For those accustomed to the bland, milky concoctions that pass for a cappuccino at many American coffee shops, drinking one at the newly opened Berkeley cafe, Local 123, can be a revelatory experience.
Co-owners Frieda Hoffman and Katy Wafle serve their cappuccino in five-ounce porcelain cups, with just a thin layer of golden froth sitting lightly atop, a simple leaf design — that signature mark of the skillful barista — the only dash of white. The drink is impossibly smooth (no sugar needed), the flavors complex and intense, as though you’ve somehow tapped straight into the earthy, raw-sienna essence of the bean. It’s liable to cause even the most casual coffee drinker’s eyes to roll back in his head.
No wonder East Bay coffee connoisseurs have come out in droves since the cafe’s June 17 opening, some declaring, on online message boards like Chowhound.com, that it may even be the very best coffee shop in the Bay Area. Subjective superlatives aside, what’s clear is that Local 123 is part of a growing trend in the East Bay, one that has seen a mini-explosion of “serious” coffee shops springing up: Awaken Café in downtown Oakland; SubRosa and Remedy in Temescal; and the Blue Bottle Coffee Company’s new roastery and cafe, which recently opened near Jack London Square.
Run by a motley collection of industry outsiders (a former pastor, a massage therapist, and an assortment of artistic types among them), these new cafes are transforming the local coffee scene. Youngish baristas treat the task of pulling the perfect espresso shot with an intensity that’s part technical precision, part soul-inspired artistry. At the drop of a hat, they can wax poetic about the origins and flavor profile of a given coffee bean.
For many Bay Area epicures, this shift in the local coffee culture is long overdue. According to Cortt Dunlap, the aforementioned message therapist and co-owner of Awaken Café, “As much of a gourmet culture we are here … as far as coffee, we’re way behind.”
What Dunlap and other like-minded cafe owners are quick to point out is that the coffee renaissance sweeping Oakland and Berkeley isn’t an isolated occurrence, but part of a larger movement that has been picking up momentum for some time — a trend that many in the business have dubbed the “third wave” of coffee.
The term is generally attributed to Trish Skeie (now Rothgeb), who in 2002 wrote an article titled “Norway and Coffee’s Third Wave” based on her observations of young, innovative baristas she encountered while working for a roasting company in Oslo. She asserted that there have been three distinct movements in the contemporary coffee scene: The first wave had its roots in the post-World War II era, when companies like Folgers and Maxwell House popularized instant coffee, making the product accessible to American households on a large scale. The second wave started in the late 1960s with the opening of Peet’s, which of course had its origins in Berkeley, along with later imitators like Starbucks. These companies introduced America to higher-grade “specialty” coffees and were known for their dark-roasting style. To a certain extent, they introduced the American public to the idea that there are different coffee-growing regions with unique characteristics.
The third wave, according to its adherents, is defined in part by what Local 123’s Wafle calls the “equal role of farmer, roaster, and barista” in producing a good cup of coffee. “Before,” she said, “it was, ‘Oh, it grows somewhere, it’s roasted somewhere, we’ll get it and do whatever we’re going to do with it.'” At a cafe purporting to be third wave, the barista can tell you not only what country a particular coffee is from, but in many cases even the specific farm or plot of land.
Cafes like Local 123 serve coffees that come from everywhere from Kenya to Guatemala to Indonesia, and while co-owners Wafle and Hoffman don’t procure or roast the beans themselves, the two cited the personal relationships that their roaster, Healdsburg-based Flying Goat Coffee, has with the individual farmers as one of the main reasons for choosing that particular roaster. Another local third-wave roaster, San Francisco’s Ritual Roasters, features its “Green Coffee Buyer” prominently on its web site — complete with a detailed account of his latest expedition to some far-flung locale to meet with the farmer who’s growing yet another one-of-a-kind coffee bean.
