Riding the Waves

Third wave coffee culture has arrived in Memphis

Photography by Brandon Dill

When Otherlands owner Karen Liebowitz opened her funky Cooper-Young coffee shop in 1994, the country was solidly in coffee’s “second wave”—when Starbucks was proliferating across the country and people began to gather at coffee shops, rather than simply enjoying a cup of Folgers at home.

Karen never really intended to run a coffee shop.

She’d moved her [now closed] futon business, Cottland Bedding, into one side of the space at 641 South Cooper Street and tried to find someone to run a coffee shop on the other side.

“No one took the bait for the coffee shop, so I decided to do it,” Karen said. “I was coming from nowhere. I had been in the natural foods business and worked for restaurants, but I’d never done anything like this.”

She hired a friend and former social worker who’d recently moved to Memphis from Chicago, and that friend hired a Romanian immigrant who’d previously served as a barista at a Starbucks in Evanston, Illinois.

At the time, independently owned coffee shops serving crafted coffee drinks were a new thing in Midtown Memphis.

“When I opened, Java Cabana was here, but that was about it. Before that, it was just CK’s,” Karen says.

Memphis remained solidly in coffee’s second wave long after some larger cities were moving into the third wave—when the focus shifted more toward the culinary appreciation of coffee, focusing on flavor, varietal and region. Third wave is often characterized by alternative coffee preparation (such as pour-overs), lighter roasts and single origin coffees.

It wasn’t until longtime Memphian Lisa Toro opened City & State on Broad Avenue in 2014 that Memphians were introduced to third wave coffee. Lisa’s primary focus with City & State was on the gift shop, which sells handcrafted goods created by makers mostly from outside of Memphis. But she also saw a need for a coffee shop on Broad.

“[My husband, Luis Toro, and I had] traveled extensively, and we’d seen what was changing in coffee. And that was about sourcing, direct trade and fair pricing for coffee, and understanding the full cycle,” Lisa says. “We wanted to bring that global perspective and to celebrate that coffee, knowing what the farmers do and the risks they take to produce beautiful coffees.”

And so the Toros decided to open the first of Memphis’s third wave coffee shops, introducing the city to pour-overs and lighter roasts.

“Often, we’re getting over-roasted coffees in the Italian fashion,” Lisa says. “Coffee beans are very similar to wine in that it’s the seed of a stone fruit, and you should get all kinds of flavor notes when you brew a cup of coffee. We’re trying to show people the other side of coffee.”

While Lisa believes the best coffee is served black, she wanted to ease Memphians into coffee appreciation. City & State offers both unadulterated cups and sweetened latte drinks, so there’s a little something for everyone.

“We knew we couldn’t come in and say, ‘We know more than everybody, and it’s our way or no way,’” Lisa says. “We still serve beautiful flavored lattes, and people should be able to enjoy coffee in any way they choose.

“I’m nothing more than a customer who got more and more educated over time. I was a full-on pumpkin spice latte-loving mom six years ago. I never wanted to be so rigid that there wasn’t room for everybody. When we do our sweetened drinks, we think about the quality. We make the syrup in-house, or we use a small-batch syrup maker out of Chicago.”

By the end of 2017, coffee-loving Memphians were starting to get the hang of the third wave. So when a couple of Los Angeles transplants, Bailey Biggers and David Pender, opened their coffee pop-up, Low Fi Coffee, inside the [now closed] Bozwell + Lily pop-up boutique on North Main, some local coffee drinkers were ready to experience single origin coffee beans in their purest form — unsweetened and black.

Low Fi may be the city’s only sweetener-free coffee shop. While they do offer various milks for coffee, the only sugar in the shop is a smidge of coconut sugar in the mocha drink. Customers are welcome to bring their own, but Bailey and David want people to try coffee in its purest form.

“We explain why we don’t do sugar instead of just saying we don’t do it, and people are pretty thankful to have something unique and so thoughtful,” Bailey says.

The business took off at Bozwell + Lily, and after a brief stint as a pop-up inside the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Low Fi set up shop inside Stock & Belle on South Main. The couple recently revitalized their space with new cabinetry, additional water lines and a nitro coffee setup.

Low Fi uses only single origin beans, no blends. They source their coffee from small-batch, artisan roasters from across the country.

“We see ourselves continually trying to push the boundaries of what people’s perception of coffee is,” says David.

“We don’t want to ever be satisfied with our product to the point where we’re complacent about what we’re putting out. We’re constantly trying to get people to abandon their assumptions and help them open their minds.”

While Memphis was catching up to the third wave, some local coffee enthusiasts were experimenting with at-home roasting. Tiffany Day, who occasionally sells her home-roasted beans with Lulu’s (a local vegan bakery co-op that sells at the Cooper-Young and downtown farmers markets, as well as hosting occasional brunch pop-ups), started roasting beans on her porch with an air popcorn popper a couple of years ago.

“You had to do it outside because the outer layer of coffee skin dries up and blows off, so it makes a huge mess,” says Tiffany. “I did it on my porch until we got into the thick of a Memphis winter. Then my air popper was not powerful enough to get hot enough outside to roast, so I invested in a home roasting machine.”

Tiffany says that, when she was in college, she drank “dessert coffee,” which was mostly milk and sugar. But around 2010, about the same time she moved to Memphis, she started drinking her coffee black. Her interest in sourcing better coffee and trying it in different ways then developed over time. She was influenced by Memphis’s early artisan roasters, like Relevant Roasters (which folded into French Truck Coffee) and Reverb Coffee.

A coworker introduced Tiffany to home roasting, and she’s never looked back.

