I’m a barista who has only worked in specialty coffee.
Immediately into my coffee career, I was espresso trained one-on-one. I learned about tasting notes, flavor profiles, tamping, steaming milk, and most importantly I learned about the effects the coffee industry has on the many different groups involved. The day I became interested in being a barista to today I have been constantly learning about coffee. There is the coffee cherry and the unfathomable amount of people it takes to harvest, shuck, dry, package, and ship it to then be cupped, smelled, tasted to then be sold, roasted, and brewed into beautiful cups of liquid that have their own stories, own origins, and own place on the flavor wheel.
Behind all of those (what I have already made horribly broad) categorized steps there lay a lengthy history full of culture, geography, people and discovery. There is so much to learn that I wonder if I can ever really master not only the skills but the knowledge involved in the business of coffee. Despite this, I continue to try in hopes that I can know and do enough to do justice in that final cup for the work hundreds of people labor over before the beans even reach the shop or home where they are being ground and extracted.
This all in all is what I love about coffee. I love how deep into history its roots plunge and how far over the modern world its influence reaches. Coffee is so pertinent in today’s world that we have to section it off into waves to understand how it is being utilized and who it is serving.
To overview, there are three main waves: the first wave, the second wave, and the third wave. There is discussion on the possibility that a fourth wave exists as well.
The first wave of coffee is marked by accessibility. It claimed the product as a commodity necessary in every home. We see this in those brand names like Folgers or Maxwell House. These companies can be found on the lower end of the price range and on a shelf in almost every grocery and convenient store.
The second wave of coffee honed in on the practice. It suddenly was something beyond that of grounds and water as a way to supplement caffeine into every body but something to be practiced and personalized with milks and syrups. It was a money making business that involved a process from farmers to baristas. We see this in higher end at home roasts like Peets and the hip green mermaid herself, Starbucks.
The third wave of coffee can also be known as specialty coffee. These are your local shops that care about the specific origin, farm, and roaster their beans come from if they aren’t already roasting the beans themselves. The third wave is the appreciation in the details of coffee such as the varying flavors of a pour-over and the differences in an espresso shot with a ground changed by 00.01 in coarseness.
The fourth wave as far as I can tell is in the science which to me already exists in the third wave but I can see where a divide could be made to easier identify which part of the coffee industry a person is the most interested. We already must understand how Co2 is released during the bloom and the ratios at which water to grounds a specific roast will taste its best. So to each their own in this one.
The waves of coffee are a great way to see how coffee has changed over time. Each wave has brought an increased knowledge and therefore an up in interest and support for creating specific recipes and roasts for coffee among many other characteristics of the business. It is not a system of ranking, the waves, but a way to show the evolution of the coffee world and the pertinence of every different light in which coffee has existed.
While this is my opinion there are many people who disagree with me. Those who currently exist in the third wave of coffee often look down on those who still exist or once did partake in the second and first waves of coffee. I hear workers in local coffee houses talk down on the work of baristas at Starbucks and the people who still prefer a cup of tin-bound coffee each morning. I find this to be very upsetting.
Without Starbucks and the many chains like it, we would not have had that grandiose interest in coffee that sparked the ability to provide, yes, high-quality coffee, but also unfortunately costly coffee. We are able to be picky with our roasts and origins because at one time our choices were slim. We would not have had the chance to grow such palates and preferences if we didn’t have a base to break from.
As a barista in third wave coffee, I refuse to look down on baristas in second wave shops or workers in factories filling cans and bags with coffee that will be accessible to those who need and appreciate it for both its low cost but also the base need it still supplies, energy. I still go to Starbucks because it got me through college. I still love seeing my dad’s can of pre-ground coffee on the counter when I visit home and how my parents reuse the tin to collect compost for their garden.
To create an abstract image, when you play a game of Jenga you don’t get to build on top as high as you want and just knock out the tiles that came before it, you must pull from the original stack and build up from there creating a beautiful tower of criss-crossed tiles. It is the same with coffee and the waves from which it was built. We don’t get to just appreciate the most modern wave and forget about the rest. We have built from a base and need to keep and appreciate it.