Coffee's Third Wave (Finally) Washes Ashore in Seattle

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

The city of Seattle has a substantial population of freelancers—and I am one of them. That means I spend a lot of time seeking out good places to work outside of my house, where my only coworker, a mutt named Alice, barks maniacally every time she sees a squirrel through the window. Thankfully, Seattle has coffee shops. In fact, the city has more of them per capita (35 for every 100,000 residents) than anywhere else in the United States. To be sure, caffeine serves a function here—it helps lift our spirits, as well as our energy levels, in a city where it rains three days a week on average, and is overcast even more often than that.

But lately, something has been happening with coffee in Seattle. This has long been an espresso town, and a place where dark, chocolaty roasts reign supreme, but that tradition is slowly giving way to a fresh appreciation for the enormous diversity of flavors that can be pulled from a coffee bean. Sure, Seattle has been known as a coffee town for a while now. After all, this is the birthplace of Starbucks, as well as many lesser-known but locally beloved shops, like Espresso Vivace, Victrola Coffee Roasters, Caffe Vita, and Lighthouse Roasters. Seattle's first European-style coffeehouses opened in the late '50s and early '60s as hip hangouts for college kids in the University District, and espresso has been the dominant style here since the early '80s, when a young, forward-thinking Seattleite named Kent Bakke began importing and selling La Marzocco espresso machines from Italy. A young company called Starbucks bought one and, at the urging of eventual CEO Howard Schultz, who was enamored of the espresso drinks he had tasted in Italy, began selling espresso, cappuccinos, and lattes. In some respects, while Seattle is thought of by many as the birthplace of great coffee in the United States, it was also sort of, well, the demise of it, as over the years companies like Starbucks began to introduce drinks calibrated to appeal to the broadest market possible—drinks that were more about milk and added flavorings, like chocolate, caramel, and pumpkin, than they were about the flavor of the coffee beans themselves.

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Industry people talk about the history of coffee in the US as having three waves: The first, in the early 20th century, brought mass-produced coffee into every household with help from vacuum packaging and ready-to-brew products, like Maxwell House and Folgers. The second, pioneered by companies like Peet's Coffee, which launched in 1966, and Starbucks, in 1971, emphasized the flavor, freshness, and social experience of specialty coffee. And the "third wave," a term coined in the early 2000s, approaches coffee as a nuanced craft beverage, like wine or beer, paying careful attention to where the beans are grown and how they are processed, roasted, and brewed—the myriad factors that affect coffee's flavor. If you've enjoyed coffee from Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, or Stumptown, you've surfed the third wave. For decades, Seattle has been the second wave's mecca and its greatest champion, but the third wave has been slower to arrive here than it has in other places.

For one thing, in a place where it's easy to get good coffee, there's not a lot of impetus to change. Seattle hasn't needed to move on from the second wave we helped to start. "This city has deep traditions and pride around its coffee," Chelsey Walker-Watson, co-owner and retail manager of Slate Coffee Bar, told me. Coffee is a common language that Seattleites expect one another to speak. "People here know a lot about coffee, and they know how they like to drink it. It's a part of our personal identity," Walker-Watson says. "And people here have craved a certain flavor profile: chocolate, nuts, earth, smoke, Italian-style espresso flavors. We've tended to think that this is how coffee should taste, rather than thinking of every bean as a complex, unique thing."

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You might say Seattle needs more coffee the way New York needs more pizza, but somehow there are more roasters and cafés here today than ever before—particularly small, independent ones like Slate, focused on single-origin coffees and non-espresso brewing methods, like pourover, which many aficionados claim is a better way to taste a coffee's subtler flavors. And, market saturation be damned, in the past few years the city has been quick to embrace the third wave it didn't know it needed. In many ways, coffee in Seattle is new again.

