Sunday, February 18, 2007
I guess it's time to talk about the third wave
In late January I took a trip to Texas, to shoot a couple of key interviews for my film – one with John Moore, a former Starbucks marketing exec, and one with Virginia Postrel, an Atlantic Monthly columnist who has written very eloquently in defense of chain stores (well, she’s written very eloquently on a number of things, but I was interested in the chain stores).
So the interviews were terrific – very thought-provoking, much-needed material for the film, etc. But the real find of the trip was Caffe Medici in Austin. When I found out I’d be heading to Dallas and Austin, I did what I usually do – tried to figure out where a good cappuccino could (allegedly) be found in those cities. My usual espresso-finding sources turned up ZERO on Dallas. (And my experience there supported this finding; the ONLY coffee shops I saw there were Starbucks. No independents, no competing chains, nothing. Does anybody have any inside scoop that would contradict this?) But the word-of-mouth on Austin led me to Caffe Medici, a newly-opened espresso-lover’s paradise in Clarksville. And I was not disappointed.
First things first: the cappuccinos were top-notch. I had three of them over the course of two days, made by three different baristas, and they were all delicious. Gorgeous microfoam, perfectly-extracted espresso, no sugar needed. I was so impressed. And I was likewise impressed with the store’s layout. You walk in, and the first thing that catches your eye is the espresso machine, a beautiful La Marzocco FB70. Standing in Caffe Medici, I realized that in a lot of espresso bars, the first thing you notice is the cash register, not least because it’s meant to be your first stop. But at Caffe Medici, the espresso machine is literally on stage; it’s protruding outward into the customer space so that you can see all sides of it. Michael Vaclav who founded Caffe Medici last fall along with his wife, Alison, told me that they did a complete redesign of the space before opening. Their intention was to make the espresso machine as visible as possible to the customer, in hopes of encouraging questions and conversation about espresso. Bringing spectacle back into espresso-making – music to my ears!
So I wound up shooting an interview/cappuccino-making demo with Michael, and I was impressed by his reverence for the technical details of producing fine espresso, as well as his acknowledgment that there’s just a certain amount of human flair that goes into it too. And at a certain point in the conversation, I started to notice something; this was all sounding very familiar. Michael’s thoughts on the cappuccino in particular and the specialty coffee business in general really echo those I’ve heard (and been impressed by) at a number of newly-opened shops, including some that I’ve blogged about here: Ritual and the Blue Bottle in San Francisco, Caffe Luxxe in Santa Monica, DoubleShot in Tulsa, Oklahoma… so I’m starting to conclude that this whole third wave thing might, in fact, be real.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t totally buy into the third wave idea at first. The general thinking behind it is that there have been three waves of coffee culture in the U.S. The first was all about just getting people to consume coffee – often exemplified by Folgers. The second was about introducing espresso and getting people to actually think of coffee as something to enjoy rather than fuel up on - often exemplified by Starbucks; and the third is happening now, with a kind of grassroots movement toward quality and connoisseurship above all else. I sometimes refer to it as the coffee-is-like-wine thing, because it’s a lot about trying to highlight individual coffees’ uniqueness, rather than trying to create a stable, static product. (You can read more about the third wave here.) At first I was a little skeptical, because from the outside this “wave” looked like a couple of people who were all friends with each other and had some nice ideas about coffee. I mean, it was a cool concept, but 99% of American cappuccinos still taste like the litter box, you know? Some wave.
But in the past year or so (and this is subjective, as I am a coffee DRINKER, not a coffee professional), all these new places have been popping up, and I’ve started to see some real momentum, so I’ve started hoping and praying and pleading with the universe that this might actually turn into a real sea-change in the way Americans think about coffee. And I think Caffe Medici kind of tipped the scales for me, because Michael Vaclav doesn’t seem to have any personal connections to any of the big “founders” of the third wave. But now, here he is, making some truly amazing espresso and speaking like a dyed-in-the-wool third waver. So I am newly hopeful that this way of thinking will continue to spread.
