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Navigating the Third Wave :: On Understanding the New Coffee

February 9, 2012

[A bag of Moonshine Coffee beans, small batch roasted in Minneapolis :: My current “weekend” coffee]

I call this my weekend coffee because beans of this caliber of craftsmanship require a certain amount of fetishistic preparation that’s so time consuming that it’s best suited for days when you don’t have to hurry off to work.  For gearheads like me, a well spent weekend morning now involves grinding my own beans in a Hario ceramic mill, temping water in my kettle to 185 degrees Farehnehit, and brewing my coffee using an inverted Aeropress method…this is what all of you are doing with your Saturday mornings, right?  But to be honest, I’m new to this madness.  And to be fair, this madness is relatively new. Any time I walk into a Third Wave Coffee bar, I feel like a fraud. I’ll stand in line looking at the menu at provenance specific names like “El Salvador, Finca Los Planes” and nod with confidence and familiarity, like the sort of guy who would wear a brand new CBGB shirt and a fedora to a show at the #@$%ing Fine Line.  That said, Band of Skulls is playing the Fine Line in April…wanna go?

For the sake of discussion, here’s a compendium on the “waves” of coffee in the US (you can talk about coffee like you can talk about the history of Ska…or Feminism):  The First Wave of coffee came somewhere in the earlier part of the 1900s with brands like Folgers and Maxwell House.  The marketing push of this wave centered around convincing people that drinking coffee is something that everyone just does, regardless of quality.  Obviously, they succeeded.  The Second Wave of coffee, pioneered by companies like Peet’s Coffee in the 1960s and financially helmed by later companies like Starbucks in the 1990s, introduced the American public to the idea of “specialty coffee.”  These Second Wavers accomplished this by making the most universally agreeable cups that they could, making coffee rich and sweet by adding milk and flavor shots.  Starbucks and Caribou managed to fill new franchises as fast as they could open them, first with the help of Friends fans and later laptop toting Carrie Bradshaw wannabees and bible study groups duking it out for the next open table.  True to human behavior, contrary to where the masses move, there’s always a few rebels. These are the misfits, the artists, the academics, and the heartbreakers. Just like physics, every action warrants an equal and opposite reaction. But where the reaction cannot be delivered with the support of numbers alone, it is compensated for with exclusivity and fussiness.  In a nutshell, Third Wave coffee is this…it’s coffee beans you’ve never heard of and local dairy, served in tiny tiny cups.  It’s undoubtedly delicious and worthwhile, but to start a dialogue on how it’s done correctly is to open a can of worms. Think of it this way: if the Second Wave of coffee is like Rihanna at the Grammys, then Third Wave coffee is like overhearing two CMJ reviewers comparing notes at SXSW.  There’s a time and place for each, but these days I still count on Ri-Ri to get me through a rough morning.

But I dabble.  On weekdays it’s pre-ground Dunn Brothers beans in a Bunn drip machine. But for the weekends, I have a wealth of coffee gadgets: pour overs, french presses, chemexes…  Why? If I’m not wholly invested in learning to taste the intricacies or the Costa Rican terroir?  Because it’s fun, dammit.  As with most things which which are meant to be appreciated, we often forget that at the root of pleasure is fun.  Music and movies should be fun.  Food should be fun, and so should coffee.

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