Surfing Coffee's "Third Wave" 

New East Bay cafes take their coffee very seriously. Some say too seriously.

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Catherine Bullimore, owner of Temescal's SubRosa, also tries to find "crafty" ways to make customers happy, even when she doesn't offer the exact drink they want to order. For example, SubRosa doesn't use any flavored syrups, but Bullimore does offer a raw-sugar simple syrup that she believes will satisfy any hazelnut latte drinker. As she put it, "We figured out a way of saying no without saying no."

It's worth noting, too, that there are at least a few coffee experts who find some of the premises of the third wave, or even the very idea of its existence, to be naive and arrogant.

For instance,'s Ken Davids takes issue with the assumption that there isn't any place at all in the contemporary coffee scene for dark roasts — and, particularly, with the third wave's dismissive attitude toward "old-school" companies like Peet's (whose coffees don't rate poorly on his site's 100-point rating scale, sometimes scoring higher than various third-wave offerings).

"Peet's is a marvelous institution still true to its roots, with tremendous seriousness and integrity and, ultimately, originality," Davids writes. "Their in-store drip coffee is still one of the best coffee experiences in the Bay Area."

Davids concedes, however, that his greatest excitement is still for coffees that aren't roasted at the darkest extreme, where they show off mainly the skill of the roaster rather than highlighting the nuances and "sensory shocks" that can be experienced only in a somewhat lighter roast.

An even more outspoken critic of the third wave is Greg Sherwin, whose web site,, attempts to rate every espresso served in the city of San Francisco. In his provocatively titled article, "Third Wave Coffee, or First Wave Pompousness?" Sherwin points out that the entire third-wave movement seems to presume that quality espresso simply didn't exist prior to six years ago. According to Sherwin, third wavers who somehow claim to have "discovered" good coffee are like the coming-of-age teenager who feels as though he's "discovered" adolescence.

"Step into a family-owned operation in Italy that has made pretty damn good espresso for the past half century — noting their attention to detail and quality controls in their operations — and the concept of this 'third-wave' business being new suddenly seems a bit absurd," Sherwin wrote in a recent e-mail.

"To me, that's almost like a slap in the face to their profession and dedication through generations of commitment."

Here in the East Bay, Cole Coffee is one example of an independently owned cafe that garnered a reputation for serving fresh, high-quality coffee long before the term "third wave" was coined — perhaps dispelling the notion that one's only options are the third wave or Peet's. Owner Michael Murphy, who bought the Rockridge shop earlier this decade from Emeryville-based Royal Coffee — now strictly a green-coffee importer — says that Cole started out selling mostly dark roasts because that's all there was in Berkeley and Oakland at the time. Over the past twenty years, the cafe has mostly stayed true to that tradition.

"I would love to carry a little bit lighter-roasted coffee, but it doesn't sell in my store," Murphy said. "People like what they like, you know?"

He concedes that there has been a bit of a shift in the past six years, during which he's seen more of a demand for the lighter roasts. For his part, Murphy mostly appreciates what these new cafes have brought to the local coffee scene — good, freshly prepared coffee and detailed explanations of those coffees — but, like Davids, he too takes issue with the third wave's disdain for dark roasts.

"There are people that eat their steak well done," he said. "It's what the public likes."

Whatever you want to call it, what's clear is that there is some "serious coffee 'geekitude' going on" in the Bay Area, as Local 123's Wafle put it. And while a wine-snob connection would be an easy one to make, particularly for those put off by higher prices or precious flavor-profile descriptions, the "geek" moniker that Wafle invokes seems more apt.

Perhaps the most obviously "geeky" aspect that distinguishes the more serious coffee joint from the rest of the pack is a certain preoccupation with gadgetry. Taking a tour of Blue Bottle's new roastery and cafe a few weeks before its October 19 opening felt a little bit like walking through Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, so impressive was the assortment of vintage machinery, all exposed pipes and well-worn surfaces. One room housed a collection of old La San Marco fully manual hand-pull espresso machines that, as they were still in the process of being restored, looked a bit ragged — but which Blue Bottle owner James Freeman plied, lovingly, to produce a more-than-drinkable shot of espresso.

And Spitzer's little sidewalk stand has drawn immediate buzz for the high-tech machines he's using, including a La Marzocco Paddle Group — one of a handful on the West Coast (SubRosa has one of the others) — that he uses to make espresso. But Spitzer's pride and joy is his Clover single-serve drip coffee machine, which allows the barista to adjust the water temperature and brew time with scientific precision. The invention of Stanford engineering alums, the Clover has given Remedy immediate street cred, as the device has a cult following among coffee enthusiasts — especially since they're no longer widely available now that Starbucks has bought out the manufacturer and co-opted the machines for its own franchises.

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