Fifth Wave of Coffee

Nov. 6, 2019

I’m going to break character: I’m going to say there is a Fifth Wave in coffee. I already regret it though.:-|

I really dislike this whole notion of “waves” and the teleology of progress it implies. Yes, teleology. Nonetheless, if this is how people want to frame the past 40-50 years of coffee, fine. Fifth wave. *

What’s exciting is this isn’t happening here, in Oakland, or in San Francisco or in California or on the West Coast or in the USA or in the Global North. It has little to do with me, or what my business does, or what established micro roasters or macro roasters have been up to.

The fifth wave is happening on a new stage, in countries that have traditionally produced coffee as a raw material for export, by people who generally have not fully benefited from the value of their crops, in particularly coffee.

Garabi Coffee Roasting and Jam Band! , Wih Pesam, Bener Meriah
Garabi Coffee Roasting and Jam Band! , Wih Pesam, Bener Meriah

It’s happening in Jakarta and Bandung and Surabaya. That’s Indonesia, on the island of Java, but also in Medan, and Makassar , and smaller cities and towns across the archipelago. It’s happening in Thailand and Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, China and all across South Asia. (I have experienced these later origins via samples and not travel).

It’s also happening throughout Latin America, parts of east Africa, and India. Cafes are roasting their own coffee, often in very small and locally-made roasting machines (which can be remarkably well designed in some cases). The new wave of roasters and brewers are often adjacent to coffee farm areas, or a few hours away. Some are located right in the middle of them. Coffee trees might literally be in back of the shop.

Lereng Coffee Home Roastery (and coffee processing station, in the backyard), Bebesen, Aceh Tengah
Lereng Coffee Home Roastery (and coffee processing station, in the backyard), Bebesen, Aceh Tengah

The type of coffee shop I have encountered might source their locally grown coffee via a distributor.  But often they have a direct connection to the farm, a farm they can visit with a short drive, a scooter-ride, or a walk. What is truly exciting is the new synthesis of farmer, roaster and barista. They literally might be the same person! Alternately, there is tight coordination between them in any case, many points of information exchange, and crossover in roles.

Baristas might pick and process their own coffee for a competition. Farmers can have their own day lot pickings roasted for sale. The roaster or shop-owner can ask for specific processing, or ask their farmer-supplier to tune any aspect of the harvesting, fermenting or drying to their needs.

Perhaps more exciting to me is the economics. Coffee at its highest level, with care put into every step from tree to cup, is getting prices that generally exceed the prices people like me, and other international green buyers, pay. Forget about the global New York “C” exchange prices. We’re talking triple the “C”, 4x, 5x the NY arabica price. In terms of paying fully for cost of production to the farmer, that is being met and exceeded, as the local roaster at origin has brought a new level of price competition to the farm gate.

Pak Hendra drying station in Pegasing, Aceh and Kopiku Roastery in Bandung
Pak Hendra drying station in Pegasing, Aceh and Kopiku Roastery in Bandung

To understand how remarkable this is, I recall so many years I have spent traveling to “origin,” getting closer to the source, and the closer I got, the worse the local cafe coffee usually was: If you wanted a really bad cup of coffee, you could go a country that grows it. That was 5 years ago.

An important side-note: I am defining “good” as what I think a well prepared cup of fresh-roasted coffee is… and I have always found something very good about the “soste cenni” of jebena coffee in Ethiopia, the “tinto” in Colombia, “kopi tubruk” in Indonesia, etc.

But those traditional preparations aren’t cups of coffee urbanites of Asia or Indonesia would pay up for… the kinds of prices that would compensate the farmer well. The new type of Roastery cafe in coffee-producing countries tends to be hyper-aware of trends that originated in the cafes of San Francisco and Portland and NYC and Tokyo and Oslo , etc. They seem to be really into barista communities and competitions, to latte art and perfect pour-overs. That might seem imitative on the surface. Or it might seem a form of adulation to cover up a sense of lack, that Bandung is not the center of the coffee universe that, say, a San Francisco or Seattle is, (or was).

Garabi Roastery, and Rahman future shop in Gayo Lues, Sumatra
Garabi Roastery, and Rahman future shop in Gayo Lues, Sumatra

But there’s ample evidence that as the centers of coffee shift away from the Global North, from the historical political and economic colonizers, the self-declared First Worlders, that a new approach to “good coffee” is possible.

Along with cancelling the impact of the global “C” price and the marketing of far-flung exotic locales, the cafe-adjacent-to-farm can forget about coffee as a durable, long-term product. This moves coffee away from the category of money-like commodities that are cash-substitutes, toward the realm of fresh produce.

Coffee can be dried down to the point for efficient thermal dynamics in the roast machine, maybe 6 weeks off the tree in total, then roasted and served. No more export documentation and global logistics , no more 6-10 weeks stuffed in a humid metal box on the sea.

Roasting in Takengon, and Pak Arianto pouring a fresh brew at his processing station in Pegasing.

