Coffee's New Wave: Following in food’s footsteps, coffee pros refine the path from farm to cup

On a snowy Friday afternoon, while most St. Louisans were counting down the minutes till the work week gave way to the weekend, a dozen or so young men were standing around a high-top table in a small warehouse room, waiting. Some were there to train their palates to determine differences in flavor, body and acidity; others – a high school math teacher, a friend of another who had been before – were simply there for a taste of the good stuff. When leader Andrew Timko said it was time, each dipped his spoon into the dark, oily liquid and let out a loud, aggressive slurp. “I’m getting a tomato-y flavor in this one,” said one, whose sandy-colored handlebar mustache had somehow avoided being died tawny brown from the dark drink. “There’s very pronounced tropical fruit in this,” stated another, “and a lot of brown sugar.”

These men weren’t learning which bottle of red pairs best with a medium-rare fillet; in fact, they weren’t at a wine tasting at all. They were at a cupping, a coffee-tasting method in which boiling water is poured over a precisely measured dose of coarsely ground coffee, left to steep for exactly four minutes, and then slurped from flat spoons. “A louder slurp will allow the coffee to run across your entire palate and activate all your taste receptors,” Timko, the lead roaster at Kaldi’s, advised, “and don’t forget to engage smell as you taste.”

Cuppings, which occur every Friday at Kaldi’s roasting center in Midtown, are just one element of the new wave the coffee scene is experiencing both nationally and here in town – one that is bringing the world of coffee closer to food and wine than ever before.

We have Folgers to thank for popularizing coffee in the U.S. back in the 19th century. Just add hot water, cream and plenty of sugar, and you’ve got a morning pick-me-up in minutes, if not seconds. In the 1960s, Peet’s, followed by the then-tiny company Starbucks in the ’70s, took us into the second wave, instituting shots of espresso, grande lattes and regionally labeled beans into Americans’ everyday lives.

But the second wave did more than put a fancier drink in our hands; it taught us that quality coffee comes at a price. That re-education both pushed these innovative coffee companies ahead, allowing them to proliferate onto nearly every street corner in the U.S., and it backfired on them: The burnt beans and one-note flavors they became known for sent coffee connoisseurs in search of a better cup.

Enter the third wave, where great coffee is an art, something to be appreciated in much the same way we have come to savor an artisanal cheese, a perfectly seared scallop or a bold bottle of wine. Over the years, coffee has gone from being seen as one of life’s everyday commodities to an artisanal foodstuff that demands our respect.

The new wave starts where coffee does: with the bean itself. At artisan roasters, you’ll find only specialty-grade coffee – beans that have been given a score of 80 or above by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Quality coffee beans − those that have grown in ideal climates and been given the proper washing, cleaning and drying treatments − are put to the test each year at international cuppings held by the SCAA, which then scores the beans on a 100-point scale based on characteristics like aroma, flavor, body and acidity. Specialty-grade coffee (also referred to as Class A, gourmet or premium coffee) is considered to have better flavor, a full cup quality and little to no defects. New wave roasters also prize single-origin coffees, beans from a specific growing region called microclimates, and estate coffees, which are generally grown on a single farm within that region.

Tim Drescher has been roasting only single-origin beans since he began his wholesale roasting business, Kuva Coffee Co., in 2003. “I really want to educate the consumer on different growing regions,” said Drescher, whose coffee can be found at Tower Grove Farmers’ Market, Whole Foods and other specialty grocers throughout the St. Louis area. “It’s kind of like wine; every region has its own unique profile and flavors,” he said. Verner Earls of Chauvin Coffee, a local family-owned business that’s been roasting coffee since 1930, loves the unique flavor profiles estate coffees offer. The La Minita, a single-origin coffee from the La Minita estate in Costa Rica, is a particular favorite. “When I drink it,” he mused, “I think I’m high on wine.”

But sourcing quality ingredients isn’t just about where the beans come from. Much as today’s chefs are ensuring a responsible path for their ingredients, artisan roasters are showing a near obsession with the process from farm to cup. Three years ago, Kaldi’s launched its Relationship Coffees, a line of coffees produced by growers the company had personal, nurtured relationships with and to whom the company paid, on average, at least 15 percent over the fair-trade minimum price. Today, this series can be found at each of the Kaldi’s cafés as well as several restaurants around town. Matt Herren, owner of Edwardsville roaster Goshen Coffee, almost exclusively roasts fair-trade organic coffee, and Drescher wires funds directly to Peru for his Peru Chilchos Direct Relationship Coffee, paying the farmer two times the world market price.

Once they have a quality product, artisan roasters are taking extra measures to ensure a high-quality, fresh roast morning after morning. After trying five different brands, Herren couldn’t find roasting equipment that produced the flavor profiles and control he was looking for. “The commercial roasters are all producing based on [someone] standing in front of them, smelling, tasting, pulling and dropping coffee when they think it is at the optimum level. There is a lot of human error involved,” he explained. “So we built all our own equipment.” With his hand-designed and hand-welded roaster, which runs on computer diagnostics, Herren now has complete control over things like heat, time, temperature, exposure to air, and humidity. “The coffee we produce today will taste like the coffee we produce months from now; it’s all about consistency.”

