Outside the geeked-out circles of extreme coffee aficionados, the phrase “third wave” is not likely to have much resonance. However, many of us have come under the influence of third-wavers without even being aware of it. If you have ever stood in line at Café Medici and marveled at the rich elixir of espresso as it is extracted by their shiny La Marzocco, then you have been in the presence of coffee greatness. In a city with a long-thriving coffee shop culture, there are a handful of roasters and retailers that are now taking Austin’s caffeine scene to the next level.
Cuvee coffee is the roaster behind many of Austin’s top shops. Cuvee got its start in 1998 when Mike McKim , at the time a representative for an espresso equipment distributor, decided to throw his hat in the coffee roasting game. According to cuvee trainer and spokesman Dan Streetman, the brand really began to gain traction among the barista community in 2004 when McKim organized a regional “barista jam” in College Station. For the uninitiated, a barista jam is a gathering of coffee professionals and aficionados, loosely organized around a good-natured barista competition, but it is mostly a swap meet of ideas – the techniques, science and secrets of coffee preparation. McKim ’s 2004 jam was the first in Texas, and it established him as an early leader of what has become known in certain circles as coffee’s “third wave.”
Adherents of this theory proclaim that the first wave saw the global expansion of coffee culture in pre-modern times; the second wave brought the “specialty coffee” revolution of the late 20th century, which culminated in the nationwide spread of retailers like Starbucks and the countless independent shops that benefited from the “Starbucks effect.” The third wave is now about elevating coffee from pop culture phenomenon to culinary art status.
Besides bringing the barista jam culture to Texas for the first time, that fateful 2004 event also sowed the seeds of a strategic partnership between Mike McKim and Michael Vaclav. At the time Vaclav worked for JP’s Java, the campus-area home of serious coffee. In 2006 Vaclav opened his own shop in the Clarksville neighborhood. It was with the opening of Café Medici that cuvee finally had the perfect retail partner who was as serious about serving coffee as Cuvee was about roasting beans. Last year Cuvee moved from Houston to its new roasting and training facility in Spicewood to be nearer to some of their best customers.
On the other side of town – in a setting much different than Cuvee’s rustic Hill country acreage – Travis Kizer has set up his owl tree Roasting co. in a 1930’s- vintage Texaco service station across I-35 from the former Concordia campus. Owl tree roasts boutique coffees for Progress and a number of other local establishments. Kizer has been working in the coffee business since his teenage years and has been roasting since the late 1990s. I asked him what changes had transpired since the early days of his career. “Among brokers, there is more awareness of single estate and micro-lot coffees, and there is a greater level of sophistication at the country of origin,” he explains.
That demand cycles its way both up and down the supply chain: as consumers demand better coffee from retailers, retailers demand more from their roasters. Roasters seek higher quality and more unique beans from brokers, which in turn puts pressure on producers. This change in demand allows producers to step up their game and be rewarded for their ability to produce outstanding coffees. The cycle reverberates back through the chain, as roasters gain access to these boutique coffees, which they provide to the coffee shops. Those shops then are able to serve superlative coffees that were not available to previous generations of retailers.
As Travis Kizer observes, the demand for better quality coffee has a trickle-down effect. “It’s not all about elite cafes in the city either,” he says, citing manor’s café 290 as an owl tree customer. “It says a lot about the movement that a diner in manor, Texas wants to serve artisanal coffees.”
Although the current taste for spectacular coffees is not limited to the cafes, they are the epicenter of the movement, and so I visited three Austin shops that are gaining a reputation for exceptional coffee.
Café Medici is like a founding father of Austin’s new wave of excellent coffee shops. Founded in 2006 by former JP’s Java barista Michael Vaclav, the shop on West Lynn gained an almost immediate cult following among Austin’s coffee connoisseurs. In 2008, Vaclav gambled that the Guadalupe Drag was finally ready for serious coffee, and he opened his second location in the spot long occupied by metro coffeehouse. His instincts proved correct, as legions of university faculty and students embrace Vaclav’s vision of perfection.
Once over is a newcomer to Austin’s coffee scene, but has seen a lot of attention since opening in March of this year. Owners Rob and Jenée Ovitt hail from Asheville, N.C., where they ran a successful coffee shop for several years. It was during that time that they met the team at counter culture coffee, which along with Stumptown Coffee Roasters (Portland) and Intelligentsia (Chicago) are considered pio neers in the areas of sourcing, roasting and training. Through counter culture they learned the essentials of the trade, which they now ply on South First Street. There are no automatic coffee brewers here, as all brewed coffee is made by french press. The menu is short and to the point – no elaborate list of flavored coffee concoctions and no food menu. The focus of this shop is on the coffee. There are two espressos available at any time, the house blend and a single origin, which on my recent visit was Ethiopian Sidamo Mora Mora. Rob hopes “that the public will continue to recognize that the coffee tastes different at the place that can’t serve you lunch.”
At Frank, a fabulous coffee bar is emerging in an unlikely locale – a newly opened sausage palace in the former Starlite location downtown. Tyler Wells is the award-winning barista behind the counter. Wells has chosen to use Intelligentsia coffee, the first Austin shop to do so. He attended their multi-day training program at the company’s facility in Chicago and came back determined to serve some of the best coffee in Austin. In place of the typical automatic coffee brewer, Wells uses Japanese ceramic Hario pour-over devices that allow coffee to be brewed on demand, one cup at a time. His specialty is the Cortado, a double shot of espresso served with steamed milk in a rocks glass; the milk is steamed to a somewhat cooler temperature than in a conventional latte, which brings out its natural sweetness and allows the drink to be consumed more quickly in a couple of sips – a perfect pick-me-up for downtown business people on the move.
The Brown Witch
1/2 oz. Brown Butter
4 oz. Whole Milk
1 oz. Espresso
1/2 oz. Strega Barspoon
(scant) St. George absinthe
Pour spirits into a demitasse. Steam the brown butter and milk, pour artfully into demitasse and serve.
Fino Dessert Cocktail
Bill Norris, Fino
1.5 oz. Navan
.5 oz. Godiva Dark Chocolate Liqueur
1 oz. Espresso
.5 oz. Heavy Cream
> Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and shake vigorously with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe.
Burning Sage David Alan
1 oz Flor de Caña 7 year or other aged rum
1 oz Espresso or cold-brewed coffee concentrate
.5 oz Sage Syrup*
.25 oz Paula’s Texas Orange liqueur
> Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and shake vigorously with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
> *For the sage syrup, combine half a cup of sugar and half a cup of water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer; infuse a handful of sage leaves into the syrup for a few minutes, then strain and cool.
Tyler Wells, Frank
A Cortado is a double shot of espresso with steamed milk in a rocks glass; the milk is steamed to a somewhat cooler temperature than in a conventional latte, bringing out the natural sweetness of the milk, which is lost when milk is steamed to a higher temperature.