Top

blog

Stories

 

Third-Wave Coffee Is Killing Itself

blackcoffeeincup.jpg
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.

Follow Stick a Fork In It on Twitter @ocweeklyfood or on Facebook! And don't forget to download our free Best Of App here!


My Voice Nation Help
26 comments
bunnabro
bunnabro

Dave, you are apparently attending the wrong bars. Don't throw out the ambrosia, leave a tender moment alone. Our understanding, processing, serving, and enjoyment of coffee has changed permanantly, (I think), and for the better, qualitatively speaking. Going back to the dark side will not help foster anything more than an unfair pricing model, archaic roasting and brewing technique, and scorched palate. Those who condescend are indeed ruining a perfectly delightful beverage. That is a shame to be sure. Fact is, when we, (humans) get our hands on something this good we are destined to screw it up somehow. If not in the formulation, in the service. This brings to mind an obscure Old Testament passage where Samson's dad asks a visiting angel his name. "Why do you ask my name seeing it is too wonderful for you to understand?" The latest developments in coffee are admittedly not so good they can be put on par with a heavenly vision. Nonetheless, the condescension you have experienced is not what it appears. In fact it is more likely the result of dealing with something a bit too wonderful to understand. Now go have yourself a good cup.

tonydicorpo
tonydicorpo

This is the exact reason we in our shop always interact with our customers upon their first visit to us so they know why we do what we do; it's an educational experience.  We don't have cream, sugar, sweeteners or flavors because we feel our coffee stands excellent on its own, so we pay homage to the growers for producing such a superior coffee.  But we convey this to the customer before they order.  We never look down at anyone, and for those that say they still need cream and sugar without even trying what we have to offer, we make the offer they do not have to take the coffee after they taste it.  However no one has ever taken us up on that offer.  Once they have an option, it makes it easier for them to make the decision and once they experience a truly excellent cup of black coffee they understand what we do, and become regular customers in most cases.  Fact is, most consumers have NEVER had exceptional coffee, or if they have and added cream/sugar they did so likely without ever tasting it before as a force of habit.  We have had customers that say it's good black, but that they still prefer cream and/or sugar and to that we cannot help to make any change to their preference.  We do offer lattes, caps, Americano w/milk, and Cafe Au Lait.  We are a unique coffee shop and to offer what the other shops do negates any uniqueness.  However when one goes into a third wave shop you have to almost forget everything you know ordinary coffee to be, because great coffee is really unique.

christoforouaris
christoforouaris

Once you discover the real flavours of coffee you might be a bit snobby. If as a barista you move from 'second wave' to third, meaning from a chain to a speciality you could be like that. The reason for that is that the chains will teach you only one way of doing things and that, that way is the only correct one. Chains will make you feel that you are working in the best coffee shop there is anywhere and put down the competition. When you move away from that situation you realize that there is so much more to know about coffee and that there is so many others that do a great job out there that tend to put down any other establishment or customers that are less educated. Don't get me wrong, is not that I do agree on that behavior but I do believe that those barista will improve on their customer service skills and attitude as they continue working and realizing that as you said is about educating. 

jdrobison
jdrobison

95% of the coffee I drink when not at home is at third-wave cafés. I’ve run into pretentious service from those places maybe once or twice. Let’s not generalize a bad experience or two and rule out third-wave coffee entirely.

I’ve had plenty of coffee from the long list of second wave shops. I’ve been served quite frequently by kids who would be just as happy working fast food. And it shows. And for that I get pretty horrible coffee.

I’ve had Kean countless times (we’ll call them second-and-a-half-wave) and the service is mostly fine with the exception of the aloof little girl who clearly doesn't want to be serving anybody, anything. But I don’t generalize.

You’ll get good service, poor service, pretentious people and those who truly want to serve and educate just about anywhere. To completely dismiss an entire category of coffee based on a bad experience or two is pretty harsh. If you’re happy drinking poor to mediocre coffee, fine. But I think you’re doing it for the wrong reason.

Oh…and… Overcharging is a question of value. It’s not an absolute. We, the consumer, will tell the merchant when they’re overcharging and so far they appear to be doing just fine.

P.S. Nice props to Duggan and Truman. They truly deserve the credit you gave them!

nats727
nats727

So. Much. Truth. 

I work in this industry but I completely echo the feelings of this writer in full.  Stop using knowledge to put others down. Stop being an a$$ to those who might have a shred of interest in our craft. Stop pretending like coffee is this big secret you know about and everyone else is worse off or stupid for "not getting it." Stop coffee snobbery!!! 

After all, we serve 10%ish of the coffee drinking population. We own a tiny share of a huge market. Yes, we are doing great things, but this sense of coffee enlightenment has lead to a false sense of entitlement. 

