I have a lot of respect for Nick Cho, owner of Washington D.C.’s murky coffee. He’s established a place that pulls some of the best espresso shots on the East Coast. He’s arguably the primary brainchild behind the Portafilter.net podcasts. And he’s also known for his quality coffee industry “altruism”: supporting aspiring baristas and café owners who want to commit their livelihoods towards making some of the best espresso on the planet.

However, Nick Cho’s reputation will unfortunately always be marred by his association with one of the most arrogant and proposterous claims ever made in America’s modern day quality espresso business. It’s the notion that quality coffee is in its Third Wave, a.k.a. the “Third Wave of Coffee”.

This is particularly unfortunate because the idea isn’t even Mr. Cho’s to begin with. As even he once pointed out, the blame lies squarely with Trish Skeie — who otherwise is one of quality coffee’s luminaries, given her role behind the Sebastopol, CA roastery, Taylor Maid Farms. (She is now Director of Coffee for Seattle’s highly respected Zoka Coffee.) In my mailbox today, I found this month’s Barista Magazine, which features an article by Trish Skeie under the self-serving title, “Third Wave In Its Third Year.”

“Hey, baby, what’s your Wave?”

To boil this whole pompous wave theory down, a few years ago Ms. Skeie postulated that coffee consumption and preparation was progressing through three distinct transformations.

The First Wave is consumption — marked by America’s early preoccupation with poor quality coffee, often instant or freeze dried, that was more a caffeine and heat delivery mechanism than anything with an enjoyable flavor. The Second Wave is about enjoyment and defining specialty coffee — characterized by the selection of arabica beans over robusta, Colombian coffee’s Juan Valdez marketing campaign, and the proliferation of espresso and Starbucks.

So where are we now? Supposedly, this Third Wave is all about letting the coffee speak for itself — or enjoying coffee for coffee’s sake. Confused yet? You should be, because here are the problems with this logic and how people in the industry are misusing and abusing it…

Quality Espresso?: Not Invented Here

The whole Third Wave concept has since been bandied about in the specialty coffee industry as a sort of pompus and self-congratulatory marketing hype about their products and services — a self-appointed seal of approval. Yet this wave theory doesn’t describe the coffee or even how it is prepared. In actuality, it most accurately describes the coffee consumer. It has little, if anything, to do with the actual businesses that are now proudly tattooing Third Wave across their chests.

And here’s another problem with all those who like to think of themselves as Third Wave: the wave theory concept essentially presumes that quality espresso simply did not exist on this planet until three years ago (e.g.: Trish Skeie’s recent Barista Magazine article). In the world of quality coffee, this is akin to saying that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America — while ignoring the brain anyeurism that must have lead to our overlooking the Lucayans who had lived in the Bahamas for centuries prior.

The facts are that great espresso has existed long before naked portafilters, single-origin bean roasts, and other gimmickry that some might associate with the Third Wave. In Italy, for example, the four Msmiscela, macchina, macinatura, and mano (or the beans/blend, the machine, the grind, and the “hand”) — have been widely recognized as the fundamental keys to great espresso for generations. Even to this day.

Even here in our backyard, businesses such as Mr. Espresso have been promoting the highest quality standards in beans, roasts, equipment, and barista training for multiple generations — i.e., since the likes of some of these self-proclaimed third wavers were still in Pampers. Quality espresso is not the sudden confluence of modern scientific discovery and magic. It’s been around for decades, and its supposed “secrets” have largely remained unchanged throughout.

Unfortunately, since people like Ms. Skeie had their first “real” espresso in recent years, many will keep on presuming it’s their own discovery and that they are at the vanguard of something new. But when we talk about any Third Wave, what constitutes quality coffee hasn’t really changed. What has changed is the education and sophistication of the American coffee consumer palate. It’s just a lot more convenient for some businesses to take credit for what rightfully belongs to their customers.


Paulie Walnuts and Big Pussy of TV's The Sopranos ponder the Third Wave (WARNING: vulgar audio)

Comic relief: Paulie Walnuts and Big Pussy of TV’s The Sopranos ponder the Third Wave