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By Bill Kearney
Photography By Mary Beth Koeth | June 29, 2015 | Food & Drink
Coffee has evolved from a utilitarian pick-me-up to refined drink prompting talk of terroir, bean origin, and roasting as art. It's called coffee's third wave, and it has hit Miami.
Foam art tops a latte at Eternity Coffee Roasters.
Teetering to keep your balance on the slope, you elbow your way through stubborn jungle bushes and catch a glimpse of the valley below. Women sing in the distance, their voices muffled by undergrowth while they work their way through rows of coffee plants. As they approach, you see through the thicket their quick hands nipping only the red “cherries” off the stems, leaving the green fruit to ripen longer, branch after branch, bush after bush, bucket after bucket, the tally of which will determine their wage for the day. Each bucket will bring $2, and its content, the coffee cherries, will be fermented, the wet pale beans extracted from the fruit and dried. Some farms will send their good beans to mass commodity markets funneling coffee to a global hierarchy of corporate roasters—Folgers, Nescafé, Starbucks, Peet’s. But what about the special beans, the exquisite beans? Those, now more than ever, end up fueling what has become known as coffee’s third wave.
Walk into Eternity Coffee Roasters in downtown Miami and the chalkboard menu offers beans from specific farms in Colombia, Papua New Guinea, or Burundi replete with tasting notes like “clover honey, molasses, kumquat.” In the corner sits a Victorian-looking contraption, a roaster, churning out bag after bag of fragrant light-brown beans. No, this is not your father’s coffee shop.
Your father’s coffee shop was part of coffee’s first wave—diners, doughnut shops, and Folgers in a can. The second wave emerged in the 1960s with Peet’s, eventually followed decades later by Starbucks and its ilk—chains that elevated the conversation around coffee but worked on too massive a scale to create custom roasts for small-lot beans. Third-wave shops are privately owned, small-scale operations with their own roasting machines so as to delicately unleash the idiosyncrasies of each farm’s treasure. Just as crucial to the third wave are the shops’ relationships with either specific high-quality farms or with well-connected exporters who can get the best beans. The goal is single-estate flavor, just like terroir in wine. Beans from a single hillside or valley can, in the right hands, produce the distinct aromas, fragrances, mouthfeel, and flavors that make coffee geeks giddy.
Chris Johnson, owner of Eternity Coffee.
The third wave began sometime in the mid-’90s at various roasting hotbeds such as Portland, Oregon, and Oakland, California, and spread nationally over the past 15 years. The percentage of adults drinking specialty coffee (defined as unique beans from unique micro climates) in the US rose from 9 percent in 1999 to 34 percent in 2014, according to the National Coffee Association. These days, you can even go to barista camp to learn the religion.
Joel Pollock, who co-owns Panther Coffee with his wife, Leticia, sets down a mug of Kenyan Kamviu. I’m immediately struck by the highly pleasant aroma of dry hay, and something sweet. Upon sipping, it is gentle, balanced, even delicate—I wouldn’t want to cloak it with milk. Panther is by far the most visible third-wave company in Miami, with a runaway hit in Wynwood, which opened in 2010, and a second location in Sunset Harbour. In the next year, they’ll have additional shops in Coconut Grove and the MiMo District, and a coffee lab and training center in Little Haiti. Joel picked up his roasting skills in the ’90s while a student at the University of Montana, and Leticia was a barista trainer in Brazil. They met at a coffee conference and were part of the coffee movement in Portland before vacationing here in 2009. Once they saw Miami’s burgeoning food scene and lack of a coffee scene, they decided to make a move and open a shop.
Roasting is considered the art of this movement. In general, beans are roasted for eight minutes or so, with heat intensifying at different points, until they crack once (an audible pop akin to popcorn) or sometimes twice, depending on the artist. “You take certain physical changes in the coffee, and you move around when they occur [in the roast],” says Pollock. “I get a lot more vivid notes out of the coffee, and I’ve found that very gratifying.” He decidedly does not take the bean to a second crack.
At Panther’s counter, you can choose from its more acidic West Coast blend, its softer East Coast blend, or a range of single-origin beans such as the Kenyan I tried, or a Brazilian Fazenda Irmas Pereira with notes of “creamy dark chocolate, malted milk, and macadamia nut, [and] maple sweetness.” These days, Panther sells its beans to about 100 restaurants and retailers and will be adding a second roaster in Little Haiti.
Panther Coffee’s Joel Pollock evaluates coffees during a cupping.
Follow the Rio Bolivar into the mountains outside Medellin, Colombia, far enough and you eventually reach the hamlet of Bolivar, tucked into the featherfolds of rugged coffee-covered slopes. The cobbled town square bustles, surrounded by side streets lined with coffee weigh stations. Growers from the surrounding mountains—most of whom farm lots of less than four acres—bring in their beans to the coffee hub of Bolivar via trucks, ATvs, even mules, and decide where to sell. Some have relationships with exporters who connect with shops like Eternity and Panther, whose owners travel to Colombia, roast on-site, taste stewed coffee, often with the farmers, and decide on which farms they’ll buy from. Larger companies, because of their volume, rely on blending beans, which can still result in lovely coffee; it’s just less specific.