I know I've found myself guilty of snobbery probably more than I'd like to admit, but at the end of the day it doesn't feel good to know I've mocked or judged others for something so petty and insignificant. Guess that's just me removing the plank from my eye before calling others to do the same. End Rant. 

FishWithoutBicycle
FishWithoutBicycle

I drink coffee for the caffeine...it wakes me up. I have no opinion about "Third-Wave" coffeehouses in particular because I've never been to one. However, I don't care if I'm buying java for $1 a cup or $5 a cup, if the staff is perpetually rude I just won't go back.

Mr_KEYboardwarrior
Mr_KEYboardwarrior

i do turn off my hearing aid when i hear something talking some bs,and shitty music good times

dfgd
dfgd

Thanks god not everyone enjoys good coffee. You better stick to your mainstream crap. You will get the same if you go to a good wine cellar in Paris or if you look for excellence in any product. If you say "is just coffee" you are right staying away from independant 3rd wave coffee shops.

burchetts
burchetts

Does it feel lazy to lump an entire industry together? There are bad cafés out there, no doubt. A lot of them spend money on expensive machinery and reclaimed wood. A lot of them don't. The common denominator is bad service and bad coffee, not some stylistic trends that fall under the "third wave coffee" title.

David Jensen
David Jensen

Lose the attitude. Lose the condescension. Lose the superiority.

cbc
cbc

I've seen this happen at at least one coffee "boutique" I used to frequent. The 20 minute wait just to get a brewed cup , the insane prices ($18 for 1/2 pound of beans...seriously?) the out the door line because whoever designed the workflow of the shop didn't understand it. I've gone back to home roasting or buying online & just brewing at home. Coffee tastes just as good & I  am saving a buttload of $$. & those Contigo thermal cups work reallly well.

qwertyuiop
qwertyuiop

IMHO you're overgeneralizing 3rd wave: not all baristas and café owners are pompous and irritating (if they are, my guess is they lack knowledge and they're posers anyway). If the coffee is tasty, who cares if they have attitude; if the coffee (or tea) is crap, go somewhere else.

NickCho
NickCho

But do you see the Condescension Cycle you're perpetuating? You get annoyed at condescending baristas, so you write a condescending article directed at them. They'll read this article and treat everyone with extra condescension in the hopes of condescending Mr. Dave Lieberman, and on and on. How horrid!

dale_c
dale_c

Amen, its all pretentious bullshit that probably won't be around 3 years from now.

Dave_Lieberman
Dave_Lieberman

@jdrobison Thanks for the well thought-out comment.

I would say that of the times I've been to third-wave pour-over bars, I see some sort of attitude 80% of the time. Now, much of that may be reflections of crappy customers, but the fact is, it's just coffee. Just like you can't expect someone who drinks Pooping Butterfly brand white Zinfandel to burst into raptures when they drink a grand-cru Bordeaux, it takes baby steps to get people to drink pour-over coffee when they've been drinking cream and sugar brew their whole lives. (A more apt example might be trying to get an Indian who's always had masala chai to appreciate the stark pureness of a fine Chinese green tea.)

oliverserna
oliverserna

The common denominator is overpricred coffee

steve1221
steve1221

@NickCho great reply Nick!!! Couldnt agree more! I think this guy is about 3 years behind the 3rd wave movement.....I agree, when I first approached coffee (5 years ago) it had snobbery and clicks...since that time, it's changed for the better and the education movement is in full stride! Mason agrees!


dfgd
dfgd

@dale_c I'm sure it will and mostly hope it will for the benefit of farmers, who are very poor even if you don't care.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Sigh. By that time it'll be in Houston. We're about three years behind the rest of the world.

peterp
peterp

@oliverserna Everything is getting more expensive, it follows that coffee should as well. Are you aware of what it costs to make a profit through the numerous businesses along the coffee supply chain? 

peterp
peterp

@oliverserna Everything is getting more expensive, so it follows that coffee should too. Specifically, coffee has a very long supply chain with lots of people making money along the way. It's more complicated and longer than distilled spirits, yet we pay $20 for a bottle of midrange whiskey or gin. $20 for high quality coffee from a good roaster can seem like a bargain.

peterp
peterp

@oliverserna Everything is getting more expensive, so it follows that coffee should too. Specifically, coffee has a very long supply chain with lots of people making money along the way. It's more complicated and longer than distilled spirits, yet we pay $20 for a bottle of midrange whiskey or gin. $20 for high quality coffee from a good roaster can seem like a bargain.

oliverserna
oliverserna

@peterp @oliverserna 

I'm sure everything is getting more expensive. The thing with a commodity like coffee is that it exist in a distribution line where the grower always get the short end of the stick. Out of a $2.00 dollar cup of joe, I think the grower gets only 1 percent of the cut. 

Now Trending

From the Vault

 

Loading...