Advice: What should I order at a third-wave coffee shop?

Third-wave coffee shops are popping up everywhere. Walking into one is quite different from walking into a Starbucks; the menu is different, the equipment is different, and it can be a little intimidating if you don’t know what to expect.

A quick history lesson for anyone that isn’t familiar with the coffee “waves”:

First wave: “Let’s put coffee in every home!”

Pre-ground coffee is mass-marketed by companies like Folgers and Maxwell House. Mr. Coffee machines start making their way into homes.

Second wave: “Coffee is a SPECIALTY product, so let’s make the coffee experience special!”

Starbucks is the company most associated with the second wave. Espresso-based drinks and dark roasts reign supreme. The social aspect of coffee is emphasized, encouraging people to go to coffee shops rather than brew at home. Coffee is typically served in paper cups to facilitate the overwhelming demand of coffee “to go.”

Third wave: “I want to know everything about the journey of these coffee beans, farm to table!”

The current trend focuses on where the coffee beans come from and how they are grown. Terms like fair trade, organic, and seasonal are commonplace. There is a strong preference for manual vs. automatic brewing (of brewed coffee). Roasts are typically light to medium in level. Espresso may be made from blends or single-origin coffees, but the beans are typically roasted no darker than medium. You can still get your coffee to go, but it’s encouraged to drink it at the shop out of ceramic cups for a better flavor experience.

Read this excellent article for more information about first, second, and third wave coffee.

Let’s say that you’re a Starbucks drinker that wants to branch out and see what all the fuss is about regarding these third-wave shops. The first thing to know is that the menu at third-wave shops will be quite different vs. second-wave shops. No cutesy names for drinks. No Frappuccinos. Probably not much of a selection of flavored syrups. And certainly no tall/grande/venti sizing system!

Here is a typical menu at a third-wave coffee shop (I’m leaving out stuff like hot chocolate and tea for the purposes of this post):

Brewed coffee:
Automatic drip
V60
Chemex
French press
Cold-brew

Espresso-based drinks:
Espresso
Americano (Hot or Iced)
Cappuccino
Cortado/Gibraltar
Latté (Hot or Iced)
Macchiato
Mocha (Hot or Iced)

Let’s start with the brewed coffee. If you’re in a hurry, automatic drip will be the quickest way to get you on your way. But if you have some time to sit down and enjoy your cup of coffee in the shop, try one of the pourover options! On average they’ll take about 4 minutes to brew, but it’ll be freshly made for you and the flavor can be miles better than anything pre-made. I firmly believe that coffee tastes better out of a ceramic mug vs. a paper cup as well. Coffee made in something like the Hario V60 (or similar brethren like the Kalita Wave or Bee House dripper) tends to make a nice, clean cup thanks to the filter, but still has a lot of flavor. What kind of flavor? That’ll depend on what coffee you have them brew in it. My favorite coffees in a V60 tend to be ones from Colombia and Panama. I find it brings out chocolaty depth as well as rich citrus/fruit notes with a great balance of flavors.

Chemex coffee is great if you want more than a single mug of coffee, or if there are more than one of you drinking coffee. It has a thicker filter than the V60, so while it has a lot of the same attributes, I find that the flavors are brighter and more zingy in the Chemex than in other methods. Again, this will depend on what coffee you make in it, but I really like Guatemalan and washed Ethiopian coffees in a Chemex as it really brings out the fruit flavors with a nice light body and refreshing finish.

The French press makes a terrific cup of coffee. It does not have a paper filter at all; instead, you plunge a mesh screen through the coffee after it is done brewing and it separates the grounds from the brewed coffee which you can then pour into your waiting mug. This method maintains much of the natural oils in the coffee, which will result in a thicker, fuller-bodied cup than any other coffee method. You’ll have to pour the entire contents of the french press out of the carafe at once to prevent overextraction. Also, the last sip of a cup of french press coffee tends to have some “sludge” in it; it’s quite common for people to simply not take the last sip. I love french press coffee when I want intensity of flavors, as I find it tends to really emphasize the “bass” notes of coffee (namely, chocolate). Natural Ethiopian coffees taste awesome in a french press because you get intense dark chocolate flavor along with berry notes. Brazilian, Mexican and other chocolaty coffees similar to it are also terrific.

Cold-brew coffee is something that I’ve not talked about much on this blog, but if you like iced coffee, cold brew is worth a try! It’s ground coffee that has been brewed with cold water instead of hot, and extraction time will be anywhere between 12-24 hours. Many of the compounds that we perceive as bitter in coffee are extracted when coffee is hit with hot water, so brewing with cold water minimizes those flavors and creates a very smooth brew. Some shops are starting to offer nitro-cold brew, which is cold-brew coffee that has had nitrogen gas added. The result is reminiscent of craft beer (not in flavor, but in texture).

Your usual drink: Frappuccino

Some cafés may have frappés available. Otherwise, the closest you’ll probably get would be an iced latté, and you’ll need to sweeten it yourself. You could also order a cold-brew coffee with milk and sugar for a bit more intense (but smooth) coffee flavor.

Your usual drink: Latté, hot or iced

You can get both hot and iced lattés at third-wave shops.

Your usual drink: Starbucks’ caramel macchiato

A Starbucks version of a macchiato is not what you’ll find in a third-wave coffee shop. True macchiatos are rather small drinks – just espresso + foam (not even close to 12 oz). Try a cappuccino for something more akin to what Starbucks serves.

Your usual drink: Starbucks Doubleshot in a can

Try a cortado (also sometimes called a Gibraltar). It’s espresso cut with a small amount of milk and typically served in a large shot glass. Quick and easy to drink, and much better than coffee out of a can!

Your usual drink: Drip coffee

Try a pourover (V60, Chemex, etc.). Coffee in a french press is also delicious for those that enjoy more body to their brew.

Your usual drink: Doppio espresso

If you are used to getting espresso shots at Starbucks, having an espresso shot at a third-wave coffee shop is going to be a very different experience for you. First of all, it’s typical for Starbucks to serve espresso in their ubiquitous paper cups. I don’t consume coffee on-the-go very much anymore, and one reason is because I can’t stand drinking coffee out of paper cups — the smell and taste of paper ruins the coffee for me. Second, their beans and equipment do not create the best espresso experience. I had no idea how people could enjoy espresso when I first started trying it because I thought that Starbucks’ espresso was how espresso was supposed to taste. After all, they are the biggest coffee conglomerate out there, so they probably know what they’re doing, right? I know now that it is like saying that McDonald’s has the best burgers on the planet because they are the biggest company.

A typical shot of espresso from Starbucks will look like this:

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An espresso shot from a third-wave shop should look a lot more like THIS:

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The seltzer water is there as a palate cleanser; drink it before drinking your espresso. The spoon is there for those who like to stir the crema (the thick, flavorful layer on top of a properly-pulled espresso shot) into the shot before drinking; it’s an optional step. If you tend to quaff your espresso quickly (in one or two swallows), stirring in the crema is probably unnecessary, but if you are a sipper and want to incorporate that sweetness throughout the shot, it’s worth a try. Just don’t linger too long over the espresso; crema dissipates pretty quickly.

A standard serving size for espresso in most places is a doppio espresso (double shot, 2 oz). When you order, you can simply order an espresso. If you order a “double espresso,” the barista might not know if you want one serving or two. If you actually want two servings of espresso, I would order two espressos to make that clear.

Don’t be afraid to try some new things! When in doubt, ask the barista what they would recommend based on what you usually drink. And remember, it’s just coffee. There is no java police, and the best coffee is the coffee you like best. Life is way too short to drink something you don’t like!

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