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Seattle: the last, best refuge from #ThirdWaveCoffee?

Uptown Espresso, a Second Wave Coffee staple and “Home of the Velvet Foam”


A quick preface: I’ve had a lot of great coffee at Third Wave shops over the past few years, often served by really lovely and knowledgeable baristas who clearly enjoy what they do (and whose enjoyment enhances the customer experience). I also feel strongly that the Third Wave is a deservedly important strand of the broader historical development of coffee from which coffee lovers have benefited greatly. Here, I’m really taking issue with the Third Wave orthodoxy, its ridiculous tropes of artisanality, “honesty” in roasting, and rigidity in preparation methods, as well as its clear solipsism and sense of superiority with regard to pre-existing coffee methodologies.

The ideology and practices writ large, in other words, not the people.

The Third Wave Experience

It used to be so simple to get a good cup of coffee. Or so we thought. The doyens of the Third Wave Coffee movement, today’s dominant coffee purveyors, would have you believe that, prior to its onset ~15 years ago, coffee was not done properly ANYWHERE by ANYBODY. Their appeal begins with the beans. Forget medium, dark, French, Italian, or seasonal blends: they are persistent artifacts of an artless, primitive era in which robber baron buyers commodified coffee beans through large volume importing with at best a transactional relationship to its growers and a total ignorance of the harvesting process. Producers of such abominations are mendacious hucksters, disguising the distinct flavor profiles of the beans comprising their roasts in order to pander to philistine palettes.

Your coffee should be of a single origin, according to Third Wave orthodoxy, meaning that the beans originate within one region of a coffee-producing country, but preferably of a single estate. Yes, that’s right, in the era of Third Wave Coffee, grand cru is an acceptable starting point. Additionally, you really should seek out light and medium roasts, as these provide the most distinctive flavor profiles. Light roasts are both the most polarizing and the most expensive, but you should embrace the experience of drinking a coffee that retails for $24/lb. and tastes like a sack of almonds (read: has a "nutty" flavor profile). Oh, also, forget the previous ~600 years of development in coffee preparation methods, that of our Yemeni, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Viennese, Italians, French, etc. coffee progenitors: they simply did not have the science or the art to know what they were doing.

Third Wavers also demand that you reconsider your brewing methods. Throw away your dependable Mr. Coffee, your convenient Keurig, your adorable Nespresso: they are garbage appliances for garbage people, and you should be ashamed to have ever owned one. Coffee should be produced by hand in one of several dazzling routines for which boiling water is the only acceptable use of electricity (*Note: OK, so espresso is acceptable, but it, too, should be single origin, and really, brewed coffee is *strongly* preferred). Buy a Chemex, an Aeropress, or a pour-over dripper. Whichever method you choose, you must learn to execute every step in the brew process with utmost precision, calibrating the weight of the coffee, the weight and temperature of the water, and the time to pour. Oh, did I mention you’ll need to buy an expensive burr grinder, a scale and a specialty electric kettle whose elegant gooseneck spout looks like it belongs in a design museum, not your kitchen? And it wouldn’t hurt to spend several hundred dollars on training to really perfect your technique.

Now, while it’s ultimately acceptable to brew up to 10 cups of coffee using a Chemex, you will ideally brew one cup at a time, no matter how much coffee you need to get through the day. But don’t worry, because this one-cup brewing process will grow on you. Like Dexter pursuing his quarries, you will develop a ritualistic dependency on your craft and likely eschew social, professional, and familial obligations in your quest for the perfect pour.

Finally, the coffee shops. In short, Third Wavers don't want you going to the same ones. No longer is it acceptable for you to take your morning coffee at the corner Starbucks or Peets, where a 20 oz. black coffee can be poured readymade from a commercial decanter and sold to you in less than a minute. You must seek out an independent Third Wave coffee shop where a barista will walk you through the flavor profiles and subprofiles (e.g., fruit → stone fruit → peach) and varietals of their offerings to either match a single origin coffee to your stated preferences or to foist his/her current favorite on you (but let’s face it, you have a gutter palette anyway, so be thankful: you’re about to learn what you want). The barista will then grind somewhere in the orbit of ~20g of coffee, heat water, and proceed to pour, using finely honed ministrations to ensure steady extraction and to delicately spoon coffee off the filter and into the pour. 7-15 minutes later, your coffee is served.

