Over Christmas Melanie and I went to visit family in Long Island & Connecticut. It's a seven hour drive. Which meant drinking road coffee. And the disappointment that usually comes along with that.
We started Aldo Coffee in 2004, early on in the "third wave" coffee era. Eight years have since passed. And while "third wave coffee" continues to get significant coverage in consumer and trade food and beverage press, it still hasn't made much of a dent in many parts of the country - including many densely populated parts in the Northeast where there exists a strong appreciation for culinary advances and ethical/organic products in every other food category besides coffee.
This would include Long Island, where we've yet to find any coffeehouse that remotely resembles a "third wave" operation (which we'll define for our purposes as sourcing ethically, roasting lighter to allow the coffee to express the bean rather than the roast, training baristas on proper dosing and brewing for both espresso and drip). We know of exactly one in Fairfield County, CT.
It's an odd phenomenon. There is a high appreciation for better wines, beers and spirits in the metro NYC area. High end supermarkets and organic food outlets are rife in the area. Yet this increasing food awareness hasn't spread to coffee outside of lower Manhattan, a wide swath of Brooklyn and a couple of outposts in Queens. Other than Espresso Neat in Darien, the drive from Long Island to New Haven offers no options for great coffee close to I-95 (unless you're willing to make a detour to CoffeeLabs in Tarrytown just short of the Tappan Zee). Once you get to New Haven, you've got Willoughby's and Blue State, then nothing again until Providence and Boston.
Given how third-wave coffee is more widely represented in other East Coast suburbs like those outside Philly and DC what explains the dearth of third-wave coffee in Connecticut and Long Island?
I think I have an explanation: Dunkin Donuts and Eight O'Clock Coffee.
Dunkin Donuts is a birthright of New Englanders, and more recently has overtaken the once-ubiquitous blue-and-white NYC go cup in Manhattan itself. New England is the one area of the country where Starbucks is not the leading chain coffee. And most importantly, Dunkin roasts coffee much lighter than Starbucks, which is generally perceived as "burnt" by those who enjoy third-wave coffees. They're used to - and in fact generally prefer - lighter roasts in the Northeast. In fact, in roaster lingo, old-timers used to refer to a specific level of light roast as "New England Roast" just like they'd refer to a dark roast as "Italian" or one on the verge of charcoal as "French".
I've found that even Starbucks' new "Blonde" roasts, Veranda and Willow have carbony notes, though not nearly as much as their typical house blend coffee. The only way you'll find burnt notes in a cup of Dunkin is if you go at a non-peak time when the staff has let the carafe sit on the heater for far longer than company policy allows. And as far as NYC goes, Dunkin's operation looks favorably on the typical "regular to-go" coffee order (cream, two sugars).
Thus, for a black coffee drinker, the difference between lighter roasted third-wave coffees and carbony Starbucks is relatively clear cut. Not so much when it comes to competing vs. Dunkin. You can discern some flavor notes in a cup of Dunkin beyond "just coffee" - you can easily find basics like sweet and nutty. Rather than talking a mellower, non-bitter cup, now you're talking price and convenience. And Dunkin obviously has that all over any third-wave shop.
Dunkin is everywhere in New England - there are roughly eight Dunkins to every Starbucks - and also has a larger presence in the NYC metro (including NJ and LI) than Starbucks.
Did I mention it's also a birthright? New Englanders have a bit of regional pride invested in Dunkin vs. that West Coast interlopers. They like their own, which is also why there's a lower percentage of national chains vs. mom-and-pops in New England vs. other areas of the country. Dunkin was accepted it's from there.
In other areas of the country, the typical progression to third wave coffee is something like Folgers to Starbucks to Stumptown. In New England, it's more like Eight O'Clock/Dunkin is both the starting and ending destination for those who grew up in the area. Although there haven't been any studies to quantify this, it's reasonable to suppose that a disproportionate number of third wave shop customers in New England migrated from Starbucks (and in Boston, from Coffee Connection, which was bought out by Starbucks) rather than Dunkin - because it's a more difficult value proposition to make to a Dunkin customer than a Starbucks one.
Similarly, when it comes to supermarket coffee, Eight O'Clock is still hugely popular, being a medium roast whole bean arabica option in a supermarket world of canned ground robusta and brand-name dark/french roasts.
Oddly, the other big-name New England roaster, Green Mountain, is mostly an afterthought. They don't own their own cafes, their coffee is found mostly in convenience stores and gas stations, and they have no quality control over how their coffees are brewed or held. Which I suppose is why they have their future tied to Keurig machines for home. And the one cup of Green Mountain I bought at 3:30am before jumping onto the LIE for the long trip home was among the worst cups I had in 2012, if not the worst. Yet it was all I had to get me through NYC and into NJ, where we filled up on much cheaper gas.
I was happy to find a Dunkin right near the gas station before we got back onto I80. It's not the best coffee in the world, but it's reliable, and indeed, tasty in its own way, even if that means simply not being offensive.