Of all the things that have come to be associated with the third wave — tattooed baristas, progressive politics, and perhaps, according to naysayers, a healthy dose of self-importance — this shift is probably the most important. Roasting companies like Ritual and Blue Bottle, and the cafes that serve their products, may be the public face of the third wave in the Bay Area. But according to Ken Davids, editor of the Berkeley-based CoffeeReview.com, the increasingly collaborative relationship between roasters and coffee growers has sparked “an entire reworking of the global supply chain for high-end specialty coffee,” allowing the growers to be more innovative and providing a market for the coffees that result from their innovations.
The other hallmark of third-wave coffee is an overwhelming preference for light- and medium-roasted coffee, as opposed to the darker roasting style popularized by Peet’s and Starbucks. At its most basic level, the roasting process involves the application of heat to the green coffee bean, whose flavor gradually changes as it goes from a pale yellow through various shades of brown and, eventually, if you roast long enough, to a solid, fully carbonized black. To a third waver, this is akin to taking a prime rib-eye steak and simply burning it to a crisp.
“Traditionally, a dark or French roast kind of burns out the flavor of the coffee,” Hoffman of Local 123 said, “so you don’t actually get to experience so much of the nuances of the bean.”
The Bay Area roasting companies whose beans are used at the new third-wave cafes — especially Ritual (Remedy), Four Barrel (SubRosa), Flying Goat (Local 123), and Blue Bottle — tend to roast their beans much more lightly.
Proponents of this approach contend that with a lighter roast, each coffee varietal begins to taste not just like, well, coffee, but, variously, like “gingerbread spice” or “night flowers” or “aromatic wood.” Some coffees are “bright” while others are “nutty”; some are so sour that you might find your whole face puckering up upon first sip. Cafes like Local 123 and Blue Bottle include descriptions on their drip-coffee menus and on the bags of beans for sale that read very much like something you’d see on the back of a bottle of wine.
Remedy’s Todd Spitzer, a charismatic ex-pastor who has been selling coffee from a sidewalk cart on Telegraph Avenue in front of his soon-to-open cafe, has no doubts about the widespread appeal of this connoisseur’s approach to coffee. He recalls a college student, still in her teens, watching intently as he made her an espresso. When he gave it to her, she sniffed, swirled, took a sip, then swirled again, all the while making detailed observations about the drink’s brightness, its nuttiness, its lack of bitterness. Afterward she got on her BlackBerry and, ten minutes later, four more of her friends — all barely out of high school — pulled up and offered their own running commentary on Spitzer’s form and technique.
“It’s ripe here for this,” Spitzer said. “These shops should have been in the East Bay two or three years ago.”
It isn’t altogether surprising, though, that some in the community might find this new breed of coffee shops and baristas a bit inaccessible and, shall we say, highfalutin. Just go to Local 123’s Yelp page and you’ll see, amidst glowing reviews, a handful of posters who complain about snobbery. One angry customer goes so far as to sarcastically dub one of the cafe’s proprietors the “motherfucking queen of espresso” for refusing to serve an espresso over ice because, in her estimation, it would ruin the drink.
In this the-customer-is-always-right consumer culture, it’s understandable that some would bristle at being told they can’t have their coffee exactly how they want it — especially since one’s morning cup o’ joe is such an intensely personal ritual. Nearly all third-wave coffee purveyors have encountered similar resistance, and the way they choose to respond varies widely. One Washington, DC cafe owner famously threatened to punch a customer in his “dick” after said customer wrote a nasty blog post following a similar iced-espresso incident.
For their part, East Bay third wavers try to take a slightly less inflammatory approach. Wafle says that for customers who come to Local 123 asking for an iced espresso or a blended coffee drink (“a milk shake, basically,” as Remedy’s Spitzer described it), she’ll recommend their cold-brewed iced coffee, which is made by soaking freshly ground coffee beans in cold water over a long period of time. The result, according to Wafle, is a much smoother and more delicious drink than you’d ever get by simply pouring hot coffee over ice. Most of the new third-wave cafes offer this “cold-brewed” option in lieu of a traditional iced coffee.
