Saturday, December 5, 2009
A couple thoughts today.

First, I spent a hot minute in a local coffeeshop, Tilt, yesterday. The shop is located in Castleberry Hill, on Atlantas southwest side.  It's Atlanta's loft district, I suppose, with loads of historic manufacturing and warehousing spaces having been renovated in years past.  The district itself tends to be rather slow, with regrettably little foot traffic, but opens up a few times a month when the district puts on loft and art strolls for the public. 

Anyways, Castleberry aside, Tilts space is fantastic.  I believe the space was converted from an auto mechanics shop or something, judging by the large garage door that makes up the front of the shop, which is opened up on nice days letting a little fresh air into the place.  The walls are lined with these sleek floating tables, suspended from the ceiling with sturdy metallic cord, like a robots fishing line.  Also lining the walls are the artworks of local artists, with a budding art program that cycles fresh work in monthly.  The rest of the space is taken up by minimalist contemporary furniture in neutral tones so as to emphasize the color of the art on the walls. 

The whole of the space was well-thought-out and inviting, for all the modernism of the decor.  A back room holds a few couches, some flat screens and a bar/counter with stools.  This area is used sometimes as a second gallery, sometimes for conferencing, sometimes just as spillover room during the busier art strolls.  The store itself took its name from the iconic floor, which declines at a very modest grade.

The store uses Counter Culture Coffee, a local favorite.  They practice fair-trade, direct trade and support organically-grown beans.  All fantastic practices which I will discuss in more detail in a moment.  I had a total of four shots of Espresso La Forza, a Seattle-eque espresso heavy in veggie notes and dark chocolate notes.  It's a savory shot that took a moment to acclimate to, but once I got past the fact that this wasn't going to be a particularly SWEET shot, I started to notice some of the more subtle flavors.  It was a bit lemony, the finish a bit caramelly.  It had a thick crema of rich browns that wasn't half bad all by itself.  It was a little less bright than some of CC's other espresso offerings.  Overall, the espresso was good, if not just a tad too dark for my liking.

Besides espresso, the shop makes all manner of milk-based drinks and does pour-overs for everyday foot traffic.  I believe the barista on hand mentioned they make an airpot of brew for the heavier morning traffic, but then phase that out in favor of pour-over as the day wears on.  This is a good practice.  It saves the subtleties of the coffee by sparing it the abuses of a burner and time to go flat.  If you're hungry, they have pastries, sandwiches, soups, salads, snacks and smoothies.

All-in-all, Tilt is a great little shop that is coming into its own.  The baristas have a passion for their craft and fully support their product.  It's not too noisy, so it makes a great place to spend a dreary afternoon, at least until the rest of Atlanta catches on and gives Castleberry the attention it deserves.

And now for the heavier stuff: Sustainability practices and how they apply to third-wave coffee!

It's necessary to define some terms.

Fair Trade
Direct Trade
Organic Farming

It is becoming commonplace to describe retail coffee efforts in terms of mainstream consumption surges and their overall dedication to craft.  Together, these two abstract descriptors of coffee are dubbed "waves." 

As a basic breakdown, the first wave occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s as companies like Folgers and Eight O Clock Coffee became common staples in both grocers and pantries across the country.  The first wave is typified by low-quality beans purchased and roasted en masse, and sold affordably to the average coffee drinker.  These products make for a passable morning drink, but manage to commoditize coffee in the process.

The second wave of coffee occured in the 1960s with the explosive retail expansion of Peets Coffee in Washington State and Dunkin Donuts across much of the South, and continued with Starbucks and Caribou in the late 1980s.  Recently, McDonalds has expanded its coffee program, stepping up its game in an effort to remain competitive in the beverage industry.  It is in the second wave that you also see brands such as Illy, that have made a name for themselves by providing one high quality blend on a mass scale.  More care is given in the second wave to compensating growers than is in the first wave, and the focus of the drinks rides a fine line between quality and profitability.

America is now in the throes of the third wave of coffee, a movement mirroring the "Slow Food" craze in the food industry in the 1990s.  Companies like Counter Culture Coffee and Intelligensia are developing lasting relationships with coffee growers around the world, going to great lengths to provide applicable and meaningful feedback to farms in an effort to produce the best quality coffee possible.  Also riding the third wave are the independent coffee shops across the country that choose to roast their own beans, or focus on the craft of making espresso and coffee drinks, rather than moving mass volumes of product.  Shops such as Victrola Coffee Roasters in Seattle, Stumptown in New York, Intelligensia's outposts in both Chicago and Los Angeles, and even San Francisco Coffee Roasters in Atlanta all roast their own beans, in house, in an effort to find the best possible roast profiles for each of the beans they import.  Shops in Atlanta such as Aurora Coffee, Octane Coffee Bar and CafeNineteen differentiate themselves by, among other things, pouring Latte Art.  It may be thought of as the signature on a potable piece of art.  For a more detailed description of the technique, refer here.  There are even popping up regarding shops and roasters using environmentally-conscious facilities in an effort to combat needless waste.

It is this attention to detail that epitomizes third-wave mentality.

Now, it isn't enough to simply roast your own beans in-house, or pour latte art, or to provide cups and lids made from recycled products.  Sure, these practices could better the industry in the long run, and a bit of social consciousness is good for the environment as well, but cherry-picking ones favorite third-wave practices while dispelling others is no way to further specialty coffee as a whole.  These days, coffee people understand that a good cup is as much about the journey of the bean, from plant to mug, as it is about the end product, and that the painstaking detail that goes into sourcing and roasting and brewing all ultimately lead to an exemplary cup of coffee.

The question I ask is, is it possible for a company to employ these often-exhaustive "third-wave" practices and still remain profitable.  I would certainly like to think it is.  It strikes me, as a coffee person, that it is worth paying a premium for a product made with care.  A shot of espresso and some hot milk are nothing special in and of themselves.  Rather, it is the connection the consumer makes to the journey of the bean and the rich history of the drink that makes a cappuccino or a french press worth paying 5 dollars for.  It is the idea that those small beans are being handled and prepared by one whose life is dedicated, at that moment, to presenting to you the finest beverage you have ever consumed.  That sort of passion does not go by unnoticed, and there will always be a market for it.

I invite commentary.


Daniel Stewart Mueller at 3:26 PM |


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At December 16, 2009 at 1:08 PM, Anonymous Hunt Slade said........
Dan, great synopsis of the "waves". As a specialty micro-roaster, we put what most people would think of as an unnecessary amount of time into selecting each bean in our inventory and then running each bean through a battery of tests and experiments to find its best roasting profile for our needs. However, having a shop as well, we then have to take that properly roasted bean and run it through even further testing to assess what brewing methods to which it is best suited. Some of our coffees sing in a Chemex, others, in a press; others, still, in a tricked-out Aeropress or a siphon. Then, of course, is the espresso. A world unto itself, spro is a wondrous play land of variables, any of which produce an entirely different drink, singular in quality from any other combination of parameters. Volumetric measuring went out the window long ago in favor of scales, homing in on the exact dose for a given prep method. With no automatic brewers in house (save our classic Linea AV4), all of this adds up to a coffee experience with a much more leisurely pace. This makes us a favorite for many and a nuisance for some. It costs more for both us and the consumer, but the result is a coffee experience, not just a caffeine bump gulped down in a minute of not really spareable time. Businesses like us are not everyone's coffee shop and we had to come to terms with this when we opened. Could we make more money with cheaper product produced in larger quantities? Perhaps, but at what true cost? Good coffee, to us, has much more value than the cost of a delicious Chemexed liquor de microlot. It is good for the farmer, the farm, the village, really everyone and everything it touches.

Through all of this, I would rather explain price and a four-minute wait for a coffee once than apologize for a lesser quality for ever, or even worse, have so little interaction and relationship with the customer as to be generally irrelevant to one another. Considering all of our internally expensive practices, I am happy to say that we are profitable financially, even in an extremely rural small town at the edge of Atlantan suburbia. My conscience and love for the bean would not let me practice coffee in any other fashion. Very simply, its not worth the money to do it any other way. Thanks for posing the question.

Hunt Slade
Safehouse Coffee and Tea

At December 24, 2009 at 7:50 PM, Blogger Daniel Stewart Mueller said........
Well put, Hunt. I think what it all comes down to is your target market. A coffee person will never mind waiting a couple minutes more for a great drink, and those who do mind waiting will ultimately be better served at a shop that gives them their product in a shorter timeframe. You cater to who you cater to, and someone will always want what you have to offer.

I heard an interesting stat the other day. India has a middle class that's larger than the population of the United States. Think of the implications.