National Coffee Day last week got me thinking about coffee and how far the black brew has come from the days of my youth, when my parents finally allowed me to join them in their morning ritual of sipping steaming cups of instant coffee.
I remember the instant coffee tasted bitter and slightly chemical but drinking it made me feel like I had at last become a grown-up.
Instant coffee was considered very modern in territorial Hawaii. It was perceived as a beverage for busy people. We saw it as more sophisticated than Folgers or Hills Brothers, which was sold ground-in-the-factory and pressure packed in tin cans.
Most of this mass-produced coffee in the pre-Mr. Coffee days was brewed in electric coffee percolators.
Never mind that both instant coffee and ground coffee tasted terrible. It was all we knew back then.
Coffee historians call that era — stretching from the early 1900s until the late 1950s — the “first wave” of coffee. It was a time when coffee was consumed at home or in restaurants or at diners from the so-called “bottomless cup” served in heavy mugs along with cheeseburgers and fries and homemade pies.
The “second wave” of coffee started in the early 1960s when the stylish started going out to cafes to drink espresso. The Beatnik Generation popularized this new social activity in America.
Gradually, cafe society with its individually owned establishments started to evolve in the 1970s to today’s ubiquitous chain store cafes such as Peet’s and Starbucks.
But all that is changing fast. Some coffee lovers need a lot more today to be satisfied than a simple latte or an espresso from Starbucks.
We are in the so-called “third wave” of coffee. Once again, hipsters are going to individually owned cafes. But now, the brew is a lot more expensive, $4 to $6 for a single cup of regular coffee. With no refills.
Even Starbucks is getting into the third wave with its shrine to coffee called Starbucks Roastery and Tasting Room that opened in Seattle in 2014. The sleek establishment offers rare coffees and what the company calls an “immersive coffee experience.” And some of Starbucks regular stores are beginning to offer some of the coffee preparation techniques popular in third-wave cafes.
Third-wave coffee is custom roasted, custom ground, and single sourced, meaning it is one type of bean rather than a blend of different coffee beans.
“You don’t just ask the server if the roast is dark or medium. You ask, ‘What farm did it come from?’” says Sumner Ohye, owner of the Curb, a tiny coffee establishment on Waialae Avenue in Kaimuki.
Ohye’s cafe and the other third wave shops in Honolulu serve individually brewed cups of coffee, made with careful temperature controls — not like the scalding, sometimes burned-tasting espresso drinks you get at many Starbucks and other mass-market chain stores.
Ohye doesn’t offer ordinary syrups to customers who want flavor boosts in their coffee. The Curb features syrups made in his shop with lavender from Alii Kula Lavender Farm on Maui, fresh vanilla beans grown on Maui and rosemary and macadamia nuts from the Big Island.
“They offer flavors here you can’t get anywhere else,” says Wilhelmina Rise resident Amy Saiki, who was sipping a lavender latte.
When a customer orders a cup of coffee in a third-wave establishment, it can be akin to selecting a specialty cocktail at a fancy bar. Discussion will ensue about the details of the different beans. Then it can take up to five minutes to make a brew to the customer’s satisfaction. It’s an experience.
“A good cup of coffee doesn’t just happen. We try to make our coffee as intentionally as possible,” says Ohye.
Ohye has just opened another artisan coffee shop in Kailua. And as we chat, he rolls off a list of other recently opened third-wave places such as 9Bar HNL in Kakaako, Kona Coffee Purveyors in the International Market Place and ARS Cafe at Diamond Head.
“It’s an interesting time for coffee in Hawaii, “ he says.
What’s interesting is the new styles of brewing coffee in the new artisan shops.
Coffee scientist Shawn Steiman says some of the third-wave methods of brewing coffee are actually a return to slower, more old-fashioned methods such as French press or brewing with a Chemex,
Steiman owns the Daylight Mind Coffee Co. in Kona and Waikoloa where the coffee is sourced from small local farms and Chemex is offered as a brew method.
Chemex is a glass carafe filter coffee maker with a wooden collar designed in 1941 by the German inventor Peter Schlumbohm.