If coffee can be brewed 6 weeks from picking, new processes can be explored without vetting them for long term stability.
The most popular in the Indo scene is Winey Coffee process. This process gets 50% plus premium to the farmer, the most expensive offering in most roasteries. Winey Coffee is picked and sorted cherry, placed in a airtight bag or other sealed container, and fermented-in-the-cherry for any period from 36 hours to a week! It’s called carbonic maceration, sweating the fruit, which makes it seem less gross and more legit: Many producers wait until they see some liquid oozing from the decomposing cherry skin. At that point the coffee is pulped for washing or honey process, or is dried in the cherry as a natural.

How many cafes have you been to where they bring coffee cherry in through the front and process it in the back, and roast / brew the coffee in the middle? They do it all here at Lereng. This Winey process is stored in sealed bags to ferment coffee before pulping. I don’t love it, but respect the fact that they do…

I am not generally a fan. Most of the samples I have tested are toward vinegar-fruit flavor, not winey. But who cares what I think! I’m always holding up coffee quality to this global scorecard that, while often treated as the “law of good coffee”, can also be seen as just another form of bias. Yeah, I’m biased. I like what I like.

Indeed even in my problematic world I have enjoyed some of the milder forms of Winey process. A Honey coffee from Pak Hendra in Atu Lintang Sumatra was super sweet and quite clean in the fruited overlay. It was minimally fermented in cherry, 36 hours, then dried as honey coffee. But oddly, I noted a whitish strip of silver skin in the bean crease, the look of a washed coffee. The cup was super nice.

I’m sure to be idealizing this new coffee scene, and I am sure there are all sorts of internal manipulations and new opportunities for exploitation. The shops I have encountered are very small scale, very grass-roots, built from scratch. As bigger money enters this scene, it’s sure to change.

And my exposure to it is extremely limited. My focus here is Indonesia because I just returned from a second trip this year. But I have encountered new shops of this scale and focus in many coffee producing areas, from Ethiopia to Colombia, from Kenya to Guatemala. At the same time I have also see the rise of very dumb chain/franchise coffee shops in urban centers. So there’s that too.

Roaster at the Ketiara Gayo cafe, which is adjacent to their drying patios in Bebesen, Takengon.
Roaster at the Ketiara Gayo cafe, which is adjacent to their drying patios in Bebesen, Takengon.

But it’s the tiny, independent, modest store with the 1 or 2 kg roaster that’s exciting for me. Just at the time where massive consolidation is happening in the USA, where JAB holdings keeps snapping up coffee brands that were “indie,” when the message about good coffee seems to have run out of breath here, there’s a new group of enthusiasts that comes along.

They may not have the monetary advantages, or the (rather bogus) credibility of roasting on a 1953 Probat, or an address in NYC or SF or PDX. But they have something very real:  direct access to the coffee farmer, as if coffee was heirloom tomatoes at the local farmers’ market. And that has huge potential to transform coffee in substance, in the cup, as well as coffee economics and the fairness factor. It’s a big deal, I think. I hope.



* To touch briefly on why the notion of “waves” in coffee or otherwise, deserves some critical focus I would say this: The use of this concept usually implies progress from one phase to the next. It assumes a highly reductive summary of what constitutes a particular “wave” and enforces its own arbitrary boundaries marking one to the next…

The Waves of Progress Theory
The Waves of Progress Theory

But what constitutes the homogenized “average” that represents the wave. Where was it happening? Was the “wave” the same in Europe as the USA as it was in the Global South? So whose wave is/was this? Has each wave been an improvement over the last? Who defines what is “good” in this case? Is jebena coffee better than a carefully executed pour-over? Does a brewing competition winner make better coffee than an old cafe in Lebanon? Was green coffee quality worse in 1925 than it is now? Who possesses such perspective? And is this current era of, for example, Stumptown canned beverages at your nearby 7-11 better than their old “3rd wave” fresh-roasted / fresh-brewed coffee served in their cafe?

Of course the need to be more circumspect and specific, to set specific limits to what is meant by “good coffee” (in this case,) would end up muting the potency of sweeping statements that seem informed by historical perspective. But that’s exactly the point. The reductiveness does invalidate the conclusions here. Anyway, that’s an argument I think is worth raising about the way people have discussed coffee “waves.” I don’t think, if you were looking for thesis material, describing any type of history this way would pass the muster of an advisory panel.


2 Responses

  1. I love this article so much. It adds some much needed context that seems to be lacking in specialty coffee right now. In the last several years, I’ve had the good fortune of visiting so many great at-origin roasters and shops (mostly in central & south America) and have been blown away by the passion, quality, and skill of those involved. They are quite often doing more with less. Making amazing espresso on a 25 year old espresso machine and using a bunn/ grindmaster grocery store grinder that they’ve tweaked, when many baristas in the u.s act like you couldn’t possibly make a cup of coffee without an ek-43 grinder. Thank you . 🙂

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