An understanding of the potential for super-premium coffee has been gaining momentum over the last five years. From farms in El Salvador, Panama, Colombia, East Africa, and Papua New Guinea, to roasters and cafes in London, Sydney, Auckland, Toronto, Portland, Chicago and San Francisco, a taste for special and unique coffee is emerging, and a whole generation of baristas, roasters, and producers are becoming emboldened to push quality and diversity as never before. It looks like the dawn of a new era for this amazing beverage that has captivated so many for so long. The new possibilities and expectations form a stark contrast by comparison with what previous generations (particularly here in the US) had come to know and expect from coffee:
The baby boom generation witnessed a steep decline in the availability of agricultural variety. In a widespread effort to improve corporate bottom lines, distinctness and genetic diversity in all sorts of agricultural products was systematically scuttled in favor of products that could be grown to have greater longevity off of harvest, higher resistance to blight, and a more salable appearance at market. Coffee did not escape this trend and the coffee experience of most Americans from World War 2 until the early 1980’s was limited to variations on a few themes, all of which started with a “mysterious brown powder,” that was engineered away from distinctness and toward consistency and smoothness. Using pre-ground, canned coffee, percolators churned out a daily beverage for millions.
In the process of brewing, percolators excessively cooked the coffee, and the resulting beverage wasn’t palatable to most people without a lot of help in the form of cream (or non-dairy creamer) and sugar. Large brewers were in use in commercial settings and they did extract at temperatures closer to what we would call optimal today, but the basic ingredient was the “mysterious brown powder” from cans as opposed to freshly ground whole beans that are integral to craft coffee. So-called “Instant Coffee,” provided a mellower, but still completely indistinct effect. Designed primarily for convenience, instant coffee is brewed and processed into a powder that can be dissolved directly in water, eliminating the need for brewers and/or filters as well as the resulting mess of disposing of spent coffee grounds. Instant coffee retains caffeine (except for decaf) and a not unpleasant, generic coffee flavor, but none of the distinctness or vibrancy of serious, single origin craft coffee. The coffee drinking public, especially in the US was systematically coached to value consistency over distinctness in coffee as well as with most other agricultural products. The reality of coffee at origin was kept completely out of the view of the public.
A comparison of the approach to coffee buying at origin then and now exposes changing goals within the coffee industry: last spring when I visited Hacienda Esmeralda in Boquete, Panama, Price Peterson related that in earlier decades of selling coffee grown at Esmeralda, long before the Geisha varietal was rediscovered there, the current standard industry practice of “cupping” coffee was virtually unknown. At that time commercial coffee buyers simply examined coffee for size, color, cleanliness, and the absence of defect, and for the overall size of the crop. By contrast, modern craft roasters often won’t even order coffee samples to try, let alone order 70 kilo bags of coffee for their businesses, until they have read the cupping notes of the producers and importers. These days the most developed farms have elaborate cupping labs at origin. In an effort to market their premium product to a wider audience many producers submit their product to rigorous competitive testing in Cup of Excellence competitions in the country of origin. COE awards are both marketing tools and sources of pride for the farmers whose coffees are so honored.
With all of that change, consumers remain relatively behind in this evolutionary process. As developed as coffee has become, a relative minority of consumers even have awareness of coffee not as a “bean,” but actually as the seed of a cherry…but that is changing. Prior to the 1980’s, the closest that American consumers usually came to the origins of coffee was vague inferences about the organic nature of the mysterious brown powder. If here and there folks knew that coffee came from exotic sub-tropical regions where Spanish was the spoken language, that knowledge wasn’t widespread.
In the 1970’s “Mrs. Olsen” told television audiences that Folgers Coffee was “100% Colombian” and “Mountain Grown,” “the Richest Kind.” Later, Juan Valdez was portrayed in more tv ads as the smiling, sombrero-clad farmer/spokesman with burro in tow; an image that would be regarded as offensive in it’s political incorrectness today. The Juan Valdez campaign was incredibly successful, and the Juan Valdez coffee brand is ubiquitous to this day in Colombia.