I’ve been reflecting on the Third Wave since I moved to Seattle two months ago. Coffee and coffee culture are more indelibly tied to the identity of Seattle than to that of any other American city. However, it is not the culture of Third Wave Coffee that predominates here, though it exists in abundance (e.g., see Slate Coffee Bar, where, among other excellent but overwrought menu items, you can order a “Deconstructed Espresso and Milk”). Rather, Seattle remains, as it has been for more than 40 years, a Second Wave Coffee town. Here, espresso is king, coffee blends perfected decades ago are lovingly consumed in large quantities, and Starbucks, hometown hero and economic standby that it is, is revered by both corporate squares in button-ups and sleeve-tatted hipsters in skinny jeans, albeit not in equal measure.

This realization struck me one day in April when I decided to check out Espresso Vivace, a small Seattle chain that has been in business since 1988. I walked to the South Lake Union location, which is as new as that neighborhood, ambled up to the counter, and ordered a “drip coffee.”

“I can make you an Americano, but we don’t serve brewed coffee” came the well-rehearsed and matter-of-fact response from the barista.

“Oh, no problem!” I said, uncertain how I should pivot. “Actually, can I get a cappuccino?” Up until that moment, I don’t think I’d ever been excited to be told I that I can’t get what I ordered. The exoticism took hold of me like the beginning of a decidedly non-fantastic One Thousand and One Nights, and, as I sat sipping what turned out to be the best cappuccino I’d ever had, I realized that this is the essential coffee experience in this storied coffee town and, moreover, that it is as good as if not better than the finest single origin pour over I’ve ever had.

In the course of its 25 year history, Espresso Vivace undergone major developments, including moving from street kiosks to brick and mortar retail space, but the coffee mission has remained the same since 1992, one of perfecting the execution of a very specific time-honored and highly revered tradition, not the disruption thereof (from their website):

Since 1992 we have been roasting in the Northern Italian style: searching the world for the mildest arabicas and bringing each bean in our blends to the fragrant peak of caramelized sugar content.

Indeed, the distinctiveness of the experience is buoyed by a sense of temporal displacement. To walk into an Espresso Vivace or an Uptown Espresso, another small Seattle chain that opened in the 80’s and focuses on espresso, is to step back in time to a very different era in both the world of American specialty coffee and the city itself. Uptown’s shops are expansive, with multiple rooms and a wide variety of mismatched yet comfortable furniture arrangements. The carpeting is old and, like most heavily trod carpeting of a particular age in the Pacific Northwest, uneven from moisture/water exposure. Patrons are equally if not more likely to be reading from a Thomas Pynchon novel than responding to emails on the unreliable wifi, and you half expect a hungover Kurt Cobain to stumble in for a pick-me-up. Shops like this proliferated in the late 80s and early 90s on the west coast. I very fondly remember many evenings spent at Coffee Time, the labyrinthine shop on NW 21st whose many alcoves and rooms were populated by a moveable feast of every sub/counter/mainstream culture the city had on offer in the late 90s/early oughts.

Third Wave Coffee shops, on the other hand, tend to pride themselves on economizing on space, which is admirable but can lead to frustration when the very limited seating is all in use. They also lean toward more spartan/less comfortable, albeit more design-forward furniture. The overall message is, sit, but not for too long. Vivace and Uptown, on the other hand, encourage you to luxuriate, to kick back in an armchair or sink into a couch and devote an afternoon to a novel.

The Reprieve

What should you take away from this screed, if anything? If you are a Third Wave Coffee practitioner or devotee, congratulations: you’re great people. But just be careful not to fall into uncompromising zealotry. Keep an open mind regarding coffee roasting and brewing methodologies, including especially ones that aren't products of the Third Wave. And remember:

  1. Third Wavers didn't invent great coffee.
  2. Blended roasts can be *excellent*, even, yes, in brewed coffee.
  3. Dark blends, and I’m being absolutely serious here, can be great (to wit, the delectable St. Johns Blend from St. Johns Roasters).
  4. Weighing, timing, and burr-grinding coffee are a bit beyond the pale for a number of people who  go to Third Wave shops in search of advice about coffee preparation, at least in terms of daily coffee preparation. Third Wave shops should consider paring down their recommendations to the true essentials, which to my mind are "excellent coffee beans" and "clean brewing equipment."
  5. Espresso drinks are wonderful, and, in my humble opinion as a coffee tourist, generally *better* with blended espressos than with single origin ones.
  6. Tip your barista (even if their tips for you are unwelcome).

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