And I think, oddly enough, that America might be poised to push the coffee-is-like-wine philosophy to a new level of acceptance precisely because of our extraordinarily dismal preparation skills. I mean, look at the contrast between America and Italy. Italy is a country that genuinely values baristas. It’s not uncommon for baristas to be graduates of training programs or even hotel and restaurant schools. It’s not uncommon for baristas to stay baristas for life, slowly perfecting their crafts over many years and then passing their knowledge on to apprentices. And it’s not uncommon for the average joe off the street to appreciate what the barista does. Preparation RULES in Italy, and it makes up for a lot. You can have a mediocre coffee prepared as a perfectly-extracted shot of espresso, and you will still enjoy it. Now, this is just my unscientific observation based on a few years of watching and drinking and thinking about these things, but I think that American roasters are trying WAY more interesting things than Italian roasters are these days. They are definitely experimenting with a wider variety of roast levels and, at the retail level, it’s far more common in America to see people offering single-origin shots, for instance, or to see even the smallest roasteries offering more than one espresso blend. Experimentation is happening here; it’s not all successful, but it’s happening. By contrast, I think Italians might be resting on their preparation laurels. There’s not much ambition to go nuts trying to make a better coffee, because there is no perceived LACK of good coffee (not the way there is in America, at any rate.) So I think there’s opportunity there to combine this attention to the uniqueness of individual coffees with a higher level of preparation skills – as many third wavers are doing – to produce something extraordinary. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, when you combine all of the aforementioned with the casual, warm social space of the American coffee house, you basically have my personal version of HEAVEN.
I feel like I am on kind of shaky ground here – throwing out some speculation on things that I know very little about (I mean, what do I REALLY know about roasting coffee? Nothing. I just like to drink it.) But I’ll tell you one concrete thing I have noticed: I started shooting my documentary almost five years ago, in the summer of 2002. I was about to leave the country to spend a year in Italy, and I had to drive from L.A. to Kentucky to drop off my car at my parents’ house, and along the way, I stopped to interview a bunch of indie coffee shop owners. Naturally, I asked a lot of these small business owners what they thought of Starbucks or if they felt threatened by the arrival of Starbucks in their town. I expected resentment. Competition. Fighting words. But ALL of these small business owners expressed admiration for Starbucks. And most of them said that they would BE Starbucks if they could. Who wouldn’t, they asked, as if that was the most natural thing in the world.
Now, almost five years later, there is this whole group of small business owners who really, really wouldn’t, even if they could. It’s not that these are a bunch of dirty communists who don’t want to make money; it’s just that they believe that the best way to make their businesses successful is by putting coffee quality first, and that seems incongruous with tremendous growth. Some of them are experimenting with expanding to, say, two stores instead of one, but they all express a certain skepticism about whether it’s possible to maintain control of the quality of the coffee once the business gets too big. All of their business decisions flow outward from this central idea of producing exceptional coffee. Period. Now, of course, all of this begs the question of whether and to what extent the third wave is a reaction to Starbucks, but that’s maybe a discussion for another time, as I don’t want to overstep the boundaries of your reading patience.
So regardless of where it comes from, celebrate the existence of the third wave! When you drink a good cappuccino, tell your barista how much you love him! And when you are in Austin, check out Caffe Medici. Knowing how hard it is to build a successful retail establishment and knowing how many small businesses fail, I feel a certain amount of mother-hen worry over places like Caffe Medici or Caffe Luxxe that are brand spanking new. What if they don’t make it? What if people never catch on? And, horror of horrors, what if they give up the fight and start serving nonfat, extra-dry big gulp “cappuccinos”??? This whole third wave thing is making me feel like I do when I’ve just started dating someone I REALLY like – elated and terrified at the same time. I’m simultaneously glowing with happiness and walking on eggshells, thinking don’tfuckupdon’tfuckupdon’tfuckupdon’tfuckup.