Is Coffee the New Wine? Embracing Coffee’s “Third Wave”

How’s this for a tasting note? “Cherry, roasted cashew, baked apple, and chocolate.” Or this: “Toasted nuts, caramel, milk chocolate and tobacco.” The first is difficult to place. The second sounds like a modern Bordeaux with about ten or fifteen years of age.

But we’re not talking about wine. We’re talking about coffee.

The first coffee described above is a Colombia Fondo Paez made from the Typica and Caturra varieties. The second is called Peru Cajamarca, made from the Caturra, Pache, and Bouron varieties. Both were roasted by Rochester’s Joe Bean Coffee Roasters, which stands atop the coffee cognoscenti in western New York. So what? Well, a new book had me thinking. About coffee, and about wine, and about what our expectations are when we order a mug or a bottle.

Caffeinated-72 dpi
Cover art courtesy Penguin Books

Murray Carpenter is the globe-traveling journalist behind the outstanding book Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us. Carpenter’s research took him to the hills and mountains of Colombia and Guatemala. He drank coffee with the growers of the world’s finest beans. It’s the equivalent of drinking Chave Rouge with Jean-Louis Chave himself, staring at the vertiginous vines of the Northern Rhône.

Carpenter loves a good cup of coffee, but he does not position himself as an expert taster. In fact, he’s humble about his own skills of discernment. Here’s what Carpenter writes about the growing movement that celebrates fine coffee and complex flavors:

Coffee experts, like oenophiles, get whacky about “terroir,” the idea that certain pieces of ground infuse their products with unique characteristics. Consider this description of a Colombian coffee sold by upmarket Stumptown Coffee Roasters: “Rainier cherry, cranberry, and red apples all provide a counterweight to clover honey and semi-sweet chocolate in this crisp Colombian profile.” 

Clearly, such coffees are marketed to consumers on the fringe, in terms of the attention they give to flavor and the price they are willing to pay. (Not to mention their tolerance for verbal excess–can anybody really discern Rainier cherry among the cranberry and red apple flavors, or was it perhaps more Bing-like?)

Carpenter adds that with coffee, the vast majority of consumers want to drink something that’s passable. If it’s delicious, that’s a bonus. Coffee serves as a CDM, a Caffeine Delivery Mechanism. But wait: Haven’t I read articles about how wine is just an ADM, an Alcohol Delivery Mechanism? Haven’t I read that wine is just an adult way to get drunk? Furthermore, isn’t it possible that most wine consumers just want something passable, something that doesn’t get in the way of decent conversation at dinner?

Carpenter reports that coffee drinkers are a changing lot, but most still don’t care where the beans come from. What if wine drinkers didn’t care where the wine came from? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say to a waiter, “I’d like a Cabernet, [origin immaterial].”

“In both cases, there are true experts who really know wine and coffee, and who the rest of us trust to steer us in the right direction,” Carpenter told me. “These are the people in both industries who are doing the cuppings and wine tastings, and selecting the best products. Then, on the rung below, there are the knowledgeable amateurs.” So far, I agreed with the parallel. He continued:  “In both cases, I suspect most consumers are less interested in having a truly exceptional taste experience than in simply finding something that tastes pleasant. We are, above all, concerned with avoiding unpleasant flavors. So it’s not as important that our wine or coffee taste excellent as it is that it not taste lousy.”(from [en:Image:Coffee Beans.jpg]] by en:User:BenFrantzDale, GFDL)

I can’t disagree with the larger point, but here’s where I diverged a bit. Or perhaps I rationalized a bit; after all, I’m a paid wine writer. I tend to think there are more wine drinkers who care about origin and varietal typicity and complexity than there are coffee drinkers who care about the same. After all, aren’t most coffee drinkers consuming their beverage in the morning, on the go, without much thought, while wine drinkers are consuming their drinks in the evening, while relaxing, and more focused on the glass?

That’s probably true, but even that aspect is beginning to shift. Joe Bean Coffee holds tasting sessions — on Thursday nights. Restaurants sell oceans of coffee — regular and decaf — following long dinners. And regarding decaf, it’s no longer the sludge of yesteryear.

“When my wife was pregnant, I drank a lot of decaf,” said Wade Reed, the Director of Coffee Education at Joe Bean. “So many of us are making the effort to bring in better decaf. I loved it.” Reed explained that better decaf is just part of the Third Wave. It’s a term I had never heard before, but it dates back to 2002. Carpenter writes that we’re living in a golden age of coffee, and Reed agrees, but prefers the “Third Wave” term. The idea of the Third Wave is that coffee is finally being treated like wine and other artisanal food products. Instead of treating coffee like a commodity, the Third Wavers take much better care in growing, roasting, even micro-roasting their coffee.

So what were the first and second wave? In broad terms, the first wave was the movement to bring simple coffee to just about anywhere. Ground coffee, flavor-be-damned, on demand. The second wave began roughly fifty years ago, as specialty coffees became prominent. The second wave has culminated in such institutions as Starbucks and Keurig. The third wave gears back the heavy roasting of the second wave, with more emphasis on place, and a relationship with the growers. (Third wavers tend to view a heavily roasted coffee in the way that some wine lovers view too much oak influence; it obscures the sense of place and homogenizes the taste.)

“Every tasting note on a bag of our coffee is real to us,” Reed said, and again, he could have been talking about wine. “If we put it on the bag, it’s because it’s an experience we had during our quality control tastings.” Reed wants coffee drinkers to slow down and consider what they’re drinking. “Just consuming something is not the same as truly tasting it, thinking about it, appreciating it,” he said. On that point, I couldn’t agree more. And I find myself comparing my own tasting notes to the notes that Reed and his colleagues print on the Joe Bean bags. Their tasting notes are often remarkably apt, and if some find them over-wrought, I find them in league with the nuances uncovered in a glass of wine.

Carpenter’s book is part investigative journalism, part travelogue, and it made me think more seriously about a vacation to a coffee-producing region. If you appreciate agriculture, and if you care about a sense of place, coffee is not that different than wine. South American countries understand that now; Colombia’s tourism bureau now vigorously promotes coffee tourism.

I was disappointed to find, through Carpenter’s book, that some Colombian villages don’t enjoy the riches of the land around them. That’s because the finest beans tend to be shipped elsewhere. They drink from the leftovers. Thankfully, Carpenter discovered some Guatemalan growers who didn’t hesitate to roast and pour their best coffee. I wonder if the tourist agencies understand the distinction.

Of course, a comparison only goes so far: coffee doesn’t age the way complex wine does. The goal of consuming great coffee is to roast and grind and savor, in rather immediate succession if possible. With wine, it’s often better to wait. And wait. And to see how a young wine matures. There’s nothing in the world like it.

And that’s okay. I can join coffee’s Third Wave without thinking that coffee must be precisely like wine. Third Wavers are not pretentious or snobbish, just as true wine lovers are not pretentious or snobbish. Here’s the best parallel: the snobs are the ones faking an education. The gregarious aficionados know there is always something to learn, from a cup or a glass.

“Community is central to everything we do,” Kathy Turiano told me. She’s the owner of Joe Bean, and she explained, “The experience is what matters most. It’s bringing people together, offering them something to make a connection, or have a conversation. In our case, it happens to be coffee.”

She could have been talking about wine. Tomorrow morning I’ll savor my coffee, and for the first time, I’ll ask the barista where the beans come from. Not because I’m an expert or a scold. Because I’m genuinely curious, and the more educated we are, the more connected we become.