Slate Coffee is the brainchild of Walker-Watson's brother Keenan Walker, the company's head roaster, and their mother, Lisanne, coffee obsessives who, after taking a roasting class, decided to turn their hobby into a business. "Keenan had been working in finance and accounting, but he's a dreamer, a real entrepreneur. He has 20 ideas going at a time and is always trying to tame them. When he learned to roast, he learned production-level roasting. He just leapfrogged right in," Walker-Watson says. "At the time, I was a manager and trainer at Peet's. Keenan came to me and said, 'Mom and I are starting a coffee company, and I want you to join us.' I was like, 'That's insane!'" Before launching, mother and son traveled down the West Coast to Portland and the Bay Area, tasting coffees and visiting cafés and roasters, and then went on to Italy and Berlin. "My brother wanted to roast a lighter style, a sweet and nuanced coffee. The Seattle market doesn't have much of that style. There was room for us." They would serve pourover coffee, but also a simple espresso menu: just espresso and a few options for espresso drinks with milk. Their espresso is as thick and velvety as any, but because of Walker's lighter roasting style, it tastes brighter and more delicate than the dark, chocolaty espresso Seattle is known for. Slate opened the first of its three cafés in 2013, on a residential street in the Ballard neighborhood, a quirky, minimal box of a building sandwiched between a bungalow and the curb, barely larger than the espresso machine it houses. There is no overhead menu or cash register, just a bar and stools where you can perch to watch the baristas.

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"People expect that kind of service in a restaurant or bar, but we've come to see coffee as fast food—you queue up, order, wait for someone to call your name," says Walker-Watson. Walking into Slate was an entirely new experience for me: As I stepped through the door, the barista behind the bar greeted me warmly, and, because the lack of an obvious menu forced me to actually talk with her, we were on a first-name basis by my second visit. And my macchiato was served up in a cordial glass. "It's hard to elevate the appreciation of coffee, of the farming practices or roasts, if [the fast food model] is the only model you have. We wanted to try a social experiment, a coffee shop where people engage with each other and with us."

"When we started roasting in 2007, we were just trying to show people that there were distinct flavors in coffee," says Mark Barany, head roaster and co-owner (with his wife, Liz) of Kuma Coffee, which takes its name from the Barany family dog. "For the first couple of years, we got a lot of pushback. Besides Stumptown, there was almost no one doing single-origin coffees in Seattle back then. Everyone was doing blends." Barany took up the coffee trade while working full time as an IT manager, roasting just half a pound at a time in a cheap countertop machine and selling the results to friends in order to justify his continued geekery. "We traveled and drank coffee all over," he says. "San Francisco and Portland were ahead of us in the game. We were really curious about what we tasted there, and we asked a lot of questions: Why does the coffee from a certain place taste different than the coffee grown somewhere else? What does elevation have to do with flavor?"

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Fellow Seattle native Brendan Mullally (pictured above) opened Elm Coffee Roasters, his bright, airy café and roastery in historic Pioneer Square, with a similar emphasis on customer experience and a desire to do single-origin, lighter roasts that taste approachable, never sour or vegetal. Like Slate, Elm serves both espresso and brewed coffee, but instead of pourover, Mullally has opted to batch-brew, allowing him to give his customers both quick service and a precise, meticulous cup he can be proud of. "We use a refractometer to measure extraction [how much coffee flavor is being drawn from the grounds] and solutes [how much soluble coffee is in the brewed coffee, or how strong it is]. We pour it out and start fresh every 25 minutes, if it's not sold," he says. Mullally, who cut his teeth at Peet's in Seattle before putting in seven years at New York's Joe, slogged through nine banks before securing the loan that allowed him to open Elm, which takes its name from his wife, Emily's, initials. Lately, some of my most productive workdays have been spent at a table by the shop's light-filled front window, but I'm not the only one who's glad that Mullally persevered. Elm's coffees are brewed in restaurants and coffee shops all over town and, farther afield, at Los Angeles' celebrated Sqirl. Slate's Walker-Watson is excited to watch the wave as it crests, to see how Seattle's coffee culture evolves. "Seattle is young again," she says.

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Even Starbucks is getting into the spirit. In late 2014, less than a dozen blocks from its first location, Starbucks opened the Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room: a 15,000-square-foot roastery-slash-pleasure-palace focused on rare, micro-lot coffees, brewed via pourover, Chemex, French press, siphon, espresso, and Clover. It's an unmistakable symbol of the movement that's afoot across the industry, from the tiniest mom-and-pop (or mom-and-brother-and-sister, as it were) to established leaders, to explore and express coffee in new ways.

"When we started roasting, we had people saying, 'What are you doing? This is a saturated market!' Well, that was almost 10 years ago," says Kuma's Mark Barany. He now roasts 10,000 pounds of carefully sourced, hand-picked coffee each month in Kuma's warehouse near Fishermen's Terminal, cupping a sample from every single batch out of the roaster. "Being in Seattle is motivating," he says, "because people get what we're trying to do."

"And being here," Liz adds, "it's less likely that, after we go to all this trouble, someone will dump it in a quad mocha with whipped cream."