Riding the Third Wave

andrew barnett linea coffee

Andrew Barnett, the proprietor of Linea Caffe, rode a path from the kitchen to the crest of third-wave coffee and found his espresso jam along the way.

The navy edifice of Linea Caffe’s recently opened café-roastery on Potrero Hill straddles the distance between Texas and Mississippi Streets. Inside, the proprietor, Andrew Barnett, is busy drawing lines from past to future, idols to mentees, naming industry visionaries with exacting clarity: Susie Spindler, Erna Knutsen, George Howell, Ernesto Illy. Although he is reluctant to take any credit for it, many people would add him to that list as a vanguard of coffee’s third wave.

Barnett has spent over four decades searching for exceptional ingredients. As a coffee proprietor, that means world-class green coffee. He’s developed ties to specialty coffee professionals far and wide, including small, organic producers in Brazil, such as the Barretto-Croce family in the country’s Mococa region. Unlike retailers who simply purchase distinctive beans, Barnett has played an active promotional role. He travels to the region regularly and offers detailed cultivation notes on each bag of coffee Linea sells. He also serves as a judge at the annual Cup of Excellence (COE) competition, blind-tasting and ranking coffees that go on to fetch premium prices at auction, increasing the farmers’ profits.

These efforts helped propel coffee’s third wave. The term, coined by Trish Rothgeb, of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, is associated with lighter roasts and barista craftsmanship and production techniques intended to enhance a coffee’s true flavor. Varietal coffee beans and even the specific farms that grow the beans also play a role. Coffee’s second wave, by contrast, is characterized by dark roasts, elevating the consumptive experience, and naming broad bean types and regions over particular varietals and farms. First wave treats coffee as a commodity, prioritizing convenience and scale, and aims for the same predictable taste in every cup.

Barnett’s path to third-wave darling has been far from straight—he got into coffee by way of cuisine. At 18, he moved from Chicago to Marin County to apprentice as a chef. He learned traditional French cooking, which emphasized quality and simplicity, a philosophy he still follows. “There was this unbelievable budget for getting fresh ingredients,” he recounts, “we would get fresh crab, we would get fresh salmon from Bodega Bay.” Alice Waters had yet to rise to fame: using local, seasonal ingredients was cutting-edge.

Barnett considered a career in kitchens, but he decided against culinary school. “It was not a glorious thing to be a chef. It was blue-collar work,” he says. “Kind of a pirate thing, at that point.” Instead, he chose City College of San Francisco and pursued printmaking. Still, he didn’t stray far from food.

Though he’d never pulled a shot, Barnett talked his way into a job at Higher Grounds Café in 1976, which was one of the few places that sold espresso in San Francisco. He fell in love. “I thought, ‘This is a culinary art, I didn’t even know it,’” Barnett recalls. Working both front- and back-of-house, Barnett also interacted with customers, something he found missing from professional kitchens.

After dedicating several years to art, Barnett was eager to return to espresso and carried this attitude to his first coffee venture, the Western Caffe in Sonoma County.

In 1993, he attended Coffee Fest, a trade show in Seattle, when espresso’s domestic popularity was peaking. “Everything changed with Starbucks,” Barnett says. In 1992, the company had a successful initial public offering under then-CEO Howard Schultz, who touted espresso’s potential after studying café culture in Italy.

At the time, both Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee focused on dark roasts. So did Aroma Roasters, across the street from Barnett’s small shop. Barnett needed to be different. In part, he fell back on his strength: serving food. He also decided to bring in a unique light roast coffee from David Schomer of Espresso Vivace in Seattle. “David is a very important figure in what I call the ‘third wave movement,’” Barnett says. Barnett had tried his roasts at Coffee Fest; it was the sweetest coffee he’d ever sampled. The profile was also favored in Northern Italy, including by Dr. Ernesto Illy, former chairman of illycaffè, who believed roasting dark extinguished coffee’s flavor.

Schomer didn’t just have a distinct roast; he had a specific methodology, outlined in his 1996 book, Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques. “People can argue whether it’s right or wrong, but it’s a blueprint for people that had nothing,” Barnett says. “They had no idea how to adjust a coffee grinder, how to tamp espresso, how many seconds to time a shot.” Schomer’s scientific approach spread rapidly, thanks to another tectonic shift: the internet. With computers at hand, baristas all over the world were converting to his techniques.

Including in Sonoma County, where Barnett was exploring latte art—free pouring milk into designs—which was then rare outside of Seattle in the U.S. “We thought we had something really special,” he says, “and at that time, it was,” A statement backed up by Western Caffe winning Best New Restaurant in 1995. Yet, Barnett still felt something was missing; he needed to learn to roast. For a culinary mind, it made sense. It was another step in the process. He purchased a roaster and founded Ecco Caffe in 2000.