At Awaken Cafe, which opened in downtown Oakland in April of 2008, the most common misunderstanding occurs when customers order a macchiato — traditionally a shot of espresso that’s marked with a very small amount of foamed milk and served in a teensy three-ounce cup. At Starbucks, of course, a “macchiato” has been redefined as a sweet, foamy drink that comes topped with caramel in a cup as large as twenty ounces. Awaken co-owner Dunlap checks to make sure customers ordering a macchiato from him for the first time aren’t expecting the Starbucks version. But if what they want is more akin to a caramel latte, he’ll serve that to them, even if it isn’t on the regular menu. His overarching philosophy is still to, as much as is possible, give the customer what he or she wants — with the hope that, at some point in the future, that same customer might be more open to trying something new.
“It would be really presumptuous of us to be dogmatic about something that’s not widely understood,” he said. “I don’t get any pleasure out of having made them a perfect drink that they didn’t like.”
Spitzer, on the other hand, summed up the situation thusly: “If you go into McDonald’s and get your Big Mac, if you want no pickles, you get no pickles. If you go to Chez Panisse and say, ‘Oh Alice, can you change this for me,’ she’s going to say, ‘No.'” Spitzer falls into the camp of those who, on point of principle, aren’t going to pour a shot of espresso over ice. At the same time, he said he tries to educate customers about the coffee he’s serving at Remedy without being too “snotty” about it — for example, steering people who typically drink dark-roast coffee toward “full-bodied” coffees he thinks they’ll be more likely to enjoy.
Catherine Bullimore, owner of Temescal’s SubRosa, also tries to find “crafty” ways to make customers happy, even when she doesn’t offer the exact drink they want to order. For example, SubRosa doesn’t use any flavored syrups, but Bullimore does offer a raw-sugar simple syrup that she believes will satisfy any hazelnut latte drinker. As she put it, “We figured out a way of saying no without saying no.”
It’s worth noting, too, that there are at least a few coffee experts who find some of the premises of the third wave, or even the very idea of its existence, to be naive and arrogant.
For instance, CoffeeReview.com‘s Ken Davids takes issue with the assumption that there isn’t any place at all in the contemporary coffee scene for dark roasts — and, particularly, with the third wave’s dismissive attitude toward “old-school” companies like Peet’s (whose coffees don’t rate poorly on his site’s 100-point rating scale, sometimes scoring higher than various third-wave offerings).
“Peet’s is a marvelous institution still true to its roots, with tremendous seriousness and integrity and, ultimately, originality,” Davids writes. “Their in-store drip coffee is still one of the best coffee experiences in the Bay Area.”
Davids concedes, however, that his greatest excitement is still for coffees that aren’t roasted at the darkest extreme, where they show off mainly the skill of the roaster rather than highlighting the nuances and “sensory shocks” that can be experienced only in a somewhat lighter roast.
An even more outspoken critic of the third wave is Greg Sherwin, whose web site, CoffeeRatings.com, attempts to rate every espresso served in the city of San Francisco. In his provocatively titled article, “Third Wave Coffee, or First Wave Pompousness?” Sherwin points out that the entire third-wave movement seems to presume that quality espresso simply didn’t exist prior to six years ago. According to Sherwin, third wavers who somehow claim to have “discovered” good coffee are like the coming-of-age teenager who feels as though he’s “discovered” adolescence.
“Step into a family-owned operation in Italy that has made pretty damn good espresso for the past half century — noting their attention to detail and quality controls in their operations — and the concept of this ‘third-wave’ business being new suddenly seems a bit absurd,” Sherwin wrote in a recent e-mail.
“To me, that’s almost like a slap in the face to their profession and dedication through generations of commitment.”
