Surfing Coffee's "Third Wave" 

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

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"Traditionally, a dark or French roast kind of burns out the flavor of the coffee," Hoffman of Local 123 said, "so you don't actually get to experience so much of the nuances of the bean."

The Bay Area roasting companies whose beans are used at the new third-wave cafes — especially Ritual (Remedy), Four Barrel (SubRosa), Flying Goat (Local 123), and Blue Bottle — tend to roast their beans much more lightly.

Proponents of this approach contend that with a lighter roast, each coffee varietal begins to taste not just like, well, coffee, but, variously, like "gingerbread spice" or "night flowers" or "aromatic wood." Some coffees are "bright" while others are "nutty"; some are so sour that you might find your whole face puckering up upon first sip. Cafes like Local 123 and Blue Bottle include descriptions on their drip-coffee menus and on the bags of beans for sale that read very much like something you'd see on the back of a bottle of wine.

Remedy's Todd Spitzer, a charismatic ex-pastor who has been selling coffee from a sidewalk cart on Telegraph Avenue in front of his soon-to-open cafe, has no doubts about the widespread appeal of this connoisseur's approach to coffee. He recalls a college student, still in her teens, watching intently as he made her an espresso. When he gave it to her, she sniffed, swirled, took a sip, then swirled again, all the while making detailed observations about the drink's brightness, its nuttiness, its lack of bitterness. Afterward she got on her BlackBerry and, ten minutes later, four more of her friends — all barely out of high school — pulled up and offered their own running commentary on Spitzer's form and technique.

"It's ripe here for this," Spitzer said. "These shops should have been in the East Bay two or three years ago."

It isn't altogether surprising, though, that some in the community might find this new breed of coffee shops and baristas a bit inaccessible and, shall we say, highfalutin. Just go to Local 123's Yelp page and you'll see, amidst glowing reviews, a handful of posters who complain about snobbery. One angry customer goes so far as to sarcastically dub one of the cafe's proprietors the "motherfucking queen of espresso" for refusing to serve an espresso over ice because, in her estimation, it would ruin the drink.

In this the-customer-is-always-right consumer culture, it's understandable that some would bristle at being told they can't have their coffee exactly how they want it — especially since one's morning cup o' joe is such an intensely personal ritual. Nearly all third-wave coffee purveyors have encountered similar resistance, and the way they choose to respond varies widely. One Washington, DC cafe owner famously threatened to punch a customer in his "dick" after said customer wrote a nasty blog post following a similar iced-espresso incident.

For their part, East Bay third wavers try to take a slightly less inflammatory approach. Wafle says that for customers who come to Local 123 asking for an iced espresso or a blended coffee drink ("a milk shake, basically," as Remedy's Spitzer described it), she'll recommend their cold-brewed iced coffee, which is made by soaking freshly ground coffee beans in cold water over a long period of time. The result, according to Wafle, is a much smoother and more delicious drink than you'd ever get by simply pouring hot coffee over ice. Most of the new third-wave cafes offer this "cold-brewed" option in lieu of a traditional iced coffee.

At Awaken Cafe, which opened in downtown Oakland in April of 2008, the most common misunderstanding occurs when customers order a macchiato — traditionally a shot of espresso that's marked with a very small amount of foamed milk and served in a teensy three-ounce cup. At Starbucks, of course, a "macchiato" has been redefined as a sweet, foamy drink that comes topped with caramel in a cup as large as twenty ounces. Awaken co-owner Dunlap checks to make sure customers ordering a macchiato from him for the first time aren't expecting the Starbucks version. But if what they want is more akin to a caramel latte, he'll serve that to them, even if it isn't on the regular menu. His overarching philosophy is still to, as much as is possible, give the customer what he or she wants — with the hope that, at some point in the future, that same customer might be more open to trying something new.

"It would be really presumptuous of us to be dogmatic about something that's not widely understood," he said. "I don't get any pleasure out of having made them a perfect drink that they didn't like."

Spitzer, on the other hand, summed up the situation thusly: "If you go into McDonald's and get your Big Mac, if you want no pickles, you get no pickles. If you go to Chez Panisse and say, 'Oh Alice, can you change this for me,' she's going to say, 'No.'" Spitzer falls into the camp of those who, on point of principle, aren't going to pour a shot of espresso over ice. At the same time, he said he tries to educate customers about the coffee he's serving at Remedy without being too "snotty" about it — for example, steering people who typically drink dark-roast coffee toward "full-bodied" coffees he thinks they'll be more likely to enjoy.

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