Roasting didn’t come immediately to Barnett. “I was so scared, running the roasting machine,” he admits. He claims it was only after roasting 40,000 or 50,000 batches and the realization that he couldn’t learn to roast alone that he gained confidence. Barnett also realized he needed guidance to develop his roasting skills. He hired consultant Willem Boot, of San Rafael’s Boot Coffee, and Jen St.Hilaire, who had roasted for Schomer in Seattle. Boot gave Barnett another reality check: he had to develop his palette to progress. Barnett needed to learn how to cup coffee, a method of tasting to evaluate flavors and attributes.

Though Barnett later became a renowned cupper, he won’t say so directly. Instead, he draws a line. “There she is,” Barnett says, pulling up a picture of Erna Knutsen on his laptop. “There should be a statue in the city for her.” Knutsen first used the term specialty coffee in 1974, to denote beans with unique flavor from geographic microclimates. She’s also the one who told Barnett about coffee from COE, the organization co-founded in 1999 by third-wave coffee pioneers, Susie Spindler and George Howell (two more names on Barnett’s hero list).

COE coffee changed Barnett. He first purchased a batch in 2001 through Knutsen; it was the year’s sixteenth-ranked coffee, grown by Anésio Contini, in Mogiana, Brazil. Barnett was blown away by the quality. He began reading about the year’s first-place contestant, an agronomist named Paulo Sérgio de Almeida. Almeida was farming organically in Brazil at a time that doing so was rare. Soon after, Barnett boarded a plane. “I speak very little Portuguese, he speaks very little English,” Barnett recalls of meeting Almeida. They found a common language in shade-grown, organic coffee. In 2002, Barnett began traveling regularly to Brazil; in 2003, he first cupped as a judge at the COE. Around the same time, the World Barista Championship (WBC) came to be. The WBC highlights barista skill, and Barnett would later judge that competition, too. COE, the WBC and the values they embody represent the confluence of the third wave, Barnett says.

Yet, Barnett found himself out on a limb among third-wavers. “I get this reputation as a ‘Brazil guy,’” he says, “for better or worse.” Barnett explains that many people misunderstand Brazilian coffee, though some criticisms are valid. When Brazilian coffee is industrially-produced, it is grown in monoculture with chemical fertilizers, which yields beans that are not very distinctive. Brazilian coffee beans also tend to be softer, which doesn’t work well for dark roasts. These attributes kept many second-wave buyers away, and their influence, in turn, deterred many third-wave players.

Not Barnett. He found a touchstone in Almeida and farmers like him. “It was kind of like, this is my jam,” he says. “Sweet, balanced espresso that’s approachable.” Barnett sold and roasted through Ecco Caffe until 2009, when Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee, another specialty-coffee retailer, purchased Ecco. Barnett stayed on as an employee, even though Intelligentsia later closed the Ecco brand. “Selling the business, it was different than I imagined it would be,” he says. “But it also opened up some great things in my life.” Barnett maintained his relationships with farmers, continued judging at COE and remained in the Bay Area.

These links allowed Barnett, in 2013, to launch his current venture: Linea Caffe, in the Mission. The name means line in Spanish. Naturally, there are many connections. Sweet espresso, for one. It’s an obsession that Barnett says still keeps him up at night. Another is Brazil. “These coffees, they are a treasure trove for what I want to do,” he explains. Barnett conjures another picture, this time, from a countertop. It’s of Silvia Barretto, whose fifth-generation family farm provides Linea with most of its coffee. After Barretto inherited the land, she and partner Marcos Croce decided to go organic; they hired Almeida to show them how.

Now, with a café-roastery opening this fall on Potrero Hill, Barnett feels that he’s come full circle. He obtained the space from Intelligentsia, which roasted there from 2012 to 2018. “This is a huge win for the company, where we can develop our culture under one roof,” Barnett adds. Likewise, acquiring a roastery in San Francisco is no easy feat for small coffee companies, given industry consolidation and heightened competition for real estate.

As for coffee’s fourth wave, “we return to what’s old,” Barnett says. He mentions ready-to-drink products, as well as freeze-dried and canned varieties—transmutations from coffee’s first wave. But Barnett isn’t interested in chasing trends. “It should taste good, and really, it should be a joyful experience for the guests,” he says. That’s why the Potrero Hill roastery will be laid out like an open kitchen, so guests can watch beans roast while drinking their coffee. Barnett will no doubt be there, working the roaster and cupping coffees, a chef of his own design.