Here in the East Bay, Cole Coffee is one example of an independently owned cafe that garnered a reputation for serving fresh, high-quality coffee long before the term “third wave” was coined — perhaps dispelling the notion that one’s only options are the third wave or Peet’s. Owner Michael Murphy, who bought the Rockridge shop earlier this decade from Emeryville-based Royal Coffee — now strictly a green-coffee importer — says that Cole started out selling mostly dark roasts because that’s all there was in Berkeley and Oakland at the time. Over the past twenty years, the cafe has mostly stayed true to that tradition.
“I would love to carry a little bit lighter-roasted coffee, but it doesn’t sell in my store,” Murphy said. “People like what they like, you know?”
He concedes that there has been a bit of a shift in the past six years, during which he’s seen more of a demand for the lighter roasts. For his part, Murphy mostly appreciates what these new cafes have brought to the local coffee scene — good, freshly prepared coffee and detailed explanations of those coffees — but, like Davids, he too takes issue with the third wave’s disdain for dark roasts.
“There are people that eat their steak well done,” he said. “It’s what the public likes.”
Whatever you want to call it, what’s clear is that there is some “serious coffee ‘geekitude’ going on” in the Bay Area, as Local 123’s Wafle put it. And while a wine-snob connection would be an easy one to make, particularly for those put off by higher prices or precious flavor-profile descriptions, the “geek” moniker that Wafle invokes seems more apt.
Perhaps the most obviously “geeky” aspect that distinguishes the more serious coffee joint from the rest of the pack is a certain preoccupation with gadgetry. Taking a tour of Blue Bottle’s new roastery and cafe a few weeks before its October 19 opening felt a little bit like walking through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, so impressive was the assortment of vintage machinery, all exposed pipes and well-worn surfaces. One room housed a collection of old La San Marco fully manual hand-pull espresso machines that, as they were still in the process of being restored, looked a bit ragged — but which Blue Bottle owner James Freeman plied, lovingly, to produce a more-than-drinkable shot of espresso.
And Spitzer’s little sidewalk stand has drawn immediate buzz for the high-tech machines he’s using, including a La Marzocco Paddle Group — one of a handful on the West Coast (SubRosa has one of the others) — that he uses to make espresso. But Spitzer’s pride and joy is his Clover single-serve drip coffee machine, which allows the barista to adjust the water temperature and brew time with scientific precision. The invention of Stanford engineering alums, the Clover has given Remedy immediate street cred, as the device has a cult following among coffee enthusiasts — especially since they’re no longer widely available now that Starbucks has bought out the manufacturer and co-opted the machines for its own franchises.
In the end, beyond the bells and whistles, coffee geeks — whether they self-identify as third wave or not — are just like any other kind of geek. They have that unbridled enthusiasm for their particular arcane field of expertise, coffee being no different from punk rock or computers or sci-fi flicks. The owners of these new East Bay cafes love chatting about coffee — they’ll talk your head off if you give them half the chance. They want to know what makes coffee good and how they can make it better. They want to know all the minutia. For many of them, coffee dominates their waking thoughts.
Blue Bottle’s James Freeman counts himself among those who dislike the third-wave label, though his company, which he started in 2002, paved the way for many of the “new-school” cafes in the East Bay. (He is, in that respect, an elder statesman of this movement.) But Freeman is excited to see a vibrant coffee scene emerging in the East Bay — and to see that coffee is being talked about seriously and enjoyed deeply.
For Freeman and, one suspects, for most folks who have dedicated their lives to making coffee in what they believe to be the right way, it still comes down to the simple pursuit, at the start each day, for that one delicious, perfectly satisfying cup — a cup that, even for a skilled barista like Freeman, might take three or four tries to get exactly right:
“But there are times, glorious times, when it just comes out and looks perfect and tastes great,” Freeman says, his expression beatific. “No matter how old I get, the enjoyment of those mornings is not diminished, which is kind of a lovely thing. I don’t see getting tired of something that’s really brilliant any time soon, you know? … It’s like this little miracle.”