There might have been more than a minor uproar a little while ago when Michael Ruhlman, one of the most highly regarded food writers of our generation, wrote a post about how much he loved his coffee percolator. The response was polarizing, to say the least, especially from coffee professionals, for whom the coffee percolator is a terrible method to brew and consume coffee. It shows the outmoded view of coffee from foodies, who want the taste of coffee to resemble itself, like some sort of memory of their first Starbucks or even Folgers. There’s something that jolts the mind when one tastes straightforward coffee – it’s bitter unless tamed with milk and sugar, it’s usually hot and it’s a device used to wake up in the morning.
Coffee goes surprisingly well with so many wonderful desserts and breakfast foods. And for foodies it’s simply enough that the coffee brand is well regarded or that the coffee was freshly roasted (though less so than the first point). You would find it nearly impossible to quiz a food person about the intricacies of coffee flavor without them saying they prefer it strong or with milk/sugar or in cappuccino/latte form. This isn’t to place disdain on that kind of consumption, especially when the market has educated even the most knowledgeable of food people to enjoy coffee in this way.
Unfortunately this view of the coffee world is so dated by this point that we’re doing a disservice by not highlighting the great things that the industry is currently doing. It’s like we’ve all taken Kenneth David’s book about Coffee from the mid ’80s and kept it as our coffee bible. If you can’t understand that analogy, imagine using the first version of The Joy of Cooking from the 1930s as your manual. The methods, ingredients, and recipes are just outdated. People eat differently now. Not that there’s anything wrong with celebrating the classics – Julia Child will always endear the hearts of cooks and foodies.
I thought it was interesting when my sales rep at Intelligentsia, Nick Griffith, mentioned to me that coffee is better today than it was even five years ago – meaning mid 2005 to 2006 if we’re talking 2011 now. Nick used to roast at Coffee Klatch out in the Inland Empire and was no doubt instrumental in Heather Perry’s U.S. Barista Championships. He would understand how much coffee has improved over the past few years. And the simple reason is better coffee production, processing, and delivery. Because of efforts by top roasters around the world (many of which are American), coffee farms and cooperatives are improving their methods and taking advantage of the natural terroir that coffee can reflect. All of this is extremely exciting – we should be documenting this change and development.
One of the reasons for this big disconnect and this dated view is the coffee geeks who prod and pry their coffee through various brewing devices and espresso machines. Espresso enthusiasts are like modern steampunk activists while the artisanal (or sometimes tech-savvy) single-cup coffee brewers use timeless devices like the Chemex, Hario V60 cone (or the newer Aeropress). I love to sit around with coffee professionals who discern the subtler flavors of coffees, with a more diverse chemical compound mix than wine. To the outsider, all of this talk seems wild, almost ridiculous, though it would not be too different than sitting around with oenophiles (wine lovers) extolling the virtues of vintage Burgundy.
Perhaps it’s this elitism, or even perceived elitism, that prevents the general food public from understanding coffee from the professional point of view. It’s easy to forget that wine professionals are who they are because they not only have excellent palates, they have access to the wide variety of wines that allow them to make judgments about the quality of certain wines. The same goes for coffee professionals, who get to taste dozens of coffees per day, every day, multiple times a day, for nearly every day of the year. It takes a dedicated consumer with access to the right mix of roasters, brewers, and espresso machines to really get the perspective of coffee professionals.
So what can we do about trying to educate consumers and foodies about the latest and greatest developments in the coffee industry? Well a clever and highly useful iPhone app doesn’t hurt, like I wrote about last week. But it goes beyond that – at some point food writers need to be able to discuss the current progression in coffee in a cohesive and non-dismissive way (as Frank Bruni ultimately did in the New York Times Magazine) that makes coffee and espresso brewing accessible. That sounds grand and lofty but we have to start somewhere.
For me it begins just a foot next to my ice cream shop’s cash register, where a good friend has constructed an elegant and completely functional Hario drip stand that holds white ceramic V60 cones and places them over clear glass Hario kettles. Customers are so intrigued by the set up that they sometimes just start grabbing the equipment (without asking). Then they’ll look next to it and see a bunch of small clear mason jars that hold pre-weighed amounts of coffee. They’ll handle those mason jars and ask, “What are these? Are these for sale?” Then I’ll point to the chalkboard behind the counter and say, “These are coffees that are ground freshly and brewed one cup at a time.” The whole idea is novel, foreign, almost unreasonable. I’ll talk about how each coffee we have is from a single origin – one farm, collective, or region where the entire production has been closely monitored.
Some people don’t balk at the high-ish price (I try to price each cup between $3-4.50, depending on the coffee) and try it. They’re enamored – why do you wet the paper? – To wash out the papery taste and slightly heat the cone and kettle. Why do you pour out only a few ounces and let the coffee sit? So it can bloom and allow some gases to dissipate (they can see it happening right in front of them). Then they see me finish up the brew with a small circular stream of water. The coffee goes into a cup and then I wait to see their reaction.
Almost every single person notices an immediate difference in this coffee – it’s good. It’s delicious, it’s fresh, it’s flavorful, it doesn’t taste burnt or over roasted. Sometimes it’s borderline sour but I try to relate that to brightness, a balance. Most people can get over that.
I’m pretty dandy at this point, until about ¾ of customers ask where they can get milk and sugar. I know this is a fight that Intelligentsia has been trying to win. I try not to normalize and insist that the coffee is best enjoyed without either but people have their habits. They’re so used to McDonald’s and Starbucks coffee.
I really think I did my best up until this point. Really the only thing left is for people to come to the realization that the coffee can have its own flavor profile and characteristics. How revolting would it be, even for a non-regular wine drinker, to insist on adding ice to their glass to red or white wine at a restaurant?
The coffee industry needs to continue to give clear, consistent messages about what constitutes good coffee production, delivery, and roasting. Writers need to direct people toward what has flavor and character, highlighting the methods and processes that allow for great coffee to reach distant lands to your cup. We need to extol brewing methods that bring out the best from coffee. We have to get up to date or else we’re just widening the gap between the elitist snobs and the public.