Third wave is more specialized. It is less corporate (most have only one independent shop), and more individualized (often cups are brewed one at a time). The most influential in the movement are considered to be Counter Culture (Durham, N.C.), Stumptown (Portland, Ore.), and Intelligencia (Chicago).
Because it’s decentralized, it means a traveling coffee connoisseur has more room for error. It’s not like walking into a Starbucks and knowing exactly what the oatmeal will taste like, or being certain that the cup of Pike’s Place blend you had in Portland, Ore., will taste the exact same as the one you will have in Portland, Maine.
Some signs you’re in the right place: wooden floors; menu written with chalk; ceramic cups; baristas wearing hats, skinny ties, or tattoos; shop equipment that looks like it could be used for a grand science experiment.
Some signs you’re in the wrong place: Styrofoam cups; a bank of flavor shots ready to squirt into a cup that shouldn’t need artificial additives; whipped cream; things for sale there that have nothing to do with coffee.
The places that strive for high-end coffee are not so much your living room — as Starbucks attempts to be — as your high-end kitchen, with stainless steel appliances and blond wood floors and cabinets.
I’m not saying I have an adamant distaste for Starbucks; many mornings in Manchester, N.H., found me eating their familiar-tasting oatmeal and drinking a grande cup.
But seeking coffee in this new era of independent stores is, well, more fun. It’s an adventure to find the type of place that will suit your caffeinated needs.
Yes, they can be snobby and pretentious. You might feel out of place (“Do you guys do pumpkin spice?” someone asked at Gimme! Coffee in New York. Everyone laughed at the absurdity).
Some places are nothing short of ridiculous. (Here’s how Stumptown describes one of its beans: “Unlike Caturra, Pacas or Catuai, the Tekisic varietal maintains great internodal spacing and is therefore a lower yielding varietal in comparison to the aforementioned varietals.”)
But one sip of a finely pulled espresso can make you a lifelong convert.
Once, on a reporting trip back to Boston on Super Tuesday, I went into newly-opened Pavement Coffeehouse in the Back Bay and ordered a cup of black coffee. They used a digital scale to measure out my beans. That’s silly, I scoffed.
But within a few months, I had bought a scale myself so I could do the same at home with my French press or my cafe solo.
I’m now back in Washington, a city where the decent coffee scene continues to improve. And as I adjust to life that involves far less travel, I am comforted by this: MadCap Coffee, that shop I first discovered on a quiet day in Grand Rapids nearly a year ago, is expanding. They intend to open their second cafe in Washington. And just a 15-minute detour on my morning commute.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.