Cafes are also returning to individual pour-overs like the Melitta-filtered coffee we used to do at home.
However, the machinery to brew something as simple as a pour-over can be elaborate and expensive.
Barista Roland Longstreet makes his pour-overs at ARS Cafe using two Modbar pour-over machines, each one costing about $3,600.
“The machine slowly pulses temperature-controlled water over the coffee grounds for a single cup of coffee. In the normal Starbucks type coffee, the coffee grounds are flooded with water. With the slow, controlled method you get a more intense and interesting flavor out of the coffee, “ says Longstreet.
Longstreet says his customers now want “a higher quality experience with the potential for bold flavors, not just a drink that wakes you up.”
Hikaru Kumagai, the kitchen manager at ARS, was sent by the cafe to Osaka, Japan, to learn more about the new coffee methods.
“Coffee is moving to the next level. Just a cup of coffee is not good enough now, not even for iced coffee, “ says Kumagai.
ARS has an elaborate system from Japan called a Yama Drip Tower it uses for making its cold-brew iced coffee.
The Yama method is popular in Japan. Cold water drips through glass vials mounted on the wall with a drop of water falling every three seconds over coffee grounds for eight hours to create a very intensely flavored cold brew.
If that sounds funky and elaborate, consider the even funkier method of making iced coffee called nitro coffee. Nitro coffee is made by putting cold brew coffee in a keg to be infused with odorless and flavorless nitrogen gas and then pulled out of a tap into a glass just like draft beer.
When it pours out of the tap, it looks like dark Guinness Stout with a creamy head on top.
Liz Schwartz serves nitro coffee at her Coffee Talk in Kaimuki. Nitro is also served at the Curb, the 9Bar HNL in Kakaako and Brue Bar cafes that serve nitro coffee in brandy snifters.
Schwartz says, “The nitrogen opens up the flavors, bringing out the chocolate, caramel and hazelnut essence in the coffee. It is just so fantastic.”
Coffee Talk serves the nitro coffee straight up in 16-ounce Mason jars without ice.
“It is so silky and sweet that you can drink it without adding any sugar and cream,” she says.
And if you are looking for a coffee buzz, each nitro coffee serving has twice amount of caffeine as a regular cup of coffee.
It has a drug like effect. When I sip nitro, I feel like the hair is standing up on my arms.
Another new fangled coffee drink Schwartz says is popular, especially with her women customers, is a coffee tonic.
At Coffee Talk, coffee tonics are served by pouring a shot of espresso and Fever Tree Tonic from small individual bottles into a glass full of ice cubes.
“I know it sounds completely repulsive but it is so good, so refreshing. It just works. It’s beautiful,” says Schwartz.
If all this fancy coffee made with elaborate machinery sounds a little pretentious, maybe it is.
Schwartz, who has been in the coffee business for more than 20 years, says she is disinclined to offer some of the more time-consuming third-wave brews in her busy coffee shop.
“If each of my customers had to wait for five minutes for an individually crafted cup of pour-over coffee, I know they would be pissed off,” she says.
In the end, Schwartz says the key is quality.
“If the beans are good and fresh roasted,” she says, “it doesn’t matter how you brew the coffee. It is going to taste good.”
And maybe that will be the fourth wave of coffee. A return to less elaborate methods of coffee fixing but using the high quality beans available today.
Ohye of the Curb predicts the fourth wave of coffee will be a return to people making coffee at home like they did in the old days but with better ingredients and home brewing with what he calls “intentionality.”
“Just like the explosion in home cooking and home cooking TV shows we see today, we will see an explosion in home coffee-making. Once people find out how easy it is to brew quality coffee at home, they will start staying in more,” says Ohye.
But I am wondering if the fourth wave of coffee won’t be even fussier and more technological than the third wave.
I envision virtual reality cafes serving virtual coffee as well as offering exciting methods of delivery such as lavender lattes flown directly from the coffee farms by drones to our homes.
And maybe there will be a 21st century kind of instant coffee that is organic, gluten-free, non-GMO and can be brewed just by thinking about it. Or as Ohye would say, with intentionality.