Buying coffee isn’t what it used to be. Despite what advertisers told the baby boomers, the best part of waking up is no longer Folgers in your cup. Quite the opposite! These days, buying coffee can actually be a source of anxiety for many people. Back in the ‘90s, Americans began eschewing the idea of firing up a pot of coffee at home to the point that Starbucks was able to take over simply by giving people a better cup of coffee. Unlike the old days, where coffee was primarily a means of getting caffeine into your system, a new dichotomy began to take hold: good coffee vs. bad coffee. And now, finding coffee you will like can be a struggle.
In the ensuing decade, the conversation surrounding coffee has continued to shift. The industry is often discussed in “waves” of coffee. The Folgers generation can be seen as the first wave, creating a standardized coffee culture. The Starbucks generation is your second wave, a movement that enhanced the coffee experience by offering unique blends and roasts and by bringing drinks like the latte (and its pumpkin spice-enhanced offshoots) into the mainstream. For consumers, the difference between these two waves was clear: Simple and boring was replaced by refined and more complex. Picking sides was easy: Better coffee is better than not better coffee (duh!).
However, since the turn of the millennium, a new coffee wave has emerged: the third wave. Specialty roasters like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and La Colombe began to make names for themselves buoyed by a somewhat more ambiguous promise: We can make your better coffee even better! Third wave roasters take the coffee experience to a scientific level. No longer is it enough to know you like Columbian coffee beans. Where in Colombia? Who farmed it? Do you know the elevation? Brewing is also taken with a new level of seriousness. You want French press? Pour over? Chemex? Do you even Aeropress, bro? In many ways, the number of variables feels endless. What’s your roast? What’s your grind size? What’s your coffee-to-water ratio? Will you actually make it to work today?!
Compared to the clear delineation between the first and second wave of coffee, the line between the second and third wave can feel more like a leap into the abyss. But here’s the truth: A better cup of coffee does await you on the other side. If you haven’t taken the leap, it’s time… otherwise you’re doing your taste buds a disservice.
The most important thing to know when embarking on this new coffee journey is that, like any explorer setting off into the unknown, you must embrace confusion.
You are here to experience new things, and this experience will build your understanding. “I think about making coffee sometimes like an exercise program,” explains Scott Carey, the coffee obsessive behind St. Louis’s excellent independent roaster Sump Coffee. For Carey, finding your own personal perfect cup is about trying different things—beans, roasts, brewing methods—and figuring out what works for you. “You could gold plate it, and get the seal of several authorities, but if you don't do it or it doesn't fit into your life due to time constraints or the cost of the set up then it is technically not the best or perfect cup,” he says.
Choosing the right beans is intimidating, and to do it right you may need to brush up on your high school geography. Most third wave roasters understand that consumers are still learning the ropes, and alongside country of origin, nearly all bags of beans will have tasting notes written on the front. Start with the flavors that seem most appealing to you, and then make associations between different flavors and different production regions. (I even used to save my empty coffee bags so I could reference what I had tried before to build my coffee confidence.) Eventually, the differences between things like African coffee (brighter) and South American coffee (mellower) will become clearer. And of course, if you need a guide on your journey, talk to the people you’re buying your beans from. If a shop sells top quality beans, especially those they roast themselves, many of the people working there will be passionate about these products—or at the very least they will have tried them themselves.
As far as choosing how to brew your coffee, this requires experimentation as well. “I think about ways of making coffee as being on a spectrum,” Carey says. “[For instance], a Chemex would typically produce the most clarified and cleanest cup with a lighter body, where a French press or some type of immersive brewing device would produce a more muddled, heavier body cup. The devices in between those poles… would produce varying degrees of cup clarity and cup body.” Carey’s exercise analogy is apt. Some people may gravitate towards a lighter workout than others. Maybe your workout preference will even change: One day you want to lift weights, another day you want to play a relaxing game of tennis. Again, try playing with these different brewing variables, and don’t feel the need to invest in a ton of expensive equipment to do it. Many coffee shops around the country will provide you will all sorts of brewing options if you talk to your barista.
In the end, yes, the new wave of coffee makes coffee more complex than it used to be. It’s a lot to take in, and we’ve only discussed a couple major variables. Different beans can be roasted in different ways. Different grind sizes work with different brewing methods. Different water temperatures provide different results. It can all feel very confusing, and this is just scratching the surface. (From here, experts move on to Q grader certification, which involves taking one of the hardest exams in the food world.)
But there’s a difference between being confusing and being incomprehensible. The transition from the first wave of coffee to the second wave opened consumers’ eyes to possibilities: There was more to making a cup of coffee than spooning store-bought grounds into a coffeemaker. As we continue to forge our way into coffee’s third wave, those possibilities are now becoming more endless. Though it may at first seem overwhelming, the optimistic coffee drinker sees it as more opportunities—a chance to continue fine tuning the dial to get to our perfect coffee. Think of it as embarking on a personal coffee journey. Hopefully you’ll soon arrive at the destination: your perfect cup.