Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why Third Wave (Pour-over) Coffee Bars Fail.

Portland was a perfect venue for the 25th Annual Conference and Exhibition of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Perhaps, more than anywhere else in America, third wave coffee bars have stormed into existence. Third Wave Coffee Bars are notable by how they look and what they do. They are a direct facsimile of current fashion of SCAA Championships. It’s as if the participants are trying to reproduce in the real world the artificial world that exists during these championships. As a result, these new bars imitate one another in the type of equipment used and more importantly, what and how coffee is offered to customers. 

Now, I have been a big fan of the Barista Guild and their efforts to raise the perception of Baristas as a viable professional skill. This is long overdue and has helped our industry staunch the move to automated equipment and look-alike chain operators. But what I have noticed is a disturbing trend in these coffee bars that has more to do with being a part of a club rather than actually serving truly good coffee. These bars can be identified often by what they don't have: they don't have skim milk, or soy; they don't do flavors or 16 oz to go cups. And as far as I could tell, most don't have much in the way of customers, either. What they do have is seasonal single origin espressos from a number of the latest names in roasters, they have pour-over bars featuring Chemex's with metal filters, Hario V60 cones, or Siphon brewers; and they have an educated superiority that leave you degraded, dismissed, and otherwise not a member of the club. 

 I really would like to admire these coffee bars for their commitment to a vision, a vision predicated on coffee quality. But the concept of quality now seems to be more a sense of style rather than a discerning sense of taste. Coffees, and Roasters for that matter, are chosen based on their merits of who's hot right now. Brewing techniques are chosen in a similar fashion, pour over bars provide more theater and the illusion of choice. Never mind that the metal filter is an inappropriate application for the Chemex brewer and one has to adjust their brewing style to compensate resulting in an over-extracted brew. At least the coffee siphon provides excellent cup quality but it is a ten minute exercise and costs, in some cases, $9.00.

 I had debated whether to do a post about pour-over bars before going to Portland and decided to focus my attention on the pour-over experience. We had abandoned pour-over many years ago but I wondered if there had been significant improvements that warranted another look. What I found, aside from the one aforementioned coffee siphon episode, was brewed coffee that almost always was near undrinkable. The problem lies in the substitution of the metal cone for the Chemex or the use of the Hario v60 cones. In either case the issue centers on dwell time of the brew. Great coffee is a function of dwell time and brew rate.  Both the metal filter and the V60 cone allow the water to pass too quickly through the coffee grounds requiring the barista to slow the rate of pour in the center of the grounds. Never do all the grounds dwell in a solution, rather, the water passes through the middle over extracting the same grounds. It is a similar phenomena as cheap electric coffee brewers with inadequate heaters that heat a little water and send it through, heat a little water and send it through, and so on. 

The secret behind the Chemex isn't the carafe so much as the interaction of the carafe and the paper filter that allows the user to fill the funnel with hot water and have a full dwelling of water and coffee with the filter and grind dictating the rate of flow for the brew. The Hario V60 also has too large of an exit hole and the striated fins on the inside of the funnel allow water to channel through the filter requiring the user to adopt a similar pour technique as the metal filtered Chemex. Combine this slow pour with the fact that water temperature stability is thrown out the window. One operator was using the Marco Uberboiler for hot water, a precise controlled water boiler that can deliver accurate temperature, set at 210 degrees to allow for the rapid cooling while pouring. Most places make no effort at all water temperature stability. 

This was one of the major reasons we abandoned pour-over years ago. But what really made us abandon it were the incredible improvements in programmable commercial brewers. If pour-over produced better results than what we could get out of our Fetco Extractor then I would be on board, but the fact is it isn't remotely close to the same quality and moreover, I can make better coffee in my home using a paper filter Chemex or Aeropress without the condescending attitude as an added bonus.

At first I mistook the Third Wave Movement with its penchant for trade roasts and manual brewing techniques as a response to the like of Starbucks and the wannabe chains. Now I understand that it is an attempt to recreate the experience of the Barista Championships that take place at various convention centers around the world. A fabricated event designed to impress judges and their peers, that manufactures in-the-know celebrities of coffee culture. Customers were never the consideration.

I was asked the other day whether I thought Third Wave Coffee Bars are here to stay. If this is what this movement continues to serve, they won't be around for very long.

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