Third Wave Coffee: The Specialty Bean Scene Reaches SLO

By Jamie Relth | May 15, 2014
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woman fishes through coffee beans
Photo courtesy of The Andean Co.

“Coffee is a fruit.”

It’s the voice of Jon Peterson, who, with his wife, Sara, opened downtown San Luis Obispo’s newest coffee shop, Scout Coffee Co., in January 2014. A simple and perhaps obvious statement, it is nevertheless a pivotal one. It directs consumers to think about the supply chain of coffee and the nature of the coffee cherry itself, which in turn radically changes the way they drink coffee.

This revolution is referred to as the Third Wave. It started with small, off-the-radar companies that now enjoy a cult-like following: Blue Bottle in Oakland; Stumptown in Portland; Intelligentsia in Chicago; Verve in Santa Cruz. And unlike the instant Folgers drinkers of the First Wave or the dark-roast Starbucks drinkers of the Second Wave, the Third Wave is dedicated to honoring the true flavor of the coffee fruit through lighter micro-roasts and handcrafted brew methods.

It’s about transparency and fairness through direct trade with small-lot farmers growing “specialty” or high-quality Arabica coffee beans. Most importantly, though, the Third Wave is dramatically redefining coffee in America. And as with wine, that definition begins with the fruit.


Probably the single biggest buzz term of the Third Wave world is “single origin,” meaning coffee made from a specific varietal (there are said to be 10,000 varietals in Ethiopia alone) grown in just one particular region. Or one farm. Or one micro-lot of one farm.

Pointing at Africa on a world map, Danny Jones of the micro-roaster Dark Nectar, in Templeton, says that typically, coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi have brighter, fruit or floral notes. Demonstrating this with a fresh Ethiopian brew that smells surprisingly of blueberries, he moves his finger along the equator to the rainforests of Indonesia, where earthy, low-acid coffees can be found. South America, he says, offers chocolate and nutty flavors that pair well with milk. Central American coffees tend to have higher acidity.

These are generalizations and simplifications, of course, of what he calls the influence of “the dirt,” or the terroir, in which a coffee was grown. Phil Grant, roaster at Coastal Peaks in San Luis Obispo, says the character of a coffee can’t be predicted; it’s different from year to year, and even from batch to batch of roasts, just as each vintage of a wine is different— some better, some worse—depending on the factors affecting that year’s harvest.

“Put your foot in a river, and it’s never the same river,” Jones says, and for him, that’s part of the fun and lasting infatuation with coffee: the chase for the next great taste.


Sarah Whitmore, owner of The Andean Company, a specialty coffee wholesaler based in Paso Robles, is helping to feed the need for those exotic single-origin flavors and “vintages.” She is one of a relative few able to sell sought-after “green” (unroasted) specialty coffee beans from Ecuador, a country that has historically specialized only in soluble “instant” coffee.

“Ecuador isn’t really known in the market,” she explains. “So, it kind of creates the demand of, ‘Oh, this is something cool and new to try.’”

Offering direct, in-person “farm to buyer” oversight, including proactive farmer education and post-harvest management, Whitmore and her business partner in Ecuador ensure quality at each of the many stages of turning that seductive Galapagos Island or Loja Valley coffee cherry into a specialty coffee bean. This is close to the type of “direct trade” relationship Third Wave roasters seek.

Photo courtesy of Scout Coffee

Peterson, who will soon visit Costa Rica to lay eyes on the lot from which his roaster, Verve, will buy coffee for Scout. He says the goal of direct trade is transparency and accountability—which means for any coffee at Scout, he can tell you the name of the farmer that grew it as well as details on the terroir and the unique flavor profile.

But, Grant warns that the direct trade paradigm is not as simple as it seems. A coffee industry veteran of 20 years who got his start in the “old-school” industrial roasting environment of Coffee Bean International in Portland and who in some ways bridges the gap between Second and Third Wave philosophies, Grant says, “Socially, direct trade is the thing to do.” But in reality, with specialty coffee farms being so small, and their harvest seasons limited, he thinks even the top craft roasters are going to have to work with brokers or cooperatives in order to keep up with demand year-round. “And that’s not really direct trade.”

Nevertheless, unlike the industrial roasters that came before them, he, Jones and Peterson’s contacts at Verve aim to work with reliable, responsible farmers and brokers, in order to source the finest coffee beans available.


In order to define fine coffee, roasters and coffee brokers do cuppings, elaborate coffee tasting and scoring events. The process begins with inspecting a sample of the green coffee beans for size, quality and irregularity; cuppers go on to evaluate the smell of the raw and roasted beans, the grounds and the steeped grounds. Then comes the “breaking of the crust”: Akin to punching down the cap in wine, the cupper forces down the floating grounds with a spoon and then quickly slurps the coffee. “It’s really loud and unattractive,” Whitmore says with a laugh.

