Coffee is hot — literally. We're well into what connoisseurs and experts call the third wave (see the sidebar "Coffee
History in Waves") of coffee production and consumption in the U.S.; more shops, restaurants and other retailers now focus on small-batch beans, artisan brewing equipment and handcrafted drinks, taking the Starbucks-esque commercialization of the second wave out of our daily coffee-shop experience.

Welcome to the craft culture of coffee — akin to the craft breweries and micro distilleries popping up nationwide — which has introduced or reintroduced simpler, classic pieces of equipment and techniques meant to extract the most flavor from coffee and pour the best brew possible. As a result, operators rely less on syrups, milks and added flavorings popularized by the big coffee chains of the second wave and more on artisan roasting, single-origin sourcing and craft roasting to round out flavors and omit the need for extra cream and sugar.

"People nowadays are going back to wanting that true coffee-shop feel," says Nancy Caldarola, principal of Concept Associates Inc., a Georgia-based consultancy specializing in hospitality and c-store operations. "People don't just want a cup of coffee or a snack; they want to indulge in the whole experience."

The theater of coffee, as Caldarola calls it, involves glass carafes layered with paper filters and aromatic, freshly ground beans slowly saturated with hot water by a barista moving a kettle over the top in a circular motion. It also involves other baristas tempering espresso and pulling levers to skillfully craft the perfect cappuccino.

Even the serving vessels play a role in today's coffee culture, according to Caldarola, with paper cups favored over Styrofoam and more operators serving coffee in traditional mugs, meant to improve the mouthfeel of the beverages.

But better brewed coffee comes down to three main things: clean, fresh water; high-quality, freshly ground beans; and time and temperature control. "Coffee should never fall below 170 degrees or reach temperatures higher than 195 degrees," says Caldarola, who notes that direct heating elements have almost become outdated. "You must have filtered water to make coffee. The same systems we have for soft drinks need to be there for coffee, too." And today's coffee requires a proper recipe (the ratio of water to beans) that most artisan coffee shops follow exactly when brewing different types of cups.

Better brewing equipment with more "intelligent" construction will alert users via lights and other alarms when the quality of the coffee begins to decline or the temperature readings are off, according to Caldarola. "Older brewing technology usually has a limit of an hour and a half, but newer, digital models can hold coffee up to three hours without significant deterioration of the quality," she says. These newer brewers require regular planned maintenance, cleaning and decalcification to improve their life-cycle performance, she adds.

While high-volume operators and those unable to hire trained baristas might favor automatic espresso machines, artisan shops more often seek manual espresso machines because baristas can use pressure and temperature to extract different flavors from the coffee in a way that machines cannot quite replicate.

Many third-wave coffee shops proudly showcase their vintage machines and other hardware, like show-stopping brewers, special siphons and even a brewer that acts like a sous-vide machine. Here's a roundup of a few shops Datassential highlighted in its Creative Concepts monthly publication.

Today’s Coffee Trends

Small-Batch Roasting

Today’s artisan coffee roasters use a combination of science and special techniques to extract the natural flavors of beans.

Single-Origin Coffee

Artisan coffee shops and other buyers favor nuanced flavors like citrus, chocolate and blueberry that come from beans grown in specific regions, just like wine has terroir.

Cold Coffee

Cold-brew-coffeeCold-brew coffee, first put forth by artisan shops as a sweeter, milder option and now embraced by large chains such as Starbucks, has exploded onto the coffee scene in recent years. According to market research firm Mintel, 55 percent of the people who prefer this type of coffee are older Millennials, those aged 29-38. Cold-brew drinks have helped operators boost afternoon beverage sales as consumers replace sugary sodas with other caffeinated options. Cold-brew coffee uses the simple method of steeping freshly ground beans in filtered water using minimal equipment for up to 24 hours (or more) at room temperature. The operator then filters the coffee to become a concentrate. Staff then add more filtered water, ice and/or milk before serving.

Kegged and Nitro Coffee

Some craft coffee shops have experimented with hooking cold-brew coffee up to a draft-beer system to add extra foam and smoothness. The result is a coffee with a smoother mouthfeel, almost like a Guinness stout beer. Operators then serve the coffee over ice or use it in cocktails.

Coffee Cocktails and Mocktails

Fifty-four percent of consumers are interested in coffee/espresso cocktails, according to market research firm Datassential. Mixologists have taken to coffee for experimental cocktails that incorporate homemade bitters, syrups and other add-ins before shaking or stirring and serving in different types of glasses. At Portola Coffee Roaster’s Theorem Coffee Bar, which has multiple locations in California, diners can find cocktails such as a Coffee Mimosa, made with sparkling wine and espresso. Madcap Coffee in Grand Rapids, Mich., makes coffee mocktails like the Black Raspberry Spritzer, with fresh juice, espresso, sugar and soda.

Roaster Collaborations

More restaurants and other operators are collaborating with specialty roasters to produce a signature house-blend roast, reflective of similar partnerships with breweries.

Cultural Coffees

Thai-Iced-coffeeThai iced coffeeAccording to Datassential, other cultures continue to influence coffee consumption in the U.S. Vietnamese coffee was the top-growing hot coffee beverage on menus last year, while Thai iced coffee was the top-growing iced coffee item.

Coffee History in Waves

First Wave  (1940s-1970s)

America imported 70 percent of the world’s coffee in the 1940s and slowly moved away from instant to fresh-brewed cups. In the 1950s and ’60s, a burgeoning counterculture led to a new generation of coffeehouses being used for socializing and philosophizing.

Second Wave  (1980s-1990s)

Howard Schultz led Starbucks to become a national icon and the “my coffee” customization phenomenon was born.

Third Wave (2000s)

Coffee roasters and shops begin to pay more attention to better sourcing, better roasting and simple, pour-over methods to brew the best coffee possible.

Third-Wave Coffee Equipment and Supplies

  • Pour-over carafes and gooseneck kettles
  • Paper filters
  • Ceramic or plastic single-cup brewing cones
  • Advanced drip coffee brewers with
  • timers and temp control
  • Manual and semi-manual espresso machines
  • Cold-brew carafes or pitchers and filters
  • Coffee-bean grinders
  • Specialty iced-coffee brewers

A Peek at Third-Wave Coffee Shops

Many third-wave coffee shops proudly showcase their vintage machines and other hardware, like show-stopping brewers, special siphons and even a brewer that acts like a sous-vide machine. Here's a roundup of a few shops Datassential highlighted in its Creative Concepts monthly publication.

Roasting Plant, with locations in New York and Detroit, uses a patented Javabot system with pneumatic tubes to send coffee beans flying over customers' heads. Every made-to-order cup takes about 60 seconds to travel through the tubes to the espresso machine.

San Francisco's Saint Frank debuted a custom-designed espresso machine that places most of the equipment under the counter, allowing for clear sightlines between the barista and the customer.

Miami's Panther Coffee became the first shop to create made-to-order, single-origin iced coffees using a special brewer that infuses coffee and tea with fruit, herbs or other liquids using "reverse atmospheric fusion."

Boxcar Coffee Roasters developed a special brewer called the Boilermakr, inspired by "cowboy coffee." The machine immerses the grounds in boiling water to brew a better cup of coffee at Colorado's high elevations.

New York's Death Ave., a restaurant, bar and brewery, features an adjacent "cafeneio" with beans roasted on-site and brewed using hot sand on a rare Greek Hovoli system.