Today she orders green coffee beans from Sweet Maria’s, a coffee importer out of Oakland, California. Her favorites are berry-forward Ethiopian beans or Kenyan coffees “with tomato-y notes or tea-like with citrusy cranberry and grape flavors.”

“I’ve been in Memphis nine years now, and just seeing the growth of the coffee scene in Memphis has been wild,” says Tiffany.

“I expect us to have more and more of these third wave specialty shops and more roasters. We have the Grind City Coffee Expo happening for the second time in March. That event shows how much coffee has grown in Memphis.”

The first Grind City Coffee Expo was held in the spring of 2019 at Memphis College of Art and highlighted the growing Memphis coffee community with samples and brewing demonstrations.

One featured company at Grind City was Vice & Virtue, a micro-batch, artisan roaster that started much in the same way as Tiffany. Since the expo, Vice & Virtue owners Tim and Teri Perkins opened their own third wave shop in the new Arrive hotel on South Main in November 2019.

“I started out roasting at home for friends and family, as a way to get really good coffee cheaper,” says Tim. “I started with an old-school Whirly-Pop, a 1950s hand-crank popcorn popper. I eventually spent my bonus from my work as an attorney for AutoZone to buy a commercial coffee roaster.”

The couple joined the specialty coffee association and went through their roaster training. In March 2017, they launched at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, selling whole beans and fresh cups. These days, Vice & Virtue sells their beans at local grocery shops like The Curb Market and Cordelia’s Market.

“I grew up thinking coffee was something you had to endure, not enjoy,” says Tim.

“But I’d travel with work and go to these awesome coffee shops in L.A. and New York. I remember going to Blue Bottle Coffee in New York. They were the catalyst behind launching the third wave scene.

“I had a cup of Kenyan peaberry. I was going to adulterate it and put all kinds of sugar in it, and the barista was just like, ‘Stop and just take a sip before you add anything,’” Tim recalls. “That totally changed my perspective on coffee. It was fruity and more tea-like, and that is what sparked my interest to delve deeper.”

When Tim returned home to Memphis, he started ordering his coffee beans online, often paying up to $25 a bag with shipping. With his and Teri’s three or four cups each per day, the couple’s coffee habit had turned into a $150-a-month expense. That’s what led Tim to at-home roasting.

“I’ve told Lisa at City & State that if she’d started a year before she did, we wouldn’t exist,” says Tim. “The only reason we started was because there was nowhere in Memphis to get great third wave coffee at the time.”

In Vice & Virtue’s Arrive hotel location, they sell coffee drinks and whole beans alongside baked goods by Memphis baker Ali Rohrbacher, of Hustle & Dough. Tim is most excited about their newest project there—barrel-aged coffee.

“We’re trying to push boundaries and do fun things. We’ve teamed up with Blue Note Bourbon and have been barrel-aging green coffee in Blue Note barrels,” says Tim. “When we launched the shop, we launched a barrel-aged coffee from Guatemala. That plays into the whole brand idea of Vice & Virtue. It embodies that concept.”

As third wave expands in Memphis, local shops are experimenting with new ways of serving coffee. Low Fi is now offering coffee growlers and serving nitro coffee and teas, which are infused with tiny gas bubbles for a creamier mouthfeel. They’ve also launched boxed coffee and tea.

“It’s like wine in a box but for cold brew and tea,” says Bailey. “You can heat them or serve cold. I’ve not seen anyone in the nation doing the box for cold brew.”

City & State is bringing third wave outside the city limits to Germantown. The Toros partnered with Raw Girls to open a year-long coffee shop/gift store/raw food pop-up in Saddle Creek in late October 2019.

“A couple of my employees have been with me since we opened on Broad, and they remember what it was like to introduce this coffee in Memphis,” Lisa says. “Now we’re going back to those early days and bringing this into another market in Germantown. They haven’t really had this at all, so this is exciting to see what that looks like.”

Meanwhile, second wave shops like Otherlands remain strong, filling the need for a gathering place and workspace with good coffee and a menu of sweet and savory food offerings.

“I haven’t branched out into the different coffee methods,” Karen says. “Other people are filling that niche. But we have added some new things, like golden milk. And we make our chai from scratch using fresh ginger and herbs. I try to keep things as holistic as I can.”

Karen isn’t worried about competition as Memphis coffee culture expands. Her shop has always been, first and foremost, about community.

“All the coffee shops are so different, so there’s something for everybody,” she says.

Cheers was my inspiration, and it actualized itself at Otherlands. If someone comes in and someone else is sitting at their seat at the bar, they’ll say, ‘You’re in my seat.’”

Meanwhile, Memphis is moving into coffee’s fourth wave, in which coffee purveyors not only pay close attention to roasting and brewing techniques but also ensure their beans are sourced in a socially conscious way—meaning the farmers are paid a living wage and the coffee is grown sustainably. In fact, many of Memphis’s third wave shops would actually be classified as fourth wave as well.

“With the whole fourth wave thing, I’m not sure what the definition is,” Tim says. “But we’re trying to push boundaries and do fun things.”

Bianca Phillips writes about vegan food (and shares images of everything she eats) on her blog, Vegan Crunk. She’s the author of Cookin’ Crunk: Eatin’ Vegan in the Dirty South. By day, she works as the communications coordinator for Crosstown Arts/Crosstown Concourse. She and her partner, Paul, are the proud parents of five cats and one very stubborn (but adorable) pit bull. @biancaphillips

Brandon Dill has found a home in Memphis. When not planning road trips with his wife, or building blanket forts with his two daughters, he likes to take pictures. His photos have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and others. @bdillphoto