As Third Wave Coffee Matures

When I first started working with coffee and the so-called third wave or specialty coffee scene, the culture was all about light roasts.  Light roasts are great because they allow the local flavor of the coffee to shine, as I said two years ago:

I focus on light roasts because the light roast brings out the specific flavors and aromas of the individual coffee varietal, whereas darker roasts tend to make all coffees taste similar; charred, smokey, and ‘roasty.’

Shops in the "second wave" class, such as Peets and Starbucks roast their coffees darker (often much darker) and there is nothing wrong with a darker roast if that's what your customers like.  Especially with Starbucks, the preference for a  dark roast comes from a love of the Italian cafe scene and they are very proud of the fact they roast to a dark level.

What we won’t do, however, is mess with the real stuff in a way that violates its integrity. The real stuff is the coffee, roasted dark, fresh and full-flavored. It is our touchstone, part of our lifeblood, our legacy.1

Most third-wavers bemoan a dark roast because it changes the subtle flavors that distinguishes a coffee from Central America from, say, Africa.  The darker a given coffee is roasted, the more it tastes like any other dark-roasted coffee.  The problem is that many of the big players in the third wave scene have taken light roasts far too light.  With a very light roast, you begin to get an unbalanced, unidimensional coffee that tastes like every other very light, under-developed coffee; sour.  So in a way, those who roast their coffee to a very light level create a product similar to those who roast to a very dark level; a coffee with a single, predominant taste profile.

The good news is that we are beginning to talk about that in the third wave scene.  At this year's Roaster's Guild Retreat, there was more talk of under-developed and sour, light roasts.  More people were talking about proper roast development versus under development and this is a good thing.  Coffee is all about balance; balance in the roasting process, balance in the brewing process, etc. My most successful coffees were always the balanced coffees that had a certain complexity in taste.  The customers didn't have to have the ability to taste all the various nuances in the coffee but they did have the ability to taste a good, well-balanced, well-developed roast in the coffee and those features to them defined a damn good cup of joe.

As the third wave scene matures, I can see it slowly swinging back from light, under-developed, unidimensional roasts towards the darker end of the spectrum; towards a more balanced roast that is far more pleasing to more customers.

1. Schultz Pour Your Heart Into It Hachette Books 1999 170


Michael C. Wright

Michael is an American expat living in Singapore where he writes about many things coffee-related. A roaster by trade, Michael is also a licensed Q Grader and an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST).

Updated