I have to give credit where it's due here: a silly article on an even sillier competition (Man vs. Machine on Sprudge) led me to this excellent article (and quite a few more) on the online magazine Serious Eats.
While I've never met Nick Cho I've invariably enjoyed his writing, and certainly on the brewing side of things he's one of the better-informed folks out there. That makes some of his comments and perspectives, both in the article I've linked to and in others on the site, all the more interesting.
In another article on the site (on "nanoroasting"), Cho offers this characterization of specialty coffee history:
I usually summarize the three waves of coffee like this: The first wave is about coffee consumption (Gimme a regular coffee), second wave is about coffee enjoyment (Make it yummy. Make it a latte. In fact, make it a vanilla latte...), and the third wave is about coffee appreciation (like wine appreciation, or music appreciation).
Perhaps it's just a product of his relative youth and, more decisively, not having apprenticed at any established specialty roasting companies where he could've learned more about the history of the business beyond pulling shots, but this is also the general characterization I see in the press of specialty coffee history, and it's far removed from the truth.
In no particular order, Freed, Teller & Freed's, Peet's, Starbucks and The Coffee Connection were, at their inception and in the case of the latter 3 firms well into the 1980's, product-driven roaster-retailers of a very high order, though it must be said that none of them (unlike today's better-known Third Wave places) saw coffee appreciation and coffee enjoyment as mutually antithetic.
What happened - and Howard Schultz-era Starbucks deserves the lion's share of the blame here - is that ersatz Italian espresso bars were inserted into what had previously been retail stores, with no serious effort made to fund and maintain the coffee side of what quickly became a steamed-milk-with coffee slinging, fast food business. But it's rewriting history to leave out, in the case of Starbucks, the years from 1971-1984 where there was no espresso and generally no brewed coffee of any kind, and where consumers and employees alike passionately discussed the finer points of new crop Kenyas vs. Guatemalas, or whether a vacuum pot was really worth the trouble.
Cho and many less articulate, less knowledgeable others come from the barista culture spawned by Starbucks and its imitators, which is a fast-food culture, not a coffee culture. The skills required to be an excellent barista in a busy bar really don't overlap with those required to cup coffee, brew it at home, or explain its nuances to consumers. Clearly what has happened in the past fifteen or so years especially is that Third Wave folks have confused their own discovery of and interest in the actual taste of coffee and its provenance with that of a specialty industry whose peak of consumer and employee coffee knowledge and appreciation occurred well before most of them even took their first jobs.
If you take the time to read the article in Serious Eats you'll see the rest of what I have to say about that particular article in the comments section. At the end of the day, the saddest thing to me is that even the best and brightest of the Third Wave folks seem to have little or no interest in making it easy, simple and cost-effective for customers to brew great origin coffees at home. The barista culture background has blinded them to retail basics, and the consumer and the coffee farmer pay the price, while the likes of Keurig and Nespresso reap the benefits.
That said, I see a lot of hopeful signs, and as I mention in my comments there the very existence of machines like the Steampunk, Blossom and Trifecta that seek to elevate drip-strength coffee to espresso-like value status seems to me to be quite positive. We shouldn't forget though that their existence is essentially a consequence of the Clover machine being taken away from the likes of Stumptown and Intelligentsia by Starbucks, and that, in the case of Stumptown, the reaction to that reality, rather than working with the Trifecta or another piece of tech, was to revert to Plunger Pots, then Chemexes and Harios, and now Fetco commercial drip brewers.
If I continue to be critical of Third Wave stuff it's because I really do see the potential on the part of many folks involved in the business to truly do coffee at a level that is a quantum leap forward from the best Second Wave practices. The biggest thing holding folks back is the delusion that they're already doing so.