For the second of our three-part installment on How future coffee “Waves” will come to disparage the so-called Third, we examine some of coffee’s biggest qualitative fads going today:

  • Single-origin coffees
  • Medium roasts
  • The heavy-handed use of cuppings

We’ll examine a little of why we must get past these fads for accessible quality coffee to continue to evolve — with more details in our last post of this series.

Death by Single-Origin

Quality coffee is currently mired in industry fads that, in due time, will seem as quaint as the non-functional garnish (NFG) — once a staple of restaurant plating in the 80s and 90s, symbolized by the sprig of curly parsley, that has since gone extinct.

Those curls of lemon rind served on an espresso saucer? NFG. Need we say more?

But let’s invoke another restaurant parallel: the molten chocolate cake. A once-ubiquitous staple on early 1990s dessert menus, today you can’t even find any kind of cake in most restaurants. The single-origin espresso made from medium-roast beans could ultimately suffer a similar fate. But what makes us think that?

People such as Nick Cho and Trish Skeie may have originally conceived a Third Wave to be about the appreciation of coffee for its own sake. (Curiously enough, we wrote this part before Nick’s comment on part one.) Yet one of the greatest overriding characteristics of coffee appreciation today is an intense focus on experimentation over a more learned enjoyment. This experimentation is often expressed through a dizzying array of coffee varietals, a deliberate campaign to proliferate public cupping, and more diverse brewing methods and equipment.

Two unfortunate side effects of this include:

  1. a presumption that the coffee consumer is in a constant state of ignorance
  2. the inadvertent devaluation of coffee consumption that lacks educational goals

Oozing with friendly terms of the times: single origin varietal, organic, medium roast These drivers helped fuel the explosion of single-origin coffees available commercially, but it has also done so at the expense of many quality blends — the very thing with which espresso excels. Because blends are rather opaque to most palate-developing exercises employed by “Third Wave” experimentation, they have fallen out of favor. And in the process, the current wave has at least limited these experiences in the world of coffee enjoyment.

Which brings us to a Third Wave paradox: in the name of providing coffee consumers with more options, it has also limited some choices. Dark roasts being another example.

Medium Röaster Cult

Common with generational waves and the naïvité of youth is a rejection of many things and practices of the past. It’s revolutionary/counter-revolutionary logic — also known as rebelling against your parents. Some motivations are forward-looking; others look backwards — simply going the opposite route to be different for different’s sake. The Third Wave glorification of medium roasts, and its fear of the second crack, falls into this category.

It’s not hard to see why. Not long ago, a lot of quality sourced and processed coffee beans were roasted into third-degree burn victims. But the reaction to this has been to introduce a new kind of narrow conformity so that even beans that excel at darker roast levels — such as Indonesian coffees with great body characteristics — sometimes never see the other side of Full City. By doing this, we’ve simply replaced one thoughtless, conformist monotony for another.

We were acutely reminded of this in our recent trip report at Rodger’s Coffee & Tea: experiencing a single origin bean freshly roasted into the second crack (not charcoal) seemed as alien as a genetically reanimated mastodon.

'More cowbell!'? More like 'More roasting profiles!' Rodger's Coffee's Brazil Poco Fundo: a second crack dinosaur that doesn't turn to ash

Public Cuppings, and Worshiping at the Cupping Altar

Among the tools and techniques behind the Third Wave’s emphasis on experimentation, coffee cuppings top the list. Cuppings have been around for decades, but under the Third Wave they’ve proliferated like childhood peanut allergies. Among professionals, cuppings have been exalted as the high watermark of coffee education. Worse, these same techniques are being heavily marketed to consumers as well.

As a result, many in the industry have overtly relied upon cupping as the ultimate test of a coffee — even if the experience of cupped coffee is once or twice removed from what the end customer actually purchases and consumes.

Who wouldn't prefer to have their morning coffee like this? Recently, in response to some less-than-glowing opinions of their roasting operations, a notable Bay Area roaster invited us to cup their roasts. Of course, CoffeeRatings.com is not CuppingRatings.com. We deliberately focus on what coffee consumers experience. So while it was a generous and thoughtful offer, the roaster suggested it almost as an automatic retort. As a reactionary response, it reflected the insular thinking of a trained coffee industry insider — someone who very briefly mistook cupping for the final say on consumer experience.

In reality, cupping is merely a surrogate to what consumers experience out of a French press, a filter process, or portafilter handle. One characteristic we’ve noted among many Third Wave professionals is that they sometimes lose sight of their goal to produce good coffee, not just good cuppings.

Is it a prayer service, or a coffee cupping? It's both!

Tune in next time…

For the last post in our series, we’ll cover the impact of some of the Third Wave’s major social fads and how these, too, are holding back quality coffee’s evolution. We promise it’s going to be controversial, but then we like that. The two major topics?:

  • The focus on baristas
  • The role of coffee geeks


Links to other parts of the series: