What is Espresso, and Third Wave Coffee?
Espresso: An overview, with references to various aspects of modern speciality coffee generally (not only espresso), and terms like Artisan and Third Wave.
Espresso is a delicious, concentrated coffee beverage, brewed under pressure, usually somewhere within 19-30 seconds, depending on the specific coffee. It is composed of complex and highly fragile nuances of aroma, flavour and texture. When prepared with skill, and great, freshly roasted beans, all the exquisite flavour potential of the chosen beans can potentially be transferred to the cup. It should ideally be intense yet balanced, with a natural sweetness, often subtle fruit flavours, and be free from the harsh bitterness often associated with badly made coffee or espresso.
Preparing really good espresso and getting the best from the beans, is dependent on a multitude of variables being carefully managed, and on those factors aligning successfully. This is even more true when using high quality, fresh beans.
Great espresso is both magical and often highly elusive – a true delicacy.
A little about speciality coffee generally:
Coffee is a very special thing. Just like wine, quality espresso (and indeed, the best coffee generally) will have different natural flavour characteristics depending on various key factors. At origin, these factors include the soil, the cultivation, the altitude, the aspect, the variety, and the harvesting and processing of the beans at the farm. The way the coffee is then roasted is also a crucial stage in order to preserve and highlight these flavours. This spectrum of naturally occurring flavours in great coffee, whilst quite subtle, is as wide and varied as you can imagine!
Speciality coffee shares this potential flavour complexity (created by aspects like terroir and varietal) with other things like wine, chocolate, and tea. But there’s a crucial difference, and an extension of this complexity with coffee. Whilst all these products, at the highest grade, have the potential to be exquisite, the others are essentially finished products when they leave the producer. With wine, for instance, all the work is done, at source, once it’s bottled, and all you have to do is open and enjoy it. Same with chocolate. And with tea, the steeping process is relatively simple, and is likely to result in success quite easily. Coffee however, is different. The preparation by the end user at the final stage is absolutely crucial (when it comes to this type of high quality, freshly roasted, whole bean coffee). Brewing is potentially endlessly complex (and subject to many factors and variables), and if coffee is not handled equally carefully at this very final stage as well, any potential for greatness the beans might have had will be completely lost. In this way speciality coffee is (necessarily and in fact) elevated more to the level of a complex culinary craft, where great food is perhaps in some ways the closest comparison – where quality, fresh ingredients need to be prepared with highly developed skills, techniques, and knowledge, in order to achieve the very best results.
The vast majority of coffee produced and drunk in the world is lower quality ‘commodity’ grade. This coffee is used in most mainstream blends (as well as for other basic coffee products). It is often roasted more darkly, and used when quite stale, to create the generic coffee-flavour that many people have come to expect. Lower grade arabica, and robusta, falls into this category.
Speciality grade arabica coffees, on the other hand, by their nature make up a much smaller percentage, but are of a higher quality, and have the potential to demonstrate how varied and delicious coffee can be. Their flavours will often be remarkably different to the conventional, homogenous ‘coffee flavour’ that people might expect, because great coffee can be more interesting and exciting than that!
The best speciality coffee is traceable to individual farms, and more seasonal. It is therefore fresher, as a seasonal crop, and then also freshly roasted, and used fresh. It is produced, harvested, and ideally also roasted and prepared, more carefully. This type of coffee is used for espresso within the modern artisan (or ‘Third Wave‘) coffee movement, and baristas like myself aim to showcase the natural flavour characteristics of these coffees.
More about espresso:
The modern speciality coffee movement often champions the use of fantastic single estate (and even single varietal) coffees for espresso. These can make wonderfully characterful espresso on their own, although traditionally a blend is thought more suited for espresso in order to create the most balance, harmony and complexity. These are hotly contested differing schools of thought! I happily use single estates individually, and also blends of in-season coffees for espresso – they can both be amazing, and both have things to offer – if the coffees are good.
Great espresso is often best on its own, unadulterated. This is where the true magic of the drink can be fully appreciated, and where the specific characteristics of the beans used, and the quality of the preparation, is revealed. Straight, without milk, is where the shot’s flavour is most intense and sincere, but where its success or failure is most evident, as even a little milk can begin to soften any flaws in the espresso.
