Wave of the future
Emphasizing craft and partnering with Third World growers, local coffee entrepreneurs challenge the Starbucks status quo
Coffee is the third most traded commodity in the world. Millions drink it as part of their everyday routine, but very few know, or even care, where the beans come from or what they should taste like. That’s where local coffee connoisseurs like Sean Kohmescher and J. Valenta enter the equation. For them, coffee amounts to so much more than a hill of beans, and their passion is altering the face of coffee commerce worldwide.
Their movement is called the Third Wave.
“It’s a return to real coffee culture as it came out of Italy,” said Valenta, owner of JavaJ in Roseville, of the Third Wave philosophy. The history of the movement is founded in the belief that coffee was introduced to America in cycles. There’s the First Wave, which was the proliferation of consumer coffee in the mid-20th century—think freeze-dried Folgers. The Second Wave was the ubiquity of the espresso-based drinks in America, à la Starbucks, during the ’80s and ’90s.
The concept of the Third Wave is to bring coffee back to its roots—to let “coffee speak for itself,” according to D.C.-based Murky Coffee owner and Barista Guild of America executive director Nicholas Cho. Although there is no official hard-and-fast manifesto, the Third Wave emphasizes two standards: One, understanding a coffee’s origin and observing sustainable and fair trade; and two, highlighting the artistry and culinary aspects of coffee via events like barista competitions and cuppings.
“Coffee is grown in some of the most poor places in the world,” observed Jason Griest, coffee roaster and co-owner of Old Soul Co. in Sacramento. “It’s one thing to grow wine in Napa, but it’s a whole other thing to try to grow really good coffee in Harar, Ethiopia, when Somalia is right next door.” Reaching out to Third World farmers is a hallmark of the Third Wave. “What we’re doing then is associating the consumer directly with that farmer,” said Valenta. “Where did this coffee come from? How much work went into it?”
Kohmescher, owner of Temple Fine Coffee and Tea, has a similar modus operandi: He serves only fair-trade certified and organic coffees that come from origin, small-crop farms and emphasizes the terroir, or geographic characteristics, of the beans. Kohmescher gets most of his beans from Barefoot Coffee Roasters in Santa Clara (voted the fourth best roasters in the country by Food & Wine magazine), who in turn purchase their beans from single-origin farms and co-ops. “There’s a direct relationship” between the roasters and the farms in places like Guatemala, Kohmescher explained. “[Barefoot’s] Andy is over there [in Huehuetenango] right now working with the national-champion barista and meeting with farmers.” By reaching out to origin farmers, coffeehouses like Temple get their hands on some of the best beans in the world.
But do the farmers benefit?
“The coffee industry as it exists today didn’t even exist five years ago,” Valenta began. Because of the newfound demand for origin coffees, Third World farmers needed a way to get their beans out into the mainstream. Enter the Third Wave. Now, farmers submit their beans to a coffee competition, like Cup of Excellence, where their crop is judged and awarded based on quality and country of origin. “Small farmers take their best coffees, they put them into a competition, there is a grading process and then an auction process,” Valenta said. Co-ops of domestic roasters, like Stumptown in Portland and Intelligentsia in Chicago, join together, bid on the winning coffees and split the imported beans among them. And the small, independent fair-trade farmers earn unprecedented profits … and recognition.
While Starbucks accounts for 10 percent of the global fair-trade market, only some 4 percent of their beans are fair-trade certified, and most of this coffee is purchased for the minimum fair-trade standard price of $1.26 per pound. “The top coffee of the year [at Cup of Excellence] will fetch $50 a pound,” Valenta continued. “And the farmer’s used to getting paid 90 cents [per pound]. You can imagine: $50 a pound is quite a sweet deal, even with the small fraction the organization takes out of that. It’s humongous for them.” Small farms also achieve a kind of celebrity, not unlike the more renowned wine vineyards of Napa or the Beaune region in France.
“We basically take a wine-based style approach to coffee,” Valenta said, hinting at the second tenet of the Third Wave: coffee aesthetic.
Over at Temple during a recent in-house barista competition, four judges convened on chic leather couches examining cappuccinos prepared by Kohmescher. The philosophy of the Third Wave was in full effect. They dipped their spoons in the foam, sipped the libations and inspected each other’s for consistency. Earlier the leader of the judges, Monica of Barefoot Roasters, told the panel what to look for in a drink. “You want to have a full ring of crema around the cup,” she advised. Milk should be steamed to 155 degrees. Foam should be a centimeter thick, and one should be able to differentiate the complexity of the espresso with the sweetness of the steamed milk.
“What you don’t want is under-extracted brightness,” said Christian, another judge from Barefoot, of the espresso. “Otherwise it makes your nipples hard.”
Four Temple baristas—Kohmescher, Lucky Rodrigues, Tav Byerhoff and Jessica Woods—were competing this particular afternoon in January for a spot at the United States Barista Championship regionals in Petaluma in March. Each barista was allowed 20 minutes (10 minutes preparation and 10 minutes execution) to prepare four cappuccinos and four espressos for the panel. The judges evaluated the barista on presentation, execution of said drinks, cleanliness of their espresso bar, and other criteria like tactile balance (i.e., complexity of the espresso) and whether their shirts were well-pressed. During an actual USBC event, there’s no room for joking around, but rules were a bit more lenient this particular afternoon.
“Dock as many points as you can,” Byerhoff kidded before his turn on the clock. “I’ll make it up with charm.”
“I was actually more nervous at our in-house than I was in the regional competition [last year],” Kohmescher confessed after the event. “I think it was because I had to win, being the owner.” In 2006, Kohmescher placed tenth in the regionals, his first time competing, and is optimistic about this year. “We’re far better prepared than we were even last year. I’ll be surprised if at least two people from here don’t make the top six.”
These USBC competitions are a byproduct of Third Wave baristas celebrating their craft and perfecting the art of serving origin coffees. For instance, before drinks are served in competition, baristas must explain to the judges how the espresso will taste and where the espresso originates. Judges also award points for latte art, such as the insignia of a Rosetta, with its soft peaks and lack of air pockets, that decorate cappuccinos.
Kohmescher summed things up nicely: “It all comes down to the quality. I think [barista competitions] just put standards on the quality.”