But perhaps the largest step forward is with the roast itself. Roasters across the city are ditching the burnt, dark roasts of the second wave in place of a lighter one that better showcases the signature flavors of the bean’s varietals and growing region. “If you buy a lower quality bean, you have to roast it harder, and when you do, you’re tasting that carbon, that burntness,” said Jonathan Andrus, co-owner of downtown coffee shop Gelateria Tavolini. “Darker doesn’t necessarily mean stronger or better flavor; it means you’re going to miss out on so many of the 600 flavor notes in the coffee. Light roasts make you taste the bean itself.”

The darkness of the roast depends on when the coffee is “dropped,” or put into the cooling tray to stop the roasting process, much as a bowl of ice water shocks blanched vegetables. About seven minutes into the roasting process comes the first crack – named for the popcorn-like sound the beans make as the moisture in them escapes – and after another seven, the second. With lighter roasts, the coffee is dropped somewhere between the first crack (half city roast) and the second (full city roast), all in an effort to catch that moment when the beans begin to caramelize.

“The second crack is when the fats and sugars in the beans begin to catch on fire and each bean turns into caramel, like a little candy factory,” explained Rick Milton, co-owner of Northwest Coffee Roasting Co., who uses a full city roast. “We found that sweet spot in the roasting process where the sour taste of a really light roast is roasted out and you don’t get the burnt taste of Starbucks. Our coffee has a real distinct beginning, middle and end. You get a spectrum of flavor that the average person can taste. You don’t need to be a coffee connoisseur to go, ‘Woah, this is good.’”

But for coffee drinkers, it’s all about the brew. Coffeehouses and restaurants throughout St. Louis are trading in their handy ol’ automatic drip machines for manual brewing methods that allow them to create a more balanced, consistent and flavorful cup.

At Gelateria Tavolini, Andrus and his wife, Amanda, use a French press, a steep-and-plunge method of brewing known for creating a tasty, unfiltered cup. “You’re getting a bolder, richer cup of coffee,” said Andrus, who offers customers a 4-cup French press of their own if they plan to sit and stay a while. “It allows the oils of the coffee to stay in the drink. A drip with a filter catches all the oils so you get coffee that has been stripped of flavor.”

But leaving out the filter isn’t the only way to brew a better cup. The pour-over method, a manual Japanese brewing technique gaining popularity around town, calls for a slow and steady stream of boiling water to be poured over grounds in a filter. This measured stream allows the barista to have control over the entire brewing process – most importantly, the temperature of the water – in order to make sure the coffee is evenly brewed and perfectly extracted. The result is a cleaner, crisper cup.

“The pour-over uses a thicker paper filter than a traditional drip brewer, so it filters more aggressively and [brews] a really clean-tasting coffee with a clean and light mouth feel,” said Frank McGinty, director of sales and marketing at Kaldi’s. “A French press has a heavier mouth feel with a lot of sediment and oils. It’s really just personal preference, kind of like whole milk versus skim milk.” Because of the clean flavors the pour-over method produces, McGinty recommended lighter, more citrusy coffees for this technique.

But even this method is getting refined, as more and more coffeehouses switch from brewing many cups at once to one at a time. At Picasso’s Coffee House in St. Charles, the majority of the coffee sold is from the brew bar, where a barista uses a single-cup pour-over to brew each drink to order. “When you brew a pot of coffee, the second you brew it, even if it’s staying warm in an air pot, chemically the coffee starts to break down and the taste changes over 10, 15, 20 minutes and it’s hard to get a really fresh cup,” explained Picasso’s owner Chris Schulte. The single-cup pour-over approach allows Schulte to not only create a fresher cup but to brew more exclusive and expensive beans, such as those from the Hawaiian Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain regions, by eliminating the possibility of wasting them. Schulte noted that this method also allows him to let the signature flavors of these exclusive beans truly shine.

Kaldi’s, which currently uses multi-cup pour-over machines that brew into a carafe rather than a mug in each of its cafés, is in the process of implementing single-cup hand brew stations at every Kaldi’s as well, starting with its café, Kayak’s.

Casey and Jeremy Miller, owners of The Mud House, were impressed by the coffee the V60 brand pour-over device brewed during a recent trip to San Francisco and are now having a stand built where three single-cup V60 pots will sit side by side in their café. “People love their coffee, and to watch someone make you this handcrafted coffee drink to order, it’s just really personal and I love that,” said Casey Miller.

At Sanctuaria, executive chef Chris Lee is reviving another age-old method of manual brewing: the vac pot. After enjoying vac pot coffee during a recent trip to San Francisco, Lee began serving vacuum-brewed coffee tableside to diners last summer. The vac pot, also referred to as a siphon, is known for creating a richer, smoother cup of coffee. It brews using vapor pressure: First, water is heated in the pot’s lower chamber until expansion naturally raises the water through a narrow tube into the upper chamber, where the coffee grounds are; the heat is then removed and the brewed coffee falls through a filter back down into the lower chamber, from which it can be poured.