That said, espresso is also delicious when combined with small amounts of perfectly steamed milk (microfoam), that is velvety smooth, and served at just the right temperature. This combination of milk with espresso creates classic drinks like cappuccino, caffe latte, macchiato, and equally important modern variations like Flat White, amongst others like the piccolo, Gibraltar, stumpy, and cortado (the precise origin and definition of these latter drinks is quickly becoming as elusive and as contested as the classics …but that’s half the fun!). With all these drinks, if you care about the quality and flavour of your coffee, the aim is for quality rather than quantity in both the espresso and its combinations with milk. Hence, within artisan coffee, you will often see minimal amounts of milk and smaller cup sizes (rather than the pint-sized cups that many cafes serve) that preserve the flavour of a beautiful espresso, and work in harmony with it rather than smothering it. Equally, artificial flavourings and syrups become unnecessary for many people when they get used to great coffee; if you’ve got a high quality, expertly crafted, delicious coffee full of exciting flavours, why cover it up, or try to make it taste like anything else?!
The modern movement.
There are many parallels, but also many crucial differences between ‘traditional Italian’ style espresso and modern artisan or Third Wave espresso, even though the essential brewing process is the same (the following points are generalised, in order to present the fairly well accepted differences more clearly, and are not necessarily definitive).
Traditional Italian espresso is always blended, often with a high proportion of more commodity grade coffee, and often with robusta as well as arabica to aid easy crema formation. It is often roasted somewhat more darkly, rested for longer after roasting before use (sometimes much longer), and pre-ground into the dosing chambers of grinders where it sits until use, rather than being ground fresh ‘on demand’ per cup. It could be said that Italian espresso blends tend to aim for more standardised, generic, roasty-bitter-sweet characteristics that taste ’like Italian espresso’ rather than exhibiting specific, defined origin flavours, as such. Recipes for Italian blends are often closely guarded, and the customer is not able to know exactly where the coffee is from – there is no ‘traceability’.
I think it’s fair to say most commercial mainstream coffee is loosely based around this traditional espresso style, albeit with many deviations and alterations.
There’s nothing wrong with this more traditional approach as such, but contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily the be-all-and-end-all, or the pinnacle, of what can be achieved with espresso; the modern specialty movement seeks to further evolve and improve the potential of espresso at every stage.
Artisan or Third Wave espresso (and coffee) has many features that differentiate it from the generalised traditional style mentioned above.
It uses only top-grade arabica coffees that are traceable to the exceptional farms and cooperatives that produce them. There is a justified pride in this traceability, due to the quality, the specific character, and often the consequent reputation, of the beans from these particular farms. The aim is to highlight and showcase their diverse, unique, naturally occurring origin flavours (often fruity and/or floral), and preserve this by treating the coffee as a delicate, fresh, gourmet product at all stages from farm to cup. There is therefore much more emphasis and careful attention to seasonality with these coffees (using the freshest crops from different origins), and it is roasted by small ‘microroasters’. These craft-roasters often roast somewhat more lightly (because roasting darker destroys the subtle origin flavours present in high quality coffee), and they always roast in small batches. Artisan coffee is used FRESH, within just two-four weeks of roasting, and it is ground fresh to order, by the cup. Both in-season blends and single estates (even Micro Lots of just one varietal from one certain part of an estate), are represented within artisan espresso.
The knowledge, skill, and experience of the barista in the preparation is crucial in both Italian and 3rd wave espresso – but it is generally highlighted and utilised further within 3rd wave coffee. The simple fact that the coffees are far more changeable and varied (in every way) within modern artisan espresso clearly indicates that more is required from the barista with this style of coffee.
Espresso is just one brew method for these coffees. With Third Wave style coffee, you will also often see various other manual by-the-cup filter brew methods being employed, like pour-over cones, cafetières, Aeropress, Chemex, syphons, and others, some old, some new. Whatever the brew method though, the aim is to deliver a single, handcrafted cup that exhibits and preserves the subtle natural flavours and characteristics of these fresh, speciality coffees.
This artisan or 3rd wave coffee movement has developed worldwide since about 1990, and is constantly striving to push coffee quality, preparation, and knowledge to new heights. The movement is more established in countries like New Zealand, the USA, and Australia, but it has emerged more recently in the UK (2000 onwards). It is developing rapidly here, and flourishing – the UK scene, although quite small, and less well established, is in many ways fast becoming world-class, even world leading (although you still need to find the right places!).
Sometimes people misinterpret all this as some sort of coffee-snobbery or elitism. For me though, it’s just about a genuine enjoyment of good quality, well crafted, delicious, exciting coffee! Caring more about the origin, quality, flavour, freshness and preparation of anything we eat or drink doesn’t need to make it pretentious!
More about this movement, and the term Third Wave specifically.
