For the last installment of our three-part series on How future coffee “Waves” will come to disparage the so-called Third, we wrap up by examining two major social fads that have come to identify the Third Wave:

  • The focus on baristas
  • The role of coffee geeks

We’ll also touch on why, if quality coffee is to progress, we must get beyond through these and the qualitative fads of the times. For good coffee to continue proliferate in convenience, access, and quality, these qualities require a healthy, growing consumer market to support them. So the question is: are these fads helping or hurting those aims?

The Cult of the Barista

Hold back the Zzzz's in Japanese - a televised barista competitionOne of the hallmarks of these coffee times (call them Third Wave if you like) is that the barista has been promoted as the focal point and pinnacle of all things quality coffee. It’s as if we now expect our barista to be picking beans at origin. This despite the fact that many coffee preparations have no need for a barista.

If we promote the barista as not only the public face of coffee but its only face, we end up with representation by many of the least experienced, most novice members in the industry. Meanwhile, many in the industry still believe that barista competitions — themselves a decidedly Third Wave construct — are just as worthy as many cooking programs when it comes to TV-ready entertainment such as “Iron Chef” or “Top Chef.”

We put the 'X' in 'extreme' like the 'X' in 'expresso'It only takes 20 minutes of sitting through an online video feed from the USBC to convince the layman consumer otherwise. Not only that, instead of promoting executive chefs at the height of their profession, barista competitions are more akin to Top Chef de Partie (or “Top Line Cook”): highly skilled and trained individuals at specific, technical tasks, but much less so the conductors of a great, comprehensive coffee offering.

Another reason that our barista competitions are more like drills for line cooks concerns the intense technical precision and narrow focus of these competitions. Specialty drinks add an element of creativity, but they are completely irrelevant to what a retail customer can purchase in a café. Then at the other extreme you have latte art competitions where the results are little more than eye candy: no more the hallmark of a technically gifted barista than a plating contest would be for a competitive chef.

What is a great barista?

Is that to suggest that the barista should be humbled more as a mere entry-level, high turnover position for the coffee industry? Anything but. Great baristas can make or break a café and often for reasons other than the amount of grinds left in their doser — i.e., abilities and skills that just don’t rank on the current barista competition scoresheets.

Earlier this week, I had dinner with New York-based Nicolas O’Connell, an owner and Managing Partner at La Colombe Torrefaction who earned his rank starting as a barista in one of their cafés. While talking about favorite coffee places in New York City, Nicolas was quick to cite Jamie McCormick of Abraço as NYC’s best barista. (Jamie is an alum of SF’s Blue Bottle Coffee.)

Jamie McCormick behind the machine back in his Hayes Valley Blue Bottle daysNicolas waxed poetic about Jamie’s ability to connect with people in line, to engage with his customers by name and learn/know what they want — avoiding the you’re-a-waste-of-my-time attitude common among the staff at many NYC competitors. Nicolas even went so far as to say, “People love Abraço and think its a great place just because of the coffee. But the real reason they are great is Jamie, and most of the customers don’t realize that.”

You won’t find Jamie in a barista competition. Nor will you find many of the skills he excels at valued in the structure of a competition. And yet he is as critical as anyone in New York City at introducing people to better coffee standards.

Coffee Geek, R.I.P.

We save perhaps one of more controversial points for last: the coffee geek ethos needs to go. (Apologies to Mark Prince of CoffeeGeek.com.) We not only mean it for the amateur enthusiasts, but also among the professionals.

You can argue that coffee geeks have existed throughout previous waves, from home espresso enthusiasts to their übergeek home roaster brethren. As for the professional trade, yours truly still sports a goatee he grew as a joke while taking a summer grad school class at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1995 — the old joke being that all Seattle residents must be flannel-wearing, Nirvana-moshing Starbucks employees. But the explosion of these social archetypes came after the 1990s, and in part they have come to define the Third Wave.

Redefining 'wine snob'So why is losing the coffee geek ethos critical? Because we believe it will improve access to better coffee for everyone. The longer that high quality coffee remains the exclusive domain of coffee geeks, hipsters, and “uniformed” coffee professionals, the longer that mainstream accessibility and acceptance will be an uphill battle. We joke about coffee’s tiresome wine analogy, but the wine industry successfully figured out how to bring mainstream wine out of the Gallo era in part by circumventing the image of the elitist, self-absorbed wine snob.

Some believe the Third Wave can build a supporting market for better coffee through an intense public education campaign. But too often, we’ve made it harder for consumers to relax and just enjoy a simple cup of coffee — without feeling the pressure to make a lot more decisions nor feeling burdened by educational materials and processes. And instead of tearing down walls to get more people asking for better coffee, we’ve instead built up a few walls.

If they’re not with you, they’re against you

While it’s hard for readers here to fathom the idea of Starbucks being elitist, nearly every online post that mentions Starbucks attracts a heavy level of venomous contempt for the company and its patrons. (Google it — we dare you.) This contempt seems to originate from staunch defenders of the mainstream and the “prudent” — people who take great offense that their cheaper, mainstream tastes are no longer “good enough.” Now just imagine the shock-and-awe bursting of aneurysms if these same people encountered an army of coffee geeks that look down their noses at Starbucks and its patrons?

You've lived the lifestyle, now own the T-shirtWe don’t envision a Tocqueville-like an end to stratification. And there may always be people so insecure as to feel threatened by another person’s beverage choice — as if it were a personal judgment of their self-worth — where only professional therapists stand to have any hope of changing them. But there are also many coffee geeks, amateurs and professionals alike, who would prefer to keep quality coffee as “this thing of ours.” If for no other reason than irrational fear that the mainstream popularization of quality coffee would devalue their own identities and/or constitute a commercial sell-out.

Every advancement “Third Wave” coffee has brought to bear — from the varieties of single-origin beans to roast-dated coffee to public cuppings to barista competitions — would not have been possible if not for the development of an economic market to support them. But more mainstream coffee consumers — the ones who will help build sustainable economic markets for even better coffee — will not get over their apprehension of delving deeper into coffee as long as its image is that of the self-celebrated coffee geek or judgmental coffee snob. Even the very word “geek” defies social acceptance.

If quality coffee remains trapped in its insulated niche, standards across the board will be stuck. And even we coffee geeks will eventually be stifled by Third Wave coffee’s conformity of non-conformity.

Links to other parts of the series: