Much like the beverage itself, coffee fans tend to run hot or cold on the subject. You either can’t live in a world without fresh, steaming macchiatos or you won’t touch an iced vanilla latte with a 10-inch swizzle stick. Most haters shy away from coffee’s notable bitterness, but coffeephiles often consider flavor an afterthought, with priority given to its function as a caffeine delivery system — just don’t talk to them in the morning until they’ve had their fix.
But something interesting has happened in the last few years here in Metro Lansing, changing the dynamics of the way coffee can be made and enjoyed. A relatively recent movement called “the third wave of coffee” has flipped the grab-and-go aspect of java consumption on its head, giving rise to a series of new local cafés that emphasize community over commerce, allowing them to keep the focus on flavor.
“Occasionally someone will still ask why it takes four minutes for a coffee, but that’s happening less often,” says Cara Nader, owner of Strange Matter Coffee Co. “The people who come here aren’t just looking for a cup of coffee. They’re looking for an experience.”
After spending years as a barista and manager in high-volume cafés in Traverse City and Chicago, Nader opened Strange Matter in Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood in 2014. The café is a multi-roaster pour-over bar, meaning it uses a variety of beans and drinks are handcrafted to order. Since then, other third wave shops have opened: Bloom Coffee Roasters in Old Town started as a craft roaster, but expanded to a café last year; The Crafted Bean in DeWitt introduced the concept of “coffee cocktails” to local taste buds (more on that later); and Blue Owl Coffee Co. in REO Town got its start as a mobile nitro-brew coffee bike, but went brick-and-mortar this past spring. Then this summer, Strange Matter doubled down with second location in downtown Lansing, with the Crafted Bean set to follow suit in downtown’s Wilis building later this year.
“I don’t think any of us see each other as competitors,” Nader said. “Trend-wise, (Lansing) is still a little behind the bar getting third wave coffee shops, but this market is far from saturated. I can count on two hands the number of third wave coffee shops in the state.”
The first coffee wave in America is noted by the proliferation of mass-produced coffee in the late 19th century (think: Folger’s), with the second wave being the ubiquity of espresso bars in the mid- to late-20th century (we’re looking at you, Starbucks). The third wave takes an artisanal approach to coffee, focusing on the growing and roasting processes to preserve the natural flavor from the beans.
“People don’t think of coffee as produce, but it should really be treated like fresh fruit,” Nader says. “I’ve had coffee that tasted like a fresh strawberry. By working with independent growers and craft roasters, you can create a drink that will make someone who thinks they hate coffee suddenly realize how much flavor there really is in there.”
Coffee beans are actually the seeds of a cherry-like fruit that can only be grown in equatorial climes. After being picked, the seeds, which are green, are removed from the cherry and shipped to a roaster, where they’re heated in vats and take on their distinctive brown hue. Eventually they’re ground and filtered through hot water to create the drink recognizable as coffee. But every step in the process, from the soil the plant is grown in to the temperature of the water going through the ground beans, represent a variable.
“I think my favorite part about coffee is that there’s always so much to learn,” Nader says. “I’m constantly getting lost in the day-to-day exploration of making the most awesome product I possibly can. The thing that will always keep in (the coffee world) is the fact that it’s always evolving.”
Crafted Bean owner Justin Hartig marshaled that evolution by dedicating his café to coffee cocktails, non-alcoholic drinks featuring slow-brewed coffee and scratch-made mixers.
“You can get a regular black coffee (here), but we like to see what we can do to really push the boundaries of what a coffee drink can be,” Hartig says. “I saw an opportunity to go someplace with (coffee) no one else had ever been, but this is more than just trying to be different. I wanted to create a place that would draw people of all ages, whether they like coffee or not.”
Hartig, who calls himself a “drugstore chemist,” spent months experimenting with flavors and to create his coffee drinks menu. Novel ingredients include butter from grass-fed cows, honey from Sleeping Bear Dunes and pure vanilla.
“There’s actually a lot of science involved in getting these flavors to work out perfectly,” Hartig said. “After I got the idea for (coffee cocktails), I started going to coffee shops around the country. I went to hundreds of places and I made a lot of new friends, but I didn’t see anything like what I had in mind.”
But since opening, the concept has been adopted by both Strange Matter and Blue Owl, more or less jumpstarting an official trend. Nick Berry, owner of Blue Owl, says he started experimenting with coffee cocktail recipes before his café even opened, but has since made experimentation with new drinks an integral part of his operation.
“Now my whole staff is constantly challenging themselves to come up with new recipes,” Berry says. “It’s great to see that kind of creativity. We’ve only been open a few months, but we’ve already got a whole roster of things that we plan to release over the coming months. Adventure is on exhibition.”
Like the other third wave shops, Blue Owl features pour-over coffee service, where water is heated to a specific temperature and poured over freshly ground beans in a specialty glass tumbler. It also has an espresso machine, cold nitrous-infused coffee, and ready-to-go batched coffee.
“The thing I really like about this business is that there’s no one way to do things,” Berry says. “We’re always experimenting with what we can do and seeing what works. And it helps to have these other cafés nearby that are also taking chances, and local roasters who are equally dedicated to quality.”
Jared Field, owner of Bloom Coffee Roasters, spent years perfecting his roasting skills before opening his coffee house last year. He roasts in-house in his Old Town location, and uses those beans in his own drinks; he also sells to other cafés around mid-Michigan. Field credits the rise of the foodie culture with fueling the third wave of coffee’s gusto.
“People want to know where their coffee and their food are coming from,,” Field says. “With coffee, the more research you do, the more you realize how much work and time it takes to harvest a truly incredible bean. I think at that point, people are very willing to wait and make sure that their barista is taking every step possible to make sure it's a delicious cup.”
Like most coffee drinkers, Field said he initially just it as a morning ritual to wake him up and get him through the day. But a chance job opportunity at a West Michigan café put him on his current career path. It’s also where he learned that coffee could also taste good, although he adds that at Bloom, it's not necessarily all about the taste.
“We're legitimately putting love and energy into every cup that we brew,” Field says. “There's a significant difference in a cup that's brewed from a Kuerig and a cup that's been brewed in a Hario V-60 (pour-over) brewer. It takes a while for your palate to trigger this realization, but once you drink enough specialty brewed coffee, there's really no going back.”
Allan Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.