The term Third Wave coffee was coined around the millennium, with reference to this movement within speciality coffee as described above. What this phrase refers to is less about the generalised defining differences between traditional and artisan espresso styles as outlined above however, and more to do with the 1st wave being when coffee initially became more mass-available to the general consumer as instant coffee, etc, the 2nd wave was during the 1960′s onwards, when coffee became a little more specialised but also began to be commercialised and transformed into the style created by the big, globalised coffee-chain brands (of which prominent features include big cup sizes, syrups, and artificial flavorings), and then the 3rd wave, as described above, is what some quality-focussed people within the coffee industry have been doing since about 1990 onwards, in terms of aiming to redefine what coffee can be, by focussing on quality and craftsmanship, by making improvements at every single stage from farm to cup, by treating coffee as a fresh, seasonal product, and as a culinary craft – in the same sort of way good chefs treat great food and ingredients.
Interestingly, there are varied reactions to the term ‘Third Wave’ amongst even those coffee professionals working within speciality coffee, and not everyone finds it a useful term. There are various perspectives on this. The modern movement generally is diverse, and in a constant state of flux and evolution. Some people feel we have already moved beyond the initial third wave, into further waves. Some would say that the term properly applies only to those roasters and cafes offering the more ‘bleeding edge’ very light roasts, etc, whilst there are others crafting equally high quality, artisanal coffee, but in a slightly different, less extreme way. Some people, even though they work within the artisan area that the term alludes to, find the phrase somewhat vacuous, self-aggrandising, elitist, cliquey, or unhelpful, and as such, dislike it. Some people feel that the term, and the movement it describes, is often hijacked by those who care less about sincere genuine skill and quality, and more about just associating themselves with something they see as ‘cool’ or ‘in’. And similarly, some are less keen on the term because there are also those (individuals, companies, and organisations) who hijack it purely for the purposes of marketing spin or commercial gain.
Regardless all these differing, and often relevant, standpoints, I and many others still feel the phrase is a valid, useful and helpful one. I hesitate about defending the term as such (the term, not the movement it refers to), because of the validity of some of the points listed above, but I do think it is still a worthwhile phrase, when not mis-used. It is a generally accepted term, and concept, in the industry that provides a simple, easily recognised umbrella phrase that encapsulates all the key defining aspects of what the modern, speciality artisan coffee movement is about, as opposed to other styles, despite its varied niches.
A challenging brew-method.
Achieving truly great espresso is a challenging endeavour that is dependent on numerous factors being carefully controlled at every stage in the process. So many variables can affect the espresso and hinder the delivery of the original potential of the beans. The espresso process is notoriously unpredictable from shot to shot, and achieving consistency and repeatability is one of the holy grails within the craft. Even good espresso is something of an acquired taste, and if something is amiss, espresso can be concentratedly bad, meaning that unfortunately many people’s experience of espresso can be a negative one. Even the best beans in the world can be ruined (or at least not allowed to show their full potential) if the barista is not skilled, when a good barista uses below-par machinery, or even when a shot just simply fails to reach the heights it might have, for all sorts of minute reasons.
Additionally, a crucial point to note:
Freshly roasted speciality arabica coffees (particularly Single Origin coffees, and lighter roasts), as described above, are even more challenging to prepare properly and consistently than other types of coffee. Mainstream, commercial espresso blends are designed to be more ‘forgiving’. They are designed to be used stale, and in a more standardised and more easily repeatable way. They are blended and roasted for easy crema formation, and to make the generic ‘coffee’ flavour that most people ‘expect’, more easily achievable. Speciality arabicas however, by the very nature of their seasonality, their varied characteristics, and ideally their freshness from roast, make them a constantly moving target. Each new coffee will have its own special flavours, brewing parameters, and ‘sweet spot’ that you have to work to discover, and to maintain, as the conditions, and the coffee, change. The target really is moving constantly – certainly day by day, and even minute to minute, and shot to shot. They are more challenging, and can require a huge degree of experience and fine tuning in order to experience the very best of what they have to offer. But ultimately, when successfully prepared, they are also far more rewarding, exciting, and delicious. They are in a totally different league!
Therefore, when a successful shot is prepared with great, fresh beans, on clean, quality equipment, by a skilled barista who cares, espresso can, potentially, be a real delicacy.
Still unsure what espresso actually is? Welcome to my world! Understanding espresso (and coffee generally) as a beverage and as a process, can be infuriatingly yet wonderfully complex and confusing! The above description is just one of many that could be equally accurate. For a less biased and more straightforward definition, you can look it up on wikipedia.