The Third Coffee Wave

Coffee has never really been my thing. Even when I came to Dartmouth where Keurigs ubiquitously nestle atop dorm room desks and KAF fuels a large portion of the undergraduate population, I was never addicted to that morning jolt of caffeine.

An offhanded remark in a relatively early season of Gossip Girl, haphazardly thrown into the script probably in attempt to breathe some Brooklyn authenticity into the character Dan Humphrey, was the first time I recall hearing about Stumptown. Over the course of 14X, I went to a single meeting of the Dartmouth Coffee Club solely because they were serving affogato, espresso poured over gelato for all the coffee greenhorns out there, and I have an understandable propensity toward Morano. Even there, I rejected the undistorted espresso until its creamy, dreamy companion melted fully into its chestnut depths.

My latte orders always featured some pumps of artificially-flavored syrups, vanillin usually, while sugar from multiple packets and milks perpetually permeated my iced coffees. Omnipresent Instagram and Pinterest posts of caramel and whipped cream-topped blended coffee drinks proved that I was anything but alone.

So when I decided to take my junior fall as my first off term (not counting the summer after freshman year), interning at a coffee startup wasn’t quite the obvious choice.

Upon entering the office, I learned about the twice to thrice-daily coffee tastings and ratings (for “bouquet,” “cleanness,” “charisma,” etc.) of beans sent in from roasters in the hopes that we would carry their products. These assessments took place without additional sweeteners, flavorings or dairy products. I was apprehensive, to say the least, but figured this was as good a chance as any to become a black coffee-drinking real adult.

So I quit enhancers cold turkey and, if Tom Hanks’ character in the Da Vinci Code realized the “biggest coverup in human history,” I unearthed the biggest coverup in the past century. Contrary to what coffee chain giants brainwash the masses to believe, unornamented coffee is not terrible. In fact, black coffee can be amazing. That is, to qualify the previous statement, good coffee can be amazing.

But the coffee giants with which we grew up and see on every street corner don’t have good coffee. Their inferiorly sourced beans are mechanically scorched by the truckload before mingling with sugars, flavorings and milks to feign quality. And yet, millions of people happily spend over four dollars per cup every day for these well-masked atrocities. Starbucks’ top line is a testament to the power of this deception. This fraud has similarly allowed Starbucks to remain the leading coffee chain even after competition intensified over the past decade and a half with McDonalds’ McCafe product line release and Dunkin’ Donuts’ slogan change to “America Runs On Dunkin’” to push harder into the coffee market. This battle of quick service coffee became known as the Coffee Wars.

When the 2008 recession hit, many analysts predicted Starbucks to finally succumb to their lower-price adversaries. McDonalds’ ad campaigns targeted the favorable price discrepancy between themselves and Starbucks. One franchise even posted a billboard adjacent to the Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters simply stating “four bucks is dumb.” Even with McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts’ economical pricing and extensive restaurant remodelings to more fit the café look (Wifi, comfy chairs, etc.), Starbucks is considered the current champion of the Coffee Wars. The continuation of their domination is attributed to the fact that McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts’, though successful in pulling away the price-conscious customers, have never paralleled the variety and quality of Starbucks’ offerings.

These quality-conscious patrons who indulge their daily Starbucks cravings, who have allowed their favorite chain to weather the storm of competition, are currently at risk of inducing its obsolescence. Fortunately for all of us with taste bud-covered tongues, the proliferation of Third Wave coffees is exposing Starbucks’ camouflaged mediocrity.

To back up a bit, the Third Wave refers to coffee’s artisanal revolution from commodity to gourmet item, much like the popularization of craft beers and single origin chocolates. This followed the Second Wave of coffee, referring to the propagation of players such as Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Keurig, characterized by the widespread popularization of espresso drinks and regionally labeled blends. Before that, the First Wave encompassed the mass adoption of coffee into daily routines and concurrent production industrialization and commercialization. Folgers and foul instant coffees of that ilk constituted the First Wave.

With personal relationships with individual farmers and growing regions, meticulous small-batch roasting methods and an emphasis on quality rather than quantity, Third Wave roasters like Stumptown, Blue Bottle and Counter Culture have confirmed that the third time’s the charm. Bags of beans from Third Wave roasters frequently highlight the coffee farm’s name, the growing region, the varietal, the roast date and sometimes the farmer’s name. It’s not even uncommon to see the altitude at which the coffee cherries grew, to the nearest 100 feet above sea level, labeled prominently. Third Wave coffee is meant for consumption within days to, at most, a couple weeks from the roast date. Keurig K-Cups and Starbucks beverages, on the other hand, contain coffee roasted weeks to many months prior to brewing. While establishing that good, freshly-roasted, black coffee eclipses pure functionality, Third Wave coffee threatens Starbucks by tempting their quality-conscious patrons who haven’t yet run off to lower-priced, quality-comparable competitors.

The current picture of the coffee industry is nebulous. For the benefit of coffee farmers’ livelihoods, growing countries’ economies and drinkers’ palates, hopefully Third Wave roasters will prevail over their frilly, quality-impersonating predecessors. The sheer omnipresence and brand power of Second Wave chains, however, could prove unshakeable in the end.