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Third Wave Coffee: Local, Sustainable, Drinkable Art

There's a movement afoot in the U.S. to convince you that your coffee deserves the same respect given to fine wines, cheeses, beers and chocolate.

Latte art, created when the barista pours steamed milk into espresso in a way that creates a pattern in the foam of the drink, is a sign that you might be in a third wave coffee shop.

One For The Money, Two For The Show

Aficionados break the history of American coffee culture into three waves. The idea is credited to barista Trish Skeie, who coined it in 2003.

The first wave: think Folgers on every table, in every kitchen. It began in the late 19th century and peaked in the 1940s.

The second wave began in the 1960s with Peet’s Coffee and climaxed with Starbucks, introducing the country to the French Roast, the cappuccino and the triple-grande-non-fat extra-hot-no-foam-caramel-latte. They make espresso beverages inspired by Italian pioneers, but their espresso machines are automated, geared toward making sure you can get the same cup of coffee at any of their storefronts.

The third wave, gradually taking hold since the mid-2000s, values precision in all stages of coffee production, from sourcing the beans to roasting them, grinding them and crafting them by hand into fine drinks. The flagship company of the movement is Stumptown Coffee Roasters, based in Portland, Oregon but with a handful of shops in Seattle and New York.

Other major third-wave shops include Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea Co. and North Carolina’s Counter Culture Coffee.

Third Wave, Single Origin

The third wave coffee movement is profoundly motivated by a desire to connect coffee drinkers with the people responsible for making their drink, from the baristas to the roasters to the growers.

Coffee shops like Starbucks want your latte to taste the same in New York as in Indianapolis, so they use automated machines to brew your espresso. But third-wavers, by comparison, will manually adjust the pressure of water and steam to get the best flavor out of the blend of beans they’re working with.

Those beans, if not roasted on site, will come from an identified roaster.

Customers wanting to buy whole beans from a third wave shop are likely to find single-origin options — where the beans all come from a single farm — or sustainable blends. Additionally, the store may buy its beans directly from the plantation that grew them.

It’s Monday Morning. Do You Know When Your Coffee Was Roasted?

High-end coffee aficionados would like to see coffee given treatment in stores similar to the treatment given wine, high-end chocolate, cheese or microbrewed beer.

“When you buy a bottle of wine, you know the vintage year, the winery, what kind of grape it is,” says Nick Cho of Murky Coffee in Washington, DC. “In coffee, it’s as if you walked into a wine shop and all it said was ‘Australian wine.’ We need to be able to walk into a store and see coffee with a ‘roasted-on’ dating. The labels should not only give us the country of origin and the degree of roast, but the actual farm or estate that it comes from.” 

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Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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