They are devotees of freshness who identify aromas of cherry in their coffee. They may be snobs, but they gladly swap the elegance of a suit for an extra shot of soul. They are what we call ‘coffee snobs’.
So who exactly are these third-wave coffee lovers, coffee geeks, coffee aficionados or indeed coffee snobs, as they have come to be known? They are bobos (bourgeois-bohème) and hipsters. Bearded, with tortoiseshell glasses, faded mustard trousers with careful turn-ups, and body-hugging t-shirts, they busily tap lines of code into their MacBook Air. Or so the cliché goes. This may be true in the independent coffee shops of San Francisco, helped by the proximity of Silicon Valley, but it is less accurate for the rest of the world. Instead, Mandabatmaz, in Istanbul, attracts a clientele of young intellectuals who debate politics and the future of Turkey alongside a coffee prepared in time-honoured fashion (see inset). The Boréal Coffee Shop in Geneva is a haunt for both time-pressed business people and groups of friends hanging out together. Coffee snobs are above all those who appreciate the finer details of coffee drinking. Curious, attentive, demanding, all they want is that every stage in the preparation of the precious elixir is perfect1.
The evolution of coffee culture
Coffee was an elite pleasure for a long period of time. The beverage became democratised with the increase in the number of plantations and the invention of freeze-dried coffee and was soon to be found in every household. This may be considered the first wave in the history of coffee. Coffee culture made its debut in the 1980s, thanks to chains like Starbucks, which brought Italian espresso to the United States. So it was that customers used to ‘dishwater’ coffee were introduced to an entirely different kind of drink. This second wave, which had little impact in Europe, was a real revolution on the other side of the Atlantic. There the tendency was to serve characterless ‘free refill’ coffee prepared in large jugs and kept warm for hours. About fifteen years later, we are in the middle of a third wave. This one is driven by independent coffee shops which are passionate about the details of the production process. Their quest is for a superior quality coffee that offers their clients an exhilarating sensory experience. This new culture of coffee emerged on the west coast of the United States and rapidly built up followers to become a global phenomenon.
The passion for coffee now stretches worldwide. From Tokyo to Montreal, Reykjavik to Buenos Aires, independent coffee bars are flourishing in cities, bringing with them a hitherto unknown coffee culture. The drink is no longer seen as a dose of caffeine for casual drinking, but as a quality product to be enjoyed with care and attention. With this new way of drinking coffee, it is the growers who are now in the spotlight. Quality and aroma depend on how they care for the coffee plants in the fields. They know each plot by heart and work tirelessly day after day to produce berries that encase quality coffee beans, bursting with the aromas of the land on which they grow. It is now a must for any independent café owner worthy of the name to visit growers personally, to get to know them and build up a long-term relationship
Next up are the coffee roasters and baristas. The former are responsible for bringing coffee beans to the right temperature for careful roasting, while the latter are not merely servers, but veritable experts. They work with near-obsessive precision in order to choose the ideal grind, pressure and extraction time in order to bring out all the qualities of the specific bean. They also work on educating the tastes of new customers, initiating them in the characteristics of single-origin coffees and proper spelling: no espressos spelled with an ‘x’, please!
If the cosy Mandabatmaz café in Istanbul is rarely empty, it is not necessarily due to the fine aromatic notes of the beverages on offer. People come here to rediscover the traditional preparation techniques of Turkish coffee, which have themselves become rare in public coffee houses. The owner, Cemil Pilik, works tirelessly behind the counter all day long, preparing cup after cup by heating up just the right amount of water with very finely ground coffee in the cezve, a small copper recipient with a long handle. If desired, sugar is added straight away. The temperature rises, the mixture reaches boiling point and the high sides of the cezve favour the formation of foam, which is then deposited in the customer’s cup. The expert coffee maker returns the pot to the flame for a few more seconds, allowing it to simmer, then fills up the cup with the boiling mixture.