In 2002, San Francisco’s Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters owner Trish Rothgeb coined the term “third-wave coffee,” applying a framework often used when referring to different feminist movements. According to Rothgeb’s model, first-wave coffee is industrial — think tubs of Folgers — and the second wave is ubiquitousness and coffee shop culture, like Starbucks roasts and the cast of Friends hanging out at Central Perk. The third wave, the favorite for specialty fans, is known for minimal aesthetics and intentional sourcing, including roasters like Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee.
More than 20 years later, there is talk of what those future coffee waves may look like. The coffee magazine Drift identifies six total waves, with the fifth being the “commercial scaling of boutique coffee.” The fourth wave, as described by the coffee blog Sprudge, sees historically marginalized communities beginning to own the means of production, not only growing and roasting coffee, but capturing the value of beverages, to boot.
The Pacific Northwest’s rich coffee history and Portland’s progressive scene of immigrant-owned roasteries need little introduction. Over the years, Portland has gained a reputation for its relationship to coffee and cafes. Enormous Stumptown was born here, as well as Scandinavian-style roasters including Heart. The Rose City is in the middle of its own fourth-wave coffee movement, with sneaker-loving Deadstock in Chinatown and Vietnamese roastery Portland Cà Phê among the new brass. The commitment to the craft remains, building on the robust history in the area and the industry, but an eye toward the future has sparked action among both entrepreneurs and fans. This new crop of businesses is proving that coffee’s future can be more inclusive and less damaging to the planet, all the while maintaining flavor in the cup.
In the brick-covered Gotham Building, Kalesa Coffee is serving roasts that reflect its owners’ heritages while creating space for Asian American and Pacific Islander folks in Portland’s cafe culture. Owners Tim Almeda, Leilani Bañuelos Banayat, and Keanu Banayat feel like coffee’s whiteness may be a relic of the third wave. “Coffee’s been pretty single origin-y, very bro-y,” Keanu Banayat says. “But in the last few years, we’ve seen it turn into something where people are celebrating their culture.”
The three met in California, where they worked in majority-white staffed and owned cafes. All three are Asian American; Almeda and Keanu Banayat identify as Filipino.
Almeda and Banayat worked at sister cafes in Southern California where they were regularly confused for one another by staff members, even after numerous corrections to their managers; the two wanted to run a shop where disregard for staff wouldn’t be commonplace. While accessibility may not always mean cheaper prices, good coffee doesn’t have to come with microaggressions and condescension, either.
To them, there’s no question that Portland’s Asian American community is what birthed Kalesa and has kept it strong, particularly thanks to a handful of business owners who have served as mentors and guides. Carlo Lamagna at Magna has offered them advice on the operations end, and Kimberly Dam at Portland Cà Phê has situated them in the community through social connections.
The fact that Dam openly addresses racist overtones in the coffee industry, for instance, was a draw to the young entrepreneurs. Vietnam is the largest producer of robusta beans in the world, and Dam noticed the specialty scene in Portland — and broadly — often knocked the plant unjustly. “Robusta beans, which are quite popular in Vietnam, weren’t being used, because people were like, ‘Robusta beans are gross,’” Dam told Eater in 2021. “I tried some other companies, and I said, ‘You know, this isn’t as bad as people think … you just have to roast them in a different way.’”
Kalesa’s owners bring their heritages front and center with coconut cold brew with ube whip and mango calamansi in a chamoy-rimmed glass. These drinks remind the owners, and plenty of their fans, of growing up sipping Folgers-based concoctions with their grandparents. Their cafe is tiny, with high wooden tables and a bright yellow La Marzocco espresso machine behind the bar. Bañuelos Banayat says it’s about story, pointing out how something as small as a Milo hot chocolate can for a tip jar signals to Filipino folks that this is a welcoming space.
All three owners agree that fighting coloniality in coffee is creating a new culture rather than running back the old playbook of capitalistic competition. For many coffee roasters and baristas, tackling coffee’s problematic roots while maintaining a commitment to quality is how Portland businesses are shaping the fourth wave. “The third wave highlighted what made coffee special and artisan,” Almeda says. “But over time it became a luxury. We’re making it accessible to our community again.”
Hector Mejía Zamora also understands accessibility in coffee — with an international scope. On a late summer afternoon, the sun beating through the windows of his Southeast Portland cafe, he’s elbow-deep in the coffee, serving it and theorizing how to make it less harmful to the planet and its producers. The Guatemalan-born-and-raised entrepreneur owns a farm in his home country and works with farmers producing beans for his shop Cafe Zamora. But for him, that’s not enough: He wants to think more consciously about how to politically impact the ways we understand coffee and its distribution.
It’s considered post-third wave when a person like Zamora, from a coffee-growing region, earns money making coffee as opposed to simply producing it. He’s not alone: San Francisco’s Sextant Coffee Roasters provides a model for Ethiopian Americans and Portland Cà Phê for Vietnamese Americans. Keeping profit inside communities that produce these commodities is a historical first in the span of global capitalism, and something not seen in the previous waves of coffee.
While Zamora is running an export business and a cafe, he wants coffee companies to support efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change. It’s challenging for consumers to identify what’s real when it comes to organic or fair trade, Zamora says, so he’s working to propose a bill to Oregon legislators that he hopes will balance the scales on the corporate side without punishing consumption. The bill, which is still in the drafting stage, would impose an environmental tax on coffee companies making more than $1 million in sales annually. Zamora is writing the proposal alongside local activists and Guatemalan workers, who he hopes will be granted more power in the legislation, too.
Zamora says Portland is ideal for this approach. Locals are primed to engage in politics to push the industry forward — it’s part of what made the city such fertile ground for the third-wave coffee movement. As the coffee world continues to evolve, as waves continue to rise and fall here, he says the city will continue to support what’s next. “The attractive thing here is the willingness of people to try new things,” Zamora says. “And they want to keep that at the heart.”