At each point of the process, the cupper scores the coffee for factors like aroma, acidity and flavor (according to the Specialty Coffee Association, 36 aromatic profiles can be attributed to the flavor of a coffee).

“Coffee, when it’s cupped by a Q Grader [a professionally accredited coffee taster], is done on the same point scale as wine—so, one to 100,” explains Whitmore. “Specialty coffee needs to score 88 or 89 and above.”

She says her coffee scores high—anywhere from 89 to 94—which is crucial for selling to specialty roasters looking only for that top 1% of high-quality green coffee beans that will speak for themselves in the coffee cup.


Roasting is a hot topic in the new world of specialty coffee. Those who grew up in the Starbucks age tend to prefer a dark roast; but they’ll be hard-put to find one at a Third Wave shop like Scout or Dark Nectar.

The reason, Jones explains, is that a dark roast masks the natural taste and quality of that unique coffee fruit that has been so painstakingly sourced. “It would be like asking for a filet mignon well-done,” he says. Instead, most beans should be roasted to medium or medium-dark (or a “city roast,” the point after which you hear the beans “crack” for the first time while roasting) to preserve those unique blueberry or chocolate notes.

A former Starbucks drinker himself, Peterson recalls that his big moment of exposure to this kind of light-handed coffee roast was when he got a cappuccino from a place called Barefoot Coffee in San Jose. “It was crazy because it was just espresso and milk and it tasted like chocolate, straight up. It didn’t taste bitter or roasty. It was mind-blowing.”

Grant, however, takes a little more artistic license with his roasts. He holds out handfuls of beans at various stages—green, naturally processed beans with a wilder, unmanicured look to them; light brown city-roasted beans; and dark, oily French-roasted beans (roasted past the second “crack,” and considered too dark for many Third Wavers). He says a medium roast on a washed coffee is like a crisp, clean Chardonnay; whereas, a darker French roast or an unwashed coffee can come off heavy, like a Cabernet. And, sometimes, he says, he simply wants a good Cab.

Coastal Peaks, which is the only commercial roaster in downtown SLO, recognizes that there are still all kinds of coffee palates out there. Like a wine tasting room, they strive to offer the full spectrum, from light, floral single-origins to full-bodied French-roasted blends. Grant, for his part, encourages customers to take the time to form their own opinions, even guiding them in home-roasting with green beans sold at Coastal Peaks.

Regardless of roasting philosophy, SLO County’s micro-roasters take pride in craftsmanship (roasting just 30 to 50 pounds of coffee at a time) and freshness that can’t be found in coffee from larger roasters. And in the end, they all agree on one thing: They love coffee, and they want their customers to love it, too. As Jones says, the top priority is to help you enjoy what he thinks is the most important time of the day— “the 30 minutes that you’re all by yourself in the morning with your cup of coffee, just the two of you.”

Photo courtesy of The Andean Co.

Coffee Class

From the ultra-minimalist V60 pourovers to the high-tech chemistry-set-style siphon brewer, Third Wave coffee shops offer a dizzying number of newfangled options for brewed coffee—and at a pretty price, too (expect to pay $4–$6 for a cup of coffee). But Peterson maintains that no brewing style is really better than another; it’s all about what works for you.

Choose a French press if you like heavy-bodied coffees; for more delicate coffees, pick a paper filter pour-over (such as the V60, Chemex or Jones’ choice, the Clever); the Aeropress full-immersion brewer is great for craft coffee in a hurry; and Peterson even embraces the oldschool drip brewers.

What does matter is freshness. To get the greatest flavor and aroma, Jones advises to grind beans right before you brew coffee; to brew within six weeks of his roast date—though 48 hours after a roast is best; and to store the coffee beans at 60° in an airtight container. Also essential is the grinder. Peterson recommends burr grinders to attain a consistent particle size for the best, balanced brew, and also suggests using a scale to measure the ratio of coffee to water (a standard ratio is 20 grams of coffee to 300 grams of water) and a timer to check that your grind is the right size (if you use a V60, the above portions should take about three minutes to brew. If it takes longer, the grind is too fine; if it takes less time, the grind is too coarse.)

For those interested in learning more, Coastal Peaks introduced a monthly “Coffee Academy” program on April 3, 2014, which includes a roasting demonstration, cupping, T-shirt, certificate and custom coffee blend for $19. Dark Nectar offers free tastings at the Templeton, Baywood and Cambria farmers markets, as well as private cuppings by appointment at Dark Nectar. Scout also has plans to introduce free tastings and brewing demonstrations in the coming months.

Photos courtesy of Scout Coffee and The Andean Co.

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