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Coffee City

Melissa Allison follows the world's biggest coffee-shop chain and other Seattle caffeine purveyors.

December 22, 2009 at 5:56 PM

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How seriously should people take their coffee?

Posted by Melissa Allison

An article in this week's East Bay Express examines the essence of "third-wave coffee," a term coined around 2002 that aims to define an evolved coffee scene in which baristas, roasters and farmers know each other and are connoisseurs of a product to which they're all passionately connected.

"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," writes Luke Tsai. The third waves also tends to prefer light or medium roasts, "as opposed to the darker roasting style popularized by Peet's and Starbucks."

Some people find third-wave coffee intimidating, and Tsai describes tussles with customers over iced coffee and confusion about what "macchiato" means now that Starbucks has tried to redefine it as a caramel latte.

Others find the third wave arrogant, including Greg Sherwin of, who recently promised to limit his third-wave mockery to one post a week.

"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 to Tsai in a recent e-mail.

Even James Freeman, who started Blue Bottle Coffee in 2002 and is considered a leader of the movement in the Bay Area, told Tsai he doesn't like the third-wave label.

"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," Tsai writes.

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