Those of us in the world of modern craft roasting would never roast coffee anywhere close to as darkly as anything served by Starbucks. To roast darkly does cover up off tastes in less-than-top-quality coffee. It also covers up most of the other distinctive characteristics of coffee. With darkly roasted coffee one tastes more of the roast and less of the coffee. To roast coffee profitably on a large scale requires sourcing coffee at a lower price and in larger amounts than is possible with the very finest, single origin, micro-lot coffee, and so the “dark roast” has evolved and been sustained partly as a way for roasters to hide defect in beans. Dark roasts taste strong and bitter by comparison with the more subtle and nuanced approach that is favored by modern craft roasters. In an effort to make dark roast coffee more palatable the American consumer has developed an almost universal habit of adding a lot of sugar and milk to their coffee. That can be a perfectly good beverage: enough sugar to sweeten the bitter edge of the coffee, and enough bitterness in the coffee to cut through the milk, but it isn’t a beverage for serious specialty coffee drinkers any more than a wine cooler is for serious wine drinkers.
For many committed specialty coffee devotees, coffee that requires cream and sugar at all simply isn’t subtle enough to interest us. The green coffee sought by modern craft roasters is usually quite a bit more expensive and rarified than anything that would make sense for Starbucks to roast. For a company processing the volume of a Starbucks, all of the problems associated with light roasts of single-origin micro-lots in small batches make such practices ultimately unsustainable. Modern-day specialty coffee isn’t one thing, but rather an ever-changing supply of organic produce with distinctive traits of origin and processing in each batch. Craft roasters endure times when special coffee is difficult to come by and other times when having already exhausted their current budget, they have to turn down a spectacular offering from a farm or a broker.
All of us with a passion for great coffee, face challenges in trying to provide a clear window for others to get closer to what drives that passion. Within the specialty coffee business we do our best job of winning over customers when we provide access to information free of pretense and exclusivity. Those of us in the cafe business serve customers with a wide range of tastes. While some customers are highly informed, the majority have had relatively little exposure to the inside story of coffee. When we engage and invite customers to share in what we admire in the emerging specialty coffee world, we have a chance to welcome rather than intimidate. We can’t necessarily expect to change peoples’ tastes, but our customers’ preferences do often change when we are able to stimulate their curiosity.
Understandably, consumers habituated to Starbucks’ service and dark roasted coffee sometimes find the new trends confusing and (at least initially) not to their liking: The modern specialty shop features expensive concoctions from faraway places and with wide-ranging flavor descriptors like “raspberry,” “lemon,” “honeysuckle,” and “blueberry,” that can seem out of place to traditional coffee drinkers. Customers at a modern shop must wait while drinks are brewed to order rather than ready-to-serve from a hot pot. Sometimes to the surprise of the traditionalists, drinks in a modern shop are served less than scalding hot (optimal brew and drinking temperatures are well off boiling). Meanwhile these shops often have limited menus. Occasionally one may encounter a young barista who isn’t as supple as one might hope with a customer who may already be feeling intimidated by first exposure to a new and seemingly elitist specialty coffee culture.
So to those that are new to craft coffee I strongly suggest that you adopt a patient stance lest you miss out on something really wonderful. You may have to rise to the challenge of a whole new range of flavors. You may have to tolerate constant change to the offerings at your specialty shop of choice along with higher prices and a whole new lexicon for coffee including terms like “pulped-natural” and “roast profile,” and “aromatics.” For those that can endure through all of that the rewards are many. For those of us who are serving craft coffee, let’s stay off the high horse. A lot of the customers simply don’t know yet. There is room in the club and today’s newbie can quickly become tomorrow’s expert. Let’s at least try to help anyone who is interested enough to ask, and committed enough to vote with their wallet, into this world…diplomatically. Coffee is a compelling and beautiful cross-cultural culinary experience with a rich history. It is full of all of the nuance, delicacy, and subtlest culinary attributes we have the privilege of experiencing in the brief stint we call a lifetime. But we need not take any of this (or ourselves) too seriously. It is just coffee after all.