The Pacific Northwest is a haven for specialty beverages from a thriving wine industry to craft beer nirvana, but coffee still wins the prize as the PNW’s iconic brew. Throughout the last millennium, this humble little seed has worked its way from the Ethiopian highlands near Kaffa into your daily latte, with a few thousand stops in between.
The allure of coffee is multifaceted. The aroma alone is often the catalyst for leaving a warm bed. It is hot and soothing, great for warming chilly hands around the mug and the body from the inside out. And let’s not forget about the lifesaving power of caffeine.
But why is Seattle synonymous with coffee? The answer requires another S word—Starbucks.
The era “before Starbucks” (er, B.S.?) is generally referred to as the First Wave of coffee, represented by the mass-produced, preground coffee in a can like the fictitious Juan Valdez and his burro on a tin of Colombian popularized during the early 1960s. In 1966, Dutch American Alfred Peet opened Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley, California, selling strong, freshly roasted beans. Five years later, Peet demonstrated his roasting techniques to the lads who started a little company in Pike Place Market called Starbucks. Throughout the 1970s, Starbucks only sold beans; it didn’t brew beverages yet.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Starbucks began selling espresso-based beverages in a coffeehouse setting. This represents the beginning of the Second Wave, featuring the concept of a “third place” fostering community over a cup of coffee. It could be argued that Starbucks has done more for the popularization of the Italian language than Dante.
Philip Meech, owner of Caffè Lusso and industry veteran since the mid-1990s, gives Starbucks’ owners big props for how they run the retail coffee business. “There are so many things they are doing right,” he says, including giving customers exactly the kind of experience they want from paint colors to music. Meech quotes Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz’s famous line: “We are not in the coffee business serving people; we are in the people business serving coffee.”
During Starbucks’ rise to world domination (currently, more than 23,000 stores in 71 countries), our PNW palates became more refined. Trends came and went (e.g., flavored coffees, ultra-sweet caramel macchiatos), independent coffee shops sprung up and local roasters wooed customers through smaller batch methods.
The early 2000s formed the Third Wave in American coffee culture, a generation less concerned with the coffeehouse and more concerned with the coffee itself. Meech says, “We are trying to get people to stop drinking coffee and start tasting coffee.”
Everything from sourcing and the social impact of coffee farming on growers to roasting techniques to brewing methods has been analyzed under a microscope, so to speak. Free Trade, hailed as the answer to unfair low wages for growers and pickers, rarely benefits individual workers because it works only with co-ops of growers and still processes through many levels of middlemen and their palms to grease.
Local coffee companies such as Caffè Lusso Coffee Roasters, Rococo Coffee Roasting, Zoka Coffee Roasting Co. and Mercurys Coffee Co. now rely more on direct trade—as in, directly flying to a coffee growing region and directly meeting farmers face-to-face. Zoka’s owner Jeff Babcock coined it “Family Direct Trade.” This method ensures that the coffee is being grown to organic or sustainable standards and that the farmers and workers are actually receiving the money for their labors. As a result, the coffee bean quality is generally better.
Another hallmark of the early Third Wave was the dark roast, further distancing West Coast from East Coast coffee culture. This bold, often bitter, brew perfectly characterized the PNW tough, lumberjack roots—a darker roast for a darker corner of the country. Roasters like Meech have resisted dark roasts, claiming his beans are always roasted “to the point of nuance.” In other words, each batch is roasted as long as it needs to be.
Current trends, like single origin coffees have made huge inroads lately. Just like vineyard-specific wines, single origin coffees are usually high-quality but low yield, hence the elevated price tag. And many modern coffee consumers have traded in their Bunn or Mr. Coffee automatic brewers for manual French presses and Chemex pour-over devices.
No doubt, every card-carrying PNWer has heard about cold brew by now, a hot trend, its name notwithstanding. But the newest buzzword in the coffee community is the so-called white or Scandinavian coffee—an ultra-light roast that supposedly contains more caffeine; purists will say it needs to be consumed with no milk or sugar (i.e., drink your white coffee black).
Craig Kerrick, who works with Kirkland-based Rococo Coffee Roasting, says, “The goal is the effect, not the taste...I think it is a macho thing for some people. I think ‘white coffee’ is a fad.”
Though a trend less obvious to consumers, Philip Hand of Mercurys Coffee Co. points out the importance of developing new cultivars to combat la roya, or “coffee rust disease,” ravaging Central American coffee farms. This fungus has ruined as much as 40 percent of the crop and can be compared to damage phylloxera causes to wine grape vines.
Some argue that we are already entering a Fourth Wave, though what might define it remains elusive. Kerrick says, “I will be happy when I see more people get the first three waves right.” Meech echoes this sentiment saying, “In 20 years, we will be where the Italians were 50 years ago,” which could mean coffee shops trading in expensive electronic espresso machines for low-tech Italian-made Bosco lever systems. Sometimes simpler is better.
Special Brews on the Eastside
Caffè Lusso Coffee Roasters
“Always about the taste. Only about the taste.”
Literally named “luxurious coffee” roaster, based in Redmond. Exclusive coffee provider for Café Cesura in Bellevue, Lisa Dupar Catering and the Microsoft Executive Building. Owner Philip Meech donates 10 percent of “Rescue: Freedom” label gross proceeds to Rescue:
Caffelusso.com and Rescuefreedom.org
Mercurys Coffee Co.
“Outrageously Good Coffee!®”
Drive-through coffee stands, based in Woodinville. Consistently voted “Best Coffee” by locals in various competitions. Owner Morgan Harris is committed to exclusively certified-organic beans.
Rococo Coffee Roasting
“Great Coffee. Strong Relationships. Tireless Service.”
Coffee roaster and café located in Kirkland. Wholesale partners with Cactus restaurants and Lowell’s at Pike Place Market. Local owner Adam Olsen believes that the tireless pursuit of service differentiates them from the competition. Rocococoffee.com
Zoka Coffee Roasting Co.
“Community is the fuel that drives Zoka Coffee.”
Family direct trade building personal and economic relationships with coffee farmers. Roaster based in Seattle with cafés throughout the region; coffee partner with the Bellevue Club. Owner Jeff Babcock is a “Q” grader on international panel of judges for “Cup of Excellence.” Zokacoffee.com