Third-Wave Coffee Is Killing Itself

I love great coffee; there's something about the first aerated slurp of a truly great cup that suffuses my body with relief beyond the assuaging of my insistent caffeine addiction. I seek out the great when I can, but I am sufficiently dependent upon coffee that, should I need to, I will drink the chemical-laden sludge that oozes forth from the three-in-one spigot at the gas station.

There's one place I won't go anymore, though, and that is the so-called third-wave coffee shops, the new generation of coffee bars with patent machines and a heavy concentration on knowing exactly which patch of steep, shady, equatorial land the coffee beans came from.

I'm tired of waiting forty minutes for an over-engineered cup of coffee, lines of pending tickets waving in the exhaust breeze of some machine that cost more than my truck. I'm tired of paying $5 for something that makes my palate burn under the tannic assault of light roasting and over-extraction. I'm tired of narrow-mouthed mugs that are supposed to concentrate the coffee's aroma but mostly just bump my nose and make it impossible to finish the cup of coffee I've just paid $5 for without pouring it, precipitated silt and all, into a to-go cup.

Mostly, though, I'm tired of the attitude of the people who make it. I'm well enough known, to my great chagrin, that people rarely give me attitude to my face, but I have eyes and ears. I watch as people are lectured and mocked for not understanding the coffee shop's manifesto. Last week, I watched a man in front of me in line receive a condescending jeremiad, air quotes and all, about the difference between their macchiato and Starbucks' "macchiato". I stopped going to one shop in Los Angeles because literally every employee I ever encountered had such a poisonous attitude that I found myself turning off my hearing aids while waiting in line so I didn't approach the bar with clenched fists.

Lose the attitude. Lose the condescension. Lose the superiority. Third-wave was supposed to be about education; it was supposed to about opening your eyes to the idea that coffee, like wine, has terroir that's destroyed when you load up your cup with sugar and milk. Some people still convey this--if you've ever heard Jeff Duggan or Truman Severson at Portola or Alberto Song Trujillo at Caffe Sospeso talk about coffee, you come away educated but not shamed. A tasting at their coffee bars--particularly Portola's Theorem tasting bar--will leave you trembling from caffeine and not insignificantly poorer, but you will have gone on a journey of exploration that rivals the first time you sit on a stool across from a craft bartender. Unfortunately, that same judgment-free passion does not translate to everyone.

When classic cocktails were dusted off during the bar renaissance and bartenders started to return to more chef-like, rather than more cook-like, roles in bars, there was a sudden rise in the number of stuck-up dandies in armbands and pomaded mustaches giving people lip for ordering would-be martinis made of vodka and salty olive brine. There were a lot of bad cocktails invented because there were all these newly available raw ingredients and revived techniques to play with, and not enough editing. It nearly sank the local craft cocktail movement, because the one thing the Southern Californian public will not put up with is being told they're not good enough, and there aren't enough "good enough" people to keep bars afloat by themselves.

So they adapted. Though they may be rolling their eyes inwardly, the vast majority of craft bartenders around here will try to take customers one step toward what they do best, rather than humiliating them in public for their choices. The number of poorly researched creations on cocktail menus has declined, and when it comes right down to it, most craft cocktail bars will still make a vodka martini if that's what you insist upon and if they have the olive brine.

That's what needs to happen in the craft coffee movement. Meanwhile, though, if you need me, I'll be at Kean Coffee in Tustin, sipping on a completely attitude-free Italian cappuccino.

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