The scene goes like this; it’s beyond cold outside, early in the morning (well early for me) and I’m a little dusty after last night’s boozy dinner that got a bit looser than originally anticipated. I’m sitting at a beautifully crafted bar in Melbourne’s Aunty Pegs – one of my favourite places to drink coffee, which is a good thing because coffee is definitely needed at this point in time. I’ve come here to meet up with owner Nolan Hirte for a chat about ‘the fourth wave’.
If you’re new to specialty coffee and have no idea what this ‘wave’ business is all about, all you really need to know is that to date, there have been three periods of significant development in the industry that have brought about a change to the way things are done. The first wave dates back to the 1800’s and was all about mass production and convenience for consumers, instant coffee was king. The second wave came about during the early 1970’s as coffee chains started marketing ‘quality’ as an important factor in the equation and consumers focused on chasing a ‘café experience’. The third wave kicked off at the start of the 2000’s and has been driven by a desire to improve what’s actually in the cup. Roasters and drinkers wanted to know more about where their coffee came from and there has been an industry wide shift towards lighter roasting styles that now aim to bring out the best cup qualities from the beans. As far as I’m concerned this is when we first started entering ‘specialty coffee’ territory. End of wave lesson.
Back at Aunty Pegs I’ve just finished my first Proud Mary Coffee espresso and the fogginess is starting to disperse. Nolan jumps into the stool next to me and the coffee talk begins to flow as we share a freshly made croissant from the bakery upstairs (which are ridiculously delicious I might add). It’s happy days for Nolan who’s just landed his coffees from El Salvador. Nothing was left to chance, so the greens were shipped in temperature-controlled containers set at a blissful 19˚C. It’s always hard to tell if Nolan is wired on caffeine or just full of energy because he’s so passionate about his craft. I think more often than not it’s the latter. He is after all, a coffeenerd king and we’re sitting in his castle.
Opposite us is Paul Lee who’s working the coffee bar with an attention to detail that can only be described as meticulous. The extraction processes that unfold are so well dialled it’s hard to imagine things could be improved further. Curious to know Nolan’s thoughts on where specialty coffee could possibly head next, I pose the question “what’s the fourth wave?”. He takes his time before replying “at the two ends”. What he’s referring to are the two ends of the process. Transport, storage, roasting, cupping and extraction are things most coffee brands already get right so Nolan believes the biggest improvements that can now be made will come through collaborating with the farmers at origin and also through improvements in the delivery of coffee to a customer in the actual café.
We’ll start at the beginning – origin. According to Nolan the next frontier in specialty coffee is going to come through developments in natural process coffee. “It’s pure but hard and needs to be done right. Washed coffee is safer and cleaner but naturals have massive potential. [As an industry] we should be aiming for better quality not a simpler process” exclaims Nolan. I couldn’t agree more. How many times have you sipped on a natural process filter brew and been left a little unsatisfied? A lot of roasters seem hesitant to play with these beans because there’s a risk of a rather funky cup at the other end, full of fermented notes that can provide a rather dull drinking experience. Nolan believes in order to get a good natural process coffee it takes a lot of collaboration with the farmers at origin to ensure the coffee is being handled properly before it even gets to the roaster. He gives me an example with the drying process; “they need to be turned every 15 minutes for eleven days to get even drying. It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it”. The guys serve me up an El Salvador Noruega, a natural process Bourbon. As far as palate awakenings go, this coffee was pretty mind blowing for me. Bright with hits of strawberry jam acidity up top, yet super balanced by a decent bottom end filled with sweet chocolate notes. This is not your ordinary natural and if it’s anything to go by, I’d say it’s about time roasters started putting in the hard yards with their farmers and started paying more attention to this particular processing method – a lot more attention.
What about the other end of chain? What can be done in the café that’s going to push us forward as an industry to a new level? Education and delivery to the customer. Physically speaking, the Aunty Pegs space is geared around delivery. It’s open with everything on show, it’s a bar and the countersunk, separated Synesso espresso machines do a stellar job at promoting communication between barista and drinker. “We want front line engagement, to find out where you are at now and increase your knowledge from there” says Nolan. Speaking like a passionate teacher he continues, “the ultimate customer is one who orders a latte… how do we get them to try something new?”. I really value this kind of attitude and the way Aunty Pegs rises to the challenge. It’s all too easy to convince a coffeenerd to try a new geisha from the filter bar but persuading someone who’s only ever ordered a milky coffee to part with eight dollars for an ‘oddball’ drink they’ve never heard of can be tough going. That’s where the delivery to the customer becomes so important. At Aunty Pegs you’ll get a full rundown of the coffee from the barista, where it’s come from, who made it, how it was processed and why the particular method was used. They’ll help you decide which coffee to order with genuine enthusiasm and a desire to have you order a drink that you not only enjoy but also one that pushes you into territory that’s new for your palate. The baristas will bring over the fresh grounds for you to smell pre-extraction, a whetting of the appetite so to speak. After you get your coffee and you’re happily sipping away the staff will ask you how it is, though it’s not done in the throwaway manner this question is usually posed with, here the staff really do want to know what you’re getting out of your coffee so they can continue the conversation. The great news is this is only the beginning and I think it’s going to be fascinating to see how coffee shops step up their game when it comes to customer engagement through education.
Is this the fourth wave? I have no idea… but it’s pretty damn cool either way.
Where do you think the industry is headed next? Have your say in the comments below.