Recently I read that the the traditional preferred roast level in New England was Light Roast or Half City and the "American" roast level was medium as that is the level of roasting most common across the nation. For that matter, the Nordic countries, England, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong all have a long history of roasting coffee lighter, as well as using traditional brewing methods.
Ever since we started talking about the "waves" of coffee-culture, little if an attention has been given to what came before the 1st-wave, as if that wave introduced coffee to the nation. From what I understand, before the two great wars, coffee was roasted by neighborhood coffee roasters and delivered fresh to the door much like milk was. Roasted lighter, delivered freshly roasted, using traditional brewing devices... found familiar?
In my home cities of Milwaukee, in the early 19070s there were a number of specialty "coffee traders" that also roasted fresh in shop and roasted lighter. From the pictures I have seen, they look like Old World shops. Dunn Bros on Grand Ave in St. Paul also has that same European shop feeling to it, as well as other earlier conceived 2nd-wave coffee roasters I have visited around the country. My guess is they got this concept from an older coffee-culture that was present in America before the wars.
Seriously wish I know more about the earlier American Coffee-Culture and that more people were talking about it. Seems to be a forgotten "wave" and I think it deserves some attention.
Not sure that the so called "3rd-wave" is anything new or invented by those on the west-coast, it may rather be in someways a return to what the coffee-culture was before the the wars, as well as joining the roast level and brewing habits of those in other coffee-cultures around the world. We should not be so foolish or proud to think we are the first ones to come up with this coffee-culture.
... just my random thoughts...
I agree--the lighter roasts and manual brew methods were not original to the third wave, but they did help bring the craft back into specialty coffee. Third wave practices also helped bring more attention to the specialty coffee industry from coffee consumers, which has allowed us to educate our customers.
I would say that source and product are a part of the third wave movement, which does make it more unique. There was not as much interest in the farm, growing conditions, elevation, species, etc. prior to the third wave. With the focus of some now-large roasting companies (Stumptown and Intelligentsia, for example) on sustainability, transparency, and direct trade, more was brought to the table than simply lighter roasts.
With regard to older coffee culture in America, what time are you interested in? We had a time when instant coffee was the trend, and it started out as higher quality, but decreased in quality over time. This was followed up by the beginnings of the specialty coffee movement (Starbucks, Peets, and so on), and our continual desire to evolve has brought us to the third and now "New Wave" of coffee (this is a term coined by some coffee professionals, and I take no credit for it).
I'd love to hear more about the timeframe you're interested in, as I may be able to direct you to some reference materials. Thanks for the thoughtful post!
This is a great research piece (focused on Portland, but includes the time you're interested in): http://www.roastmagazine.com/resources/Articles/Roast_NovDec14_Roas.... They include Boyd's Coffee, who did home delivery and are still present in the industry today. My guess on the evaporation of home delivery direct from a company (across the board, not limited to coffee) is simply the overhead costs. When you can get almost anything from Amazon Prime with free two day shipping, it's hard for an independent business to compete.
I would debate that pre-WW coffee was not better quality. Due to shipping and logistics issues, green coffee could sit on ships or in storage for months, and was not well protected from the elements. It was also common to use cheaper coffee when possible and source coffee based on where labor costs were lower. This still happens with coffee roasters today, but we are smarter consumers and many businesses are more transparent about the coffee they procure.
Here's a few other pieces that are worth checking out:
https://www.nytimes.com/books/99/09/05/reviews/990905.05fusselt.html (and the book mentioned, Uncommon Grounds, is worth a read and may be right up your alley).
Enjoy, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts!