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The Third Wave Coffee Revival

The Third Wave Coffee Revival

Down the Rabbit Hole of Coffee Snobbery

Ah, the mysteries of third wave coffee - so called because the movement considers itself being to Starbucks what Starbucks was to Folgers. As someone who just enjoys a good ol' cup of joe without all the fuss, I'll admit I've found this whole thing a bit baffling. The endless talk about plantations, elevation, variety, roasting, and importation, combined with the priestly reverence for baristas and the solemn piety of outfits like Stumptown and Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle - it's enough to make a simple coffee lover like myself want to throw in the towel and settle for a Folgers instant.

But, in the spirit of keeping an open mind, I decided to meet up with my friend Teresa von Fuchs, the resident coffee ambassador at Irving Farm, one of New York's leading third wave coffee companies. Surely she could shed some light on this seemingly elitist subculture and help me understand what all the fuss is about.

The Baristas and the Beans

"Okay, Teresa, I'll admit it - I think this whole third wave thing is overblown," I began, taking a sip of the meticulously crafted brew in front of me. "I like the coffee, but it's developed into this self-congratulatory subculture, like alt-music or riot grrrl or something. There's always going to be a thing so specialized that only real nerds get into it. It seems elitist, but really it's just nerdiness. Anyone who is genuinely interested in it, we accept as one of our own."

Teresa nodded thoughtfully. "I see what you're saying. We're here at the Irving Farm on 79th Street, surrounded by Upper West Side moms and writer types. In other words, it's like any other café. I don't feel third wave coffee is entitled to specialdom at this point. I mean, there are so many of these places now."

"Really?" I raised an eyebrow. "Well, think about it - how many four-star restaurants are there? Very few. And how many three-star restaurants are there? Just a few." Teresa shrugged. "Okay, I see what you're saying. It's not a big number compared to the total amount of coffee shops. Plus, New York is not representative - we probably have more third wave coffee places than anyplace this side of Seattle or the Bay Area."

"Exactly," Teresa replied. "But here's the other thing - they all say they have a special-origin bean and intimate relations with a plantation in East Africa or whatever. But there's no real way to tell. How do I know that Irving Farm does the true coffee diplomacy? Why should I believe any of the other places? How do I know that they are actually dealing directly with Kenyan plantations or whatever?"

Cutting Through the Buzzwords

"There are always signs and signifiers," Teresa continued. "One is size. If you are a giant company, you are looking for enormous amounts of beans - and the small specialty, top-of-the-line stuff is rare. You have to ask questions. And you can't just go by the stock phrases that so often appear around coffee. Because a lot of buzzwords are so overused that they don't mean anything anymore."

"Like what?" I inquired.

"For example, 'shade grown,' 'fair trade,' 'direct trade' - yeah, what does 'direct trade' even mean? Direct trade means different things to different people. That's kind of why it's kind of BS sometimes, like 'free range' with chickens. So how do you know it's not BS? You don't. You have to ask the right questions. Ask the people who are selling it - when was this roasted? Who are your suppliers? What does 'fair trade' even mean? If they can't give you a good answer to that last one, it's a pretty safe bet they aren't using it."

I nodded, taking another sip. "But let's say they do say the right things. How do you know they aren't lying?"

Teresa sighed. "My grandmother gave me strong advice: 'Life is hard, people will lie to you.' Word."

The Price of Quality

"Okay, let's move on to another fetish of third wave coffee - the ubiquitous image of this 130-year-old African guy with a giant bag of coffee on his back," I said. "Sometimes that image is true. That's why the coffee costs a lot. Someone like you goes, 'Eighteen dollars a pound? WTF!' The price reflects not just the quality, but also how much work is required. You don't realize, looking at that bag, just how much care has gone into it. The grower has to quadruple-pick his coffee crop - by hand - because the beans don't all ripen at the same time. Then you have to process every defect out, things you can't even see sometimes. There's more to it than just this cup."

"I understand," I conceded. "You don't get an Hermès product at a TJ Maxx price."

The Barista Conundrum

"But here's another problem I have with third wave coffee," I continued. "If I want a coffee, it has to be this whole awkward social experience. All the baristas are either hot alternative girls in their mid-twenties with tattoos or boys who are chic-scruffy aesthetes who display this earnest concern for your well-being that verges on condescension - that is, if they don't hate you outright."

Teresa chuckled. "There are a fair number of coffee shops in New York. Just go to the one that suits you. Don't go to the shop where there are assholes because you think it has the best coffee. Go somewhere where they are nice to you and have great coffee."

The Third Wave Awakening

As I sat there, sipping my expertly crafted brew and pondering Teresa's words, I couldn't help but feel a newfound appreciation for the complexities of this third wave coffee movement. It's not just about the beans or the baristas - it's about a genuine passion for quality, a commitment to sustainability, and a desire to elevate the coffee-drinking experience.

Sure, there may be some pretentiousness and elitism mixed in, but at its core, the third wave is about celebrating the art and science of coffee. And if that makes me a coffee nerd, then so be it. I'm proud to be one of their own.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to explore the world of Brooklyn's Georgian Coffee House and see what other delights the third wave has to offer.

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