know if this is a perceived idea of mine or a perceived idea of the industry; But, there is an idea that you have to be a screaming liberal, tree hugging, tattooed to death (tastefully or not), Bush hating, “rent a protester” that you would only imagine at a G8 Summit Protest!  Trust me, I am none of these.  I am not the guy on the opposite end of that rope either!

But, I am naturally a Third Wave coffee enthusiast and convert.

Next…”Two and a Half Wave,” what is going wrong and what we have got to do about it.

11 responses to “Third Wave Coffee, a Conversion :: Part 1

  1. Well coffee is one of the three elixirs of life, the other two are olive oil and garlic. These three waves,1-2-3, I’m not sure that I can buy-into the idea since I have been drinking coffee for 59 years! Since I was four, though I can belive that there has been a change in the way we view coffee. I drink coffee all day and night long. Coffee has been around since at least the 10th Century so maybe the move from the African desert to the Italian table or English diner may be considered a wave. For me there has not been much of a change, black with one-sugar. No fu-fu stuff like cream or added shots, and never any ice, just coffee. The change for me is that I use a filtered machine now instead of a percolator! Maybe the wave would be like you said the Starbucks phenomen, it isn’t the coffee, just the experience! Interesting drink-up!

  2. Thanks, Mr. Wacko!
    Seriously, I appreciate your perspective & it got me to thinking of just how well it proves a “3 wave theory,” so to speak. If you read much on the history of the coffee tree, like in a book such as “Uncommon Grounds” which takes you ALL THE WAY back to that Ethiopian Desert and then the introduction into Europe and then the introduction to SE Asia and S America, that was ALL necessity. Necessity is the whole idea of the 1st wave.
    Again, thanks for the input.

  3. This entry is interesting and as the comment before may have expressed and not have understood,this is not about the history of coffee but the coffee industry’s concern for it’s preparation and the people in that industry. It has been a journey from being a dry good kept in a can for years, to a fresh roasted(not burnt) and used within 7 to 10 days some times less, but not kept much longer for the best taste. Not deluted because in doesn’t taste good on it’s own but a treasured culinary art. We that love this seed ; journey for and pursue excellence in a product second only to oil in value.

  4. I think the general understanding of the 3~ is fundamentally correct but it leaves unmentioned an area that most people don’t think to mention. Or perhaps it’s just a perspective they don’t consider.

    1~ coffee had mass market appeal with low quality but even lower costs. It supported a culture of coffee drinking Americans and eventually engendered what many call 2~ coffee. But in the beginning all these corporate behemoths wanted to do was make gobs of money. This is America after all and they worked towards maintaining the bottom line. They cared only about their own sustainability.

    2~ coffee was the same thing, with moderately higher quality and vastly improved pricing. This group is just as responsible for today’s cadre of elite coffee shops pushing up quality expectations, because they created a customer willing to pay more and think a little more about what they consume. Quality was an early brand badge they wore (which has now been picked up by the new generation) because they were so much better than corporation grade coffee. But looking even a little past the surface it is easy to see that quality wasn’t the centerpiece of their designs. It was one of the first things sacrificed in the name of efficiency and sales. These businesses, like their predecessors, focused on their bottom line. They focused on their own sustainability first, paying more for green coffee and employee benefits than ever before but only insofar as they didn’t significantly impact profitability.

    The point I’m getting at here is that these first two coffee business models were created to make the companies themselves money. They blithely relied on the concepts of supply and demand economics when buying their coffee, even when they knew farmers in producing countries were barely getting by financially. Many of these older coffee companies have now jumped on the Fair Trade bandwagon, but again only for the sake of making more money, not for any intrinsic altruism or quality implied by higher prices.

    This self-entitled 3~ is trying to source higher quality coffee than anyone before them and paying very high prices; sometimes to their own detriment. Certain companies are doing well by doing good: Stumptown, Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, Sustainable Harvest, etc. and these companies are what we all aspire to in some way or another. We want an ethical system of business where everyone down the line prospers, including the farmers. That is the key differentiating factor between all these waves of coffee. 3~, in it’s most idealist form, is about giving everyone a piece of the pie.

    The problem is (you knew that was coming, right?) that the ideal gets lost in translation down to the smaller retail shops. They don’t always fully see the value of buying higher priced coffee from their roaster, believing the roaster is just padding their margins with a “finder’s fee” of sorts. Even the shops that get the whole ethical/moral premise of what the best of the 3~ stands for don’t have the wherewithal financially, ethically, creatively or otherwise to pursue a retail model environment where they can be profitable.

    3~ idealism will not take hold in the south until enough shops take the plunge and build themselves from the ground up with their own sustainability in mind. The model is not about high cost, low margin drinks. It is about artisanship with value and by value I mean decent profit margins. The only way to do that is to raise drink prices well past where they are today. No one can undercharge the giant coffee corporations and call themselves 3~. Large companies have better margins and can outlast the little guy. When we cut our prices to theirs in the belief that we are offering a better value, we are only selling ourselves short and harming all the people we could be benefiting. Believe me, just staying in business is not better for the farmer, your roaster, your employees or the owner than staying in business profitably.

    But the only way to make people pay for an expensive latte is to tell/show them why it is better than anyone else’s. The only way to make people come back is to make for them an exceptionally good drink. The only way to do any of that is to believe you are doing something different, not just pushing high-priced caffeination delivery.

    You mentioned 2.5~ shops and I will just mention them in passing. I don’t think there is such a thing. If they believe, they’re saved. If they don’t, they’re not. Simple as that. If they make awful coffee or have apathetic baristas or forty syrups but truly believe they are trying to build an ethically founded business then what they need more than criticism is guidance. If they have great coffee and are rolling in cash but don’t give a crap about anything but their own little universe, then they are the worse off because it’s harder to show them a need to change.

  5. First off, there’s certainly lots of skepticism by folks in the coffee world about the whole third wave descriptor, but without overgeneralizing, I think we have to admit that there’s something there – originating with places like Intelligentsia that captures a paradigm shift in coffee.

    I’ve bandied about the term wave 2.5 myself, but have a slightly different take. It seems to me that these are places like Batdorf and Bronson or other similar companies that emerged out of second wave coffee but have stuck around long enough to start to transform. Maybe because of their age, they’re never going to be as “cool” as a third-wave shop, but they’ve done all they can to stay “hip.” 2.5ers are kind of the tweener generation of roasters that can’t claim youth, but can claim the principles.

    In other words, I think the coffee wave captures both something about coffee philosophy as well as something about marketing and image, that this tweener generation of roasters finds hard to shake. The only way it seems possible is to “shed” your former identity and be reborn into third wave, a little like what George Howell or Martin Diedrich have done.

  6. That’s a bit of a backhanded comment about GHH. How is someone like George a waver? If he is one of a tiny tiny segment of the market vac sealing coffees and one of two who freezes coffees, how does that fit with so many others in the waver category who spend their budget on competitions and promotional stunts?

    Intelly has accounts here, so does Zoka and several others often named as wavers. None of them have farm names(just blends) or any transparency(not even roaster brand name). This is not a knock on Intelly but this whole 3w thing gets way too much traction from idealists buying into this silly idea that we have arrived because we can pull a triple ristretto. The ego gets ahead of the reality.

  7. Jaime, and the whole gang, have made some very interesting reading. I was having thoughts about the whole GHH question. GHH and noone else is a “Third Waver” because they attend, support or compete in a barista tourney. They are Third Wavers because of the stand they take on coffee. It is the bean, not the machine. The bean, not the tamper. The bean, not the barista or anything else you want to fill in the blank. GHH, in my definition of 3W, is probably one of the best of the 3W crowd. Someone may not like GHH or Ken Davids, or whoever because they can draw Social Security, but you will one day too, if Osama/McCain leaves it for you.
    You know, the very first cup of espresso I ever had worth talking about was a PHENOMENAL Eth Yirg Single Origin espresso. Whether you like frozen green coffee or not, he is doing things that work.

  8. We made a video about this very topic with our friends at Awaken Cafe in Oakland. Curious to hear your thoughts!

  9. I DO love that video. Simple and to the point and that is what the topic needs. Trish would be proud.
    I have no idea why my blog post registers so high in the Google ranks when you search for Third Wave, but it does. Your video embed is in a good place to help spread the word. In fact, I am going to embed it over on a new project I am working on. I will send you an e-mail with a link. Thanks

  10. Pingback: Bull Run Roasting Company’s New Cafe « The Heavy Table

  11. Pingback: Seattle Times : Zoka opens Third Wave Coffeehouse in Kirkland… | Zoka Coffee

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