Our Take on the Origins of St. Louis Third Wave Coffee

In recent years, there has been an accelerating interest and growth in Third Wave coffee culture in St. Louis. In this blog post we'll examine what is meant by 'Third Wave', why it is a good thing, and its origins in the St. Louis area.


From one of the coiners of the term, Nick Cho of Wrecking Ball Coffee:

"Simply put: 

1st wave = coffee to consume (freeze-dried, commodity, lots of cream & sugar, 'acquired taste,' morning pick-me-up, etc.) *Author's note: John Arbuckle's 1865 Ariosa Coffee is the first instance of this wave*

2nd wave = coffee to enjoy (espresso-drinks, beginning to identify and prefer certain coffee regions, frappuccino, flavored lattes, etc.) *Author's note: Alfred Peet's establishment of Peet's Coffee & Tea in 1966 and Howard Schultz's establishment of Il Giornale espresso bars in 1985 are both hallmark moments for this wave*

3rd wave = coffee to appreciate (like wine/music/art appreciation, terroir, desire for seed-to-cup knowledge, etc.)" 


While there are many actors and voices involved in the movement, the central pioneer of the Third Wave of coffee is George Howell of Boston's Coffee Connection, established in 1975 (acquired in 1994 by Starbucks, in large part for rights to the Frappucino). In contrast to Alfred Peet's focus on developing flavor only through roast, George Howell believed that coffee's flavor should arise from the seed's inherent flavor. What this means is that the farmer, processing rigor, and bean cultivar/variety become the central elements of the cup of coffee and not the person roasting them. Since the bean becomes the central element rather than the roasting, the farmer whose life's work is growing and improving these coffees becomes the star rather than the company toasting them for a few minutes. This, in turn, results in more money making its way into the pocket of these farmers--the people doing the real work to make your exceptional cup of coffee possible.


Unfortunately, our local media focuses mainly on the preparation method as the differentiating factor of Third Wave coffee. Hand brews are not what make Third Wave coffee what it is. As an example, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, one of the big 3 roasters defining the Third Wave coffee movement (with Intelligentsia in Chicago and Counter Culture in Durham, NC), touts the Fetco Extractor (coffee maker) as its preferred brew method for cafes carrying their coffee due to customizability and consistency. This batch brew method is an excellent way to present a coffee in a high-volume environment when a batch can be re-brewed every 30 minutes but limits the variety of coffees that can be offered. So, the hand brew arises when you either have a very low sales volume, a wide variety of offerings, or an offering that is prohibitively expensive to brew in a large quantity. While Kaldi's did offer hand brews a little earlier, Half & Half's opening in Clayton in June of 2011 gave hand brews their first stage under the guidance of (former Kaldi's barista) Mike Marquard.


The beginning of this movement in St. Louis can be traced back to 2007 when Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Co. direct sourced its first coffee -- from Helsar di Zarcero in Costa Rica. Kaldi's continued this trend by developing a relationship with a farmer in Brazil whose son interned at the roaster for a stint. These were then integrated into a World Tour program which Kaldi's used to introduce and educate customers about terroir's role in the cup. 


In addition to featuring the farmers, Kaldi's has a tradition of strong focus on barista education with many of their coffee jockeys dominating in the regional Barista Championship. One notable former Kaldi's barista, Joe Marrocco (also 2011 winner of the Regional USBC Championship), is now the Director of Education at Café Imports -- the US's top specialty-grade coffee importer. Also, a side note, Joe was the first person to introduce me to the concept of extracting espresso by weighing the ground coffee and extracted fluid rather than relying on dosing timers and shot volumes. This education and many of the baristas that have benefited from it is one of the true driving forces of Third Wave coffee growth in St. Louis.  When the people roasting and brewing the coffee become the logo rather than the many talented and hardworking people that actually create the coffee, I feel that we have moved away from the spirit of the Third Wave and more into the realm of the pitchman.