Coffee has been a stabilizing force in rural Colombia, a landscape easily influenced by the drug trade. No one knows exactly where or when coffee was discovered, but according to legend, a shepherd tending his flock high in the peaks of what is now Ethiopia noticed his goats were exceptionally rowdy after nibbling on a certain bush. He tried some and caught a nice little buzz himself. Coffee spread to the Arab world, possibly when Ethiopia controlled Yemen in the sixth century, and was soon a lucrative seed for the Ottoman Turks, who forbade the export of fertile berries. Eventually, though, seeds were smuggled out. By 1683, Venice had its first coffee house. Boston had one by 1689, and the New World’s tropical colonies were growing coffee once it was smuggled in, sometimes via romantic trysts and cherry-laden bouquets.
Back at Eternity Coffee Roasters, owner Chris Johnson guides me through a cupping—a strict protocol of smelling the fragrance of the dry grounds, the aroma of the hot wet grounds, and then whisking the hot liquid into our mouths to judge taste, acidity, mouthfeel, and aftertaste. This is how he and other buyers judge a bean’s potential, both when sourcing in the mountains and when experimenting with roasting pace and arcs here.
Johnson, who opened Eternity in 2011, went from being a banker to trading coffee commodities to importing. “I was looking for great coffees to sell to other guys who were roasting,” he says, but then he caught the roasting bug himself. “In my prior life, I was a musician, so I play that thing [the roaster] like an instrument—sometimes you have to bend a note up to get it just right, and sometimes I’ll bend that thing to get what I’m after.” Johnson, too, avoids a second crack. “It’s like taking a really good steak and saying, ‘Give it to me well done.’” When he’s not roasting, Johnson is shooting a documentary about searching for the perfect bean, and selling to places such as Miam Café & Boutique in Wynwood and Whole Foods Markets throughout Florida.
The wave is spreading well beyond downtown and Wynwood. At North Miami’s Alaska Coffee Roasting Co., Michael Gesser browns single-origin coffees such as Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, from which he extracts startling notes of jasmine, bergamot, and lemon. Gesser, who was ahead of his time when he bought a roaster in 1993 and opened a shop in Fairbanks, Alaska, is a bit of an outlier in that he uses a fluid bed roaster to create extremely even temperatures on the beans, and doesn’t worry about cracks, as long as the beans briefly reach 450 degrees Fahrenheit, where the magic happens. This slightly darker “European roast,” he says, is less acidic than the light American roasts currently in vogue and gives him the flavors he likes. He opened the Miami shop with his sister just over three years ago and pegs the thirdwave boom to a simple notion. “It was so underdeveloped. Now it’s rightfully taking its place.” He also nods to Starbucks’ influence on the market, but notes that it’s physically impossible, at the company’s size, to do single origin. To him, quality is a smallscale game.
The third wave has grown pronounced enough to make some larger operators adapt, with one of the more interesting efforts coming from Juan Valdez, the vertical retail operation of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation. Though Juan the character was dreamed up by an advertising firm in Manhattan in 1959 and used to connote quality coffee for decades, the executives at the Federation noticed in the ’90s that roasters (Starbucks, Folgers, etc.), not Colombian farmers, were making the bulk of the money off a pound of coffee. To get a piece of the retail action, they went vertical, opening Juan Valdez Cafés around Central and South America (as well as two in downtown Miami). By 2013, the influence of the third wave inspired them to move in the direction of single origin. Though not from single farms, their Origins line divides their coffees into the five growing regions in Colombia, each with defining characteristics of altitude, shade, humidity, soil content, and thus flavor.
Panther Coffee’s Joel Pollock sees the rise of the third wave as a logical response to the US reevaluating the way we approach all things culinary. “It means you know where your food came from,” he says. Eternity Coffee Roasters’ Johnson adds, “Ten years ago, this would not have worked, [but] when all of a sudden you drink something that’s clearly superior, your palate just woke up overnight.”
Maybe it’s that in a busy world we all want to be special, and special creatures wouldn’t drink common, average, commodified things. We want something that cannot be digitally reproduced; in fact, it may never be reproduced at all. Or maybe it’s about being lucky enough to witness what this world has to offer. “When I decided to be in the coffee business,” says Gesser, “I sequestered myself in a log cabin in Alaska with a friend. We roasted and cupped coffees; there was smoke coming out of the cabin. We got this Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, and we both looked at each other and said, ‘Are we really on earth? Is there some garden of tropical madness taking over the entire cabin?’ That garden of flowers in my brain—I can never forget that.