Much like the pour-over method, this technique produces a cleaner cup free of sediment but full of big, bold flavors. “Because of the vacuum, you’re not quite boiling the water, so you’re a heck of a lot less likely to burn the coffee itself,” noted Lee, who admitted that, at the end of the day, he really liked the nerdiness of this brewing method. “Then, when it goes back down and you take away the ignition source, it brews again, so you’re getting a more intense flavor from the grounds.”

This attention to detail is also present on the espresso side of the coffee world. Automatic machines, which don’t allow for much control, have been replaced by semiautomatic and manual ones like Kaldi’s La Marzocco that turn the brewing process into a true measurement of the knowledge and skill of the barista. “A good barista needs to know a lot about properly dosing, tamping evenly,” said Picasso’s Schulte. “A good shot of espresso, if done correctly, is going to take 25 to 30 seconds to brew and you’re going to have that nice honey-like espresso with a nice crema on top.”

Park Avenue Coffee’s Victoria Arduino Adonis – there are fewer than 100 of these machines in the country, and Park Avenue employs the only one in the Midwest, according to owner Dale Schotte – brews the espresso grounds within seconds of being tamped, allowing the baristas to limit the amount of air exposure the coffee receives. Because the grounds don’t sit in the hopper before the shot is pulled, Schotte said, the coffee has no time to break down or lose flavor.

At new-wave cafés, a shot of espresso is also denser and heavier than ever before, with baristas using 18 to 21 grams per 2-ounce shot instead of the average 7 to 14. Often, they’re served ristretto style – a richer, more concentrated shot that is pulled earlier and uses less water – as they are at Northwest Coffee.

Once the perfect shot is pulled, milk is steamed to order. “It should be steamed to a drinkable 130 degrees and needs to be the consistency of latex paint, so it looks really thick and smooth like glass on top,” explained The Mud House’s Casey Miller. When the milk is just right, Miller has just two minutes to create anything from rosettes to puppies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the perfectly crafted micro foam – not only a detail that makes the cappuccino more appetizing but also a measure of the keen attention paid to it: If the milk isn’t steamed just right, the foam won’t be able to hold the latte art.

But that’s what the new wave of coffee is all about: Going the extra mile, taking extra care and waiting an extra few minutes for a cup of coffee that is so flavorful, so personal and so carefully crafted that it’s meant to be savored. So the next time you stop into one of these coffee shops for the usual, take note of the barista measuring the perfect dose, pulling your shot at just the right time or hand-brewing your coffee and appreciate all it’s been through to land in your hand. And then, of course, drink up.

Want to know more about coffee? Here are several resources for learning everything from the importance of sourcing a better bean to how to brew a great cup at home.

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In Brewing the Perfect Cup, Gelateria Tavolini co-owner Jonathan Andrus will guide you through a short, instructional video for brewing a better cup at home.

For a traditional take on this process, stop by Kaldi’s Roasting and Training Center on Fridays. One of Kaldi’s head brewers will walk you through the tasting and explain the importance of each step – from steeping to breaking the crust to the ever-important slurping. You will taste a variety of single-origin and blended coffees and learn to identify the nuances in each cup. Fridays – 2 p.m., call ahead for reservations, free, 700 St. Bernard’s Lane, St. Louis, 314.727.9991

For a less technical approach, head over to Northwest Coffee Roasting Co., where co-owner Rick Milton takes customers through a trip around the world via coffee at his monthly cuppings. You will taste three brewed coffees from three parts of the world side by side and will learn how to recognize the signature flavors of each region. First Tuesday of every month – 3 to 4 p.m., call ahead for reservations, free, 8401 Maryland Ave., Clayton, 314.725.8055

United States Barista Competition
This year’s South Central United States Barista Competition, put on by the Barista Guild of America and hosted by Kaldi’s, will showcase the region’s top coffee talents. The event is free and open to the public, and volunteer opportunities are available. Whether you’re an aspiring barista or a coffee-lover hoping to find out more about the local coffee scene, this is a great way to learn about both the technical aspects and creativity of the coffee world. April 1 to 3, Chase Park Plaza, 212 N. Kingshighway Blvd., St. Louis,

Kaldi’s holds several educational events each month, including its Simply Coffee Happy Hours and Saturday Morning Coffee Education Series. Each dives deep into a single aspect of coffee. For more information on these events, visit

At Caffeinate Your Conscience, you will sample fair-trade coffees and learn the dynamics and importance of fair trade to the coffee industry as well how to buy beans more responsibly. Sat., March 12 – 1 to 2 p.m., $15, call ahead for reservations, Whole Foods Market, 1601 S. Brentwood Blvd., Brentwood, 314.968.7744

At Let It Flow: Espresso, you will learn how to pull a better espresso shot at home and be introduced to all espresso has to offer. Sat., March 5 – 10 a.m. to noon, Whole Foods Market, 1160 Town and Country Crossing Dr., Town and Country, 636.527.1160

These events are just the tip of the iceberg for ways to learn more about the local coffee scene. Be sure to also stop by your favorite coffee shop and chat up the baristas; they are more than willing to share their knowledge – and delicious drinks.

To find out how you can brew a better cup at home, click here.