The ubiquitous bare light bulbs, brick wall, la marzocco machines, chambray shirt wearing tattooed barista taking far too long to make your beverage. It’s become an international symbol. Something that denotes a certain culture, tribe. You can find them in Paris, Melbourne, Los Angeles, Cape Town or Istanbul. You can download the Trotter Guide app which will guide you to the right spots in various cities, subscribe to Caffeine Magazine or even visit a festival dedicated to it. I am talking about artisan coffee. In a relatively short space of time, this movement has conquered the globe or at least a segment of it but it wasn’t always this way. In London for example, there was only one real place to go if you were a coffee lover looking for single origin beans from El Salvador- Monmouth Coffee. Founded by Anita Le Roy in 1976, an independent coffee roaster with two cafe’s- Covent Garden and Borough Market- It has retained its charms, stayed small, or at least the retail side, with knowledgeable staff and long queues.
Now they have become the symbol of gentrification. Derided and secretly welcomed in equal measure in the hope they are a harbinger of a neighbourhood on the up.
But how did this happen. It's been dubbed the third wave of coffee by Trish Rothgeb of Wrecking Ball Coffee. The first wave was the popularisation of coffee by instant coffee granules. It might seem passé now but Nescafe and Maxwell house were once the height of sophistication along with Perrier sparkling water.
The second wave started in the mid 90’s and was a drive towards variety and expansion to the masses by way of retail. Championed by what we now know as the big coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa, they popularised terms like latte and americano, venti and tall.
The third wave is a reaction to this mass movement. Just as the farm to fork movement championed by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California pushed consumers to learn about the provenance of their food and shift to more organic, healthy ethical produce so also the third wave coffee movement has centered around producing the best cup of coffee possible. This has meant understanding where the beans are grown and developing relationships with farmers. Treating coffee the same way as wine with tastings and knowledge about the different varieties and terroir. As Stephen Hurst, the founder of Mercanta one of the first artisan coffee traders puts it, wine is driven by the grape varieties, not just provenance and he expects coffee increasingly to be the same. There are hundreds of varieties like bourbon and caturra. While people are familiar with Chardonany and Malbec, the same cannot be said for coffee. One major upside of increased education about varieties will be higher income for the farmers.
The artisan coffee shop then is a natural extension of this care and respect to the bean similar to the wine bar. If commercialism drove the first and second wave, the third wave aims to put the product center stage. Off course things never remain idealistic. One issue now is what became an extension of this new wave has now come to define it. Every and any new coffee place hangs a few light bulbs and mentions the buzz words as a marketing gimmick and serves mediocre coffee, although probably still better than wave 1 at the least.
In a sense the third wave of coffee mirrors a movement seen in other sectors, food, wine. After a period of mass commercialization, the drive for something better pushed by a few seeps into the whole industry and goes mainstream. While everyone soon jumps on the bandwagon it’s probably something that would meet the definition of a #firstworldproblem and is on the whole positive. It raises industry standards, sales and creates a whole new economic ecosystem to support it (think the magazines, sale of home coffee accessories etc). And after all, where would Instagram be without all those shots of latte art?
La Gent’s favourite coffee spots
Monmouth Coffee: Covent Garden & Borough
Allpress Roastery & Café: 55 Dalston Lane, E8 2NG
Climpson and Sons Cafe: 67 Broadway Market, E8 4PH
Prufrock Cafe: 23-25 Leather Lane, EC1N 7TE
Holybely Paris: 19 Rue Lucien Sampaix
Ost Cafe: 441 E 12th St, New York
Bluebottle Cafe Chelsea: 450 W 15th St, New York