American java guru Nick Cho sees roasters, sellers and drinkers all striving toward an ever-higher coffee consciousness.
Almost a month ago exactly, South Philadelphia barista Erika Vonie took home second-place honors at the U.S. Coffee Championships’ Big Eastern tournament in Durham, N.C. Her home shop, Ultimo Coffee at 15th and Mifflin, is where Aaron Ultimo—who also owns a baby-sister shop at 22nd and Catharine—has trained more than a few champion bean-slingers. Brian Gelletly of ReAnimator Coffee, who took seventh place at the Big Eastern, and another Ultimo face, James Klapp—who took second in the competition’s Brewer’s Cup to La Colombe co-owner and TV star Todd Carmichael—are counted among them. But Ultimo wasn’t always the boss: He once worked alongside one of the nation’s premier “Third Wave” coffee pioneers, Nick Cho, who believes in the magic and meaning in a perfectly pulled shot and expertly brewed cup of coffee. Cho currently calls San Francisco’s Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters home, but he connected with PW by phone last week to share his considerable wisdom.
What’s Third Wave coffee, you ask? Well, that’s what we talked about—and along the way, Cho ended up dropping knowledge on how obssessed we’ve become with where the stuff we drink comes from, how a cup of coffee can be read, both figuratively and literally for quality, and how there isn’t really anyone in the coffee world who can really, truly be called an expert.
So when did we become obsessed with where our beans come from? And how does a barista make a coffee drinker care?
One of the greater driving forces is that people are more interested than they used to be in where their food and drink comes from. These people started asking a lot of questions —people who are much more interested in specificity. Guys love numbers and horsepower or gigahertz; it’s kind of like the more specific you get, it’s fun in and of itself. On top of that, there’s the whole fair trade thing: We’re learning that the growers are actually human beings whose lives depend on this stuff. And more and more, we highlight these stories. That’s all compelling stuff... These farmers that we’re helping—the prevailing narrative is that we’re here to help the farmers, but you’re talking to a barista in a coffee shop; for them to understand the nuances of international issues, you hope they can communicate clearly in a way that’s not so patronizing.
Can you explain Third Wave coffee for those of us who aren’t accustomed to thinking of our beverages as if they were art movements?
It’s a popular term to describe this new generation of coffee perspective—one that my partner Trish [Rothgeb, formerly Skeie] actually coined almost 12 years ago. Third Wave coffee says, “We’re not going to accept the answers that we’re getting from the existing system.” We want to be able to ask the growers questions directly. Today that’s very typical in specialty coffee... Obviously, this means there’s a first and a second wave. [I’d say] La Colombe used to be a Second Wave coffee roaster, and there are all these Second Wave roasters now that are trying to update themselves to Third Wave coffee. On the east coast, there’s M.E. Swing in D.C.; in many ways, they’re the La Colombe of D.C., the darling of the restaurant scene. There are a few prominent shops that went to [the] pourover [process]—notably Intelligentsia in Chicago and L.A.; they went to all pourover around 2008-2009, and they did it with much fanfare, saying, “This is better.” Nowadays, new shops that are opening—you’ll see combinations where there’s a batch brewer for grab ‘n’go and also some level of pourover, if for no other reason to signal, “We can do this, too.” It’s about pressure, for sure—the shops try to differentiate from each other.
Why is coffee such big business? And one that, it seems, people have such strong feelings about?
Coffee represents something in people’s lives—it’s something that people like a lot. There’s the narrative of the human element, the preciousness of coffee, and, well, how did we get from diner coffee to the specialty shops? My parents drink coffee more than I do, but they’re not thinking about it like me. There’s that idea that coffee lends itself to this interesting phenomenon—with coffee often being a small business, a shop gains a certain customer base: It’s like a confirmation [of their quality]. And when you tell someone that their coffee could be better, their response is very often, “What the hell are you talking about? People love what we do.” And they’re right.
You’ve raised a certain number of eyebrows by analzying coffee companies’ product by means of a “Total Dissolved Solids” rating. What is that? What kind of science is going on there?
Manual brew can contribute to a quality cup. The logic as I see it is: Can you make a world-class meal out of cheap cookery or a microwave oven? If you really know what you’re doing, yeah, but when you have certain tools—it doesn’t make you automatically a good cook, but it allows for greater control over what you’re doing. You see people pouring the water over the coffee manually, and the question is, “How is that better or worse or different than a drip-brewer that drips hot water at pre-determined intervals?” I’ve learned a lot more since [beginning to study this]. In essence, a darker-roasted coffee is more flavorful, as far as just the bulk of having flavor, than a lighter-roasted coffee. A lot of darker-roasted coffee conveyors, they brew their coffee weaker and people are still happy. We lighter-roasting people can’t do that. [What I used to analyze this] is called a refractometer, which measures Total Dissolved Solids. A TDS reading gives you the brew strength; using TDS and other relevant measurements lets you calculate extraction yield. Extraction yield pertains to how much of the coffee was dissolved into the brew. With 30 percent of the coffee being soluble, the first two thirds of that—about 20 percent of the total mass—is what we generally consider the good flavors. What that’s measuring is something around 98 to 99 percent water, but that remaining 1 to 2 percent is coffee stuff. Essentially, [you’re measuring] how much of this is not water. If you’re under 1 percent, by any definition, that’s a weak brew. The implication there is that one of the reasons it would be weak is that you’re just not putting as much coffee in there for whatever reason. If you can get away with it, then great: If that works for you and people are happy, then there’s no reason to not do it.
If you’re not technically an authority on coffee and how we drink it, who is?
So if someone says, “Why does this coffee taste better than that coffee?” The answer is often: “Because it just does.” A system is not set up to really answer those questions. Wine is still considered more fancy—you can taste the nuances, and we use all kinds of sophisticated words to describe the taste. Drip coffee was considered to be for truck drivers and low-class people. A lot of these things, they exist because there’s no way to go to “coffee school.” What’s the best way to split an atom? There aren’t amateur physicists trying to figure this out—it’s a professional, academic world that [information] lives in. There are people who go to culinary schools and can count on certain things to be true, because there are legit experts in their field. In coffee, there are zero experts. I’m an expert by the definition of knowing a lot—but if you were to measure expertise as pages in a book, we know pitifully little about what we’re doing compared to what other people know about their professional disciplines. That’s why we came up with the whole coffee and barista competition. It was designed to be a teaching tool. With a brewing competition like [the Brewer’s Cup], one of the questions I ask myself is, “What if someone came up with a brewing method that was essentially foolproof and would that eliminate the competition?” The answer is, that would be awesome.