Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Have it our way

I'm dating myself by even remembering the old Burger King "have it your way" ad campaign, but it's clear that the title of this post is what seems to excite Oliver Strand, the New York Times coffee columnist who like the Third Wave retailers he gushes over is usually long on style and short on substance. 

Today's fluff piece celebrates the opening of two very expensive coffee shops in New York (the epicenter of the culinary and caffeinated universe in case you're unfortunate enough to live in one of the flyover States): 

Some comments interspersed between quotes from the article: 

When Starbucks installed its first espresso bar in downtown Seattle, in 1984, it effectively reordered the hierarchy of coffee in this country: brewed coffee might be nice, but nothing beats the theater of a latte.

Superb drip coffee was an integral part of this presentation, along with espresso, cappuccino and caffe latte (sans caffe you're ordering plain milk). Moreover, Il Giornale, the Italian-inspired espresso bar that Howard Schultz started using Starbucks coffee, cared so much about getting the actual taste of coffee to its customers that it had a proprietary coffee-on-tap system that allowed the brewing of three varieties of drip coffee simultaneously during the morning rush, with two different single-origin coffees on offer every day. 

Today, many coffee nerds feel differently. Espressos are tasty, and a cappuccino is a pleasurable indulgence, but the real magic is found in a cup of black coffee prepared to order with beans from the latest harvest: the new crop of Central American coffees that is arriving now, and East African coffees that will be here come summer. When members of this generation of fanatics step up to a brew bar, it’s not to look for something familiar and comforting; it’s to try something new.
This is narcissism at its finest, which it to say its most unwitting and unselfconscious. The top new crop coffees from Central America are typically shipped (but not drunk) from April through June, but the same is true of the best Kenyans and Ethiopians. "Seasonality" is really code for "coffees from places we like to hang out."

More to the point though, who are these "coffee nerds who feel differently?" Oh, I get it: they're the nerds behind the bar, since the hapless customer supporting all of this narcissistic snobbery just wants their espresso drink or excellent cup of drip coffee so they can go about their lives. The "fanatics" are behind the bar and in the office,  busily jotting down the GPS coordinates of farms they've visited and writing coffee descriptions so over-the-top that one would think that psychedelic drugs must be incorporated into the brew water in the cupping room. 

The brew bar is as much a workshop as it is a place to get a coffee and buy some gear. There will be demonstrations, free cuppings and an easy flow of jargon-laced conversation. If you want to learn how grind size affects extraction, here’s your chance.

Wow how exciting. You know jargon-laced conversation and a bunch of snobs discussing how grind size affects extraction is just what I'm looking to pay top dollar for at 8 in the morning. 

“When the morning shift comes in at 5:30 a.m., they’ll cup the coffees,” said Mr. Morrissey, who won the prestigious World Barista Championship when he was working for Square Mile Coffee Roasters. “Then they’ll pick how to make it. It’s not that one brewer is better than another brewer. It’s that they might decide, ‘I’m loving the toffee notes in this, I bet it’ll be awesome in a Cafe Solo,’ ” he said, referring to a kind of brewer.
Not all brew methods are created equal. Some use thick paper filters that create a cleaner cup, others perforated metal filters that let through the oils and fine sediment that create a richer texture. A dripper might be shaped like a cone (the V60) or a wedge (the Bee House) or a cup (the Wave). The details can make a difference. Even if there’s no one right way to prepare coffee, different methods lead to distinctive flavors

That's a Venti of narcissistic drivel for sure, but hey a world-champion slinger of caffe lattes is the same thing as an actual coffee expert these days anyway, so who are we to question? 
What's far more important than the arcane differences between a bunch of single-cup drip brewers that are meant for home use and yield commercially meaningless amounts of tepid, papery drip coffee is that a properly calibrated satellite brewer or urn, using the same coffee, will yield a hotter, better-extracted and far more flavorful cup of coffee in quantities that meet the demands of the morning rush and that can be sold profitably at the kind of reasonable price that makes great coffee an everyday event rather than something that's reserved for the rich or for special occasions. 

The thoroughness of the disconnect between dicking around for a living behind the counter and the folks trying to make one who support the whole sorry show is that brewing methods that actually do translate to the home are not even in play here: no Bonavita or Brazen drip brewers, Aeropresses or French Press brewers. 

Maybe this is a sign that all that's old truly does become new again. Clearly Manhattan is in need of a chain of stores that offers a locally-tailored equivalent to Peet's Vine Street circa 1966, with fabulous 8 ounce cups of drip coffee being poured from the 3 gallon urn at 50 cents (adjusted for inflation - say $1, or $1.50 for those stuck paying New York rent) a pop. That's a concept I'd actually invest in. 


  1. Kevin,

    I honestly do not understand the appeal of the "third wave" roasters/cafes. The coffee is sour and weak. The baristas try to make you feel like you are lucky that they have consented to serve you. I could go on and on.

    I work for Starbucks and people can think and say what they will about us and our coffee. But I am happy that at Starbucks we do not try to put up walls between us and our customers around coffee. For those of us who know something about coffee (not all partners are even coffee drinkers unfortunately) we love talking to customers about coffee and not in esoteric terms to make us seem smart and our customers seem stupid. Starbucks, and Peet's, have done so much to democratize coffee and yet there is this desire to turn coffee into something expensive and upscale. I just don't get it.

    Thanks for standing up and saying something about it.

  2. In a way I think it's brilliant to have single cup brewers at stores. It makes charging 3-4 dollars for a cup of drip seem reasonable. Especially when they get people to switch from drinking 3-4 dollar caffe lattes to a cup of drip.

    Also, it's probably just a vestige of how some of these roasters started out; farmer's markets. When they transitioned over to actual store fronts these little drippers were part of their image.

    However, it's gone too far. I hate the fact that something like the Hario V60, which requires one to sit and focus on pouring is all the rage in stores. It makes no sense, no one sits and focuses on the V60 the required amount of time to make a good cup of coffee. So I am stuck with a 3-4 dollar under extracted cup of coffee.

    So yeah just give me my bag of beans and let me go home to brew it up.

  3. Hi Kevin, it seems like I use your comment section as a coffee travelog. I hope you don't mind, and it's actually related to your post.

    I was in Honolulu, Hawaii earlier this week and visited my favorite coffee shop there, Beach Bum Cafe which serves expensive coffee ($4+ for 8 oz of drip brew) using a cloth-filtered pourover. But wait, there's a difference!

    This shop only serves Hawaiian grown coffee, and they have two tiers of coffee: the expensive stuff, and cheaper (but still good) stuff from the larger local farms.

    The expensive stuff is very good, and unique: they use coffee from Isla Coffee and Rusty's Hawaiian Coffee, and for a coffee geek, there's always something interesting to try. For example, this week I had a dry process mokka peabearry grown on Maui (and it's claimed to be the only commercial-scale farm for mokka), a dry process (they also add "Kenyan raisin style") yellow caturra from the Ka'u region, and my favorite: the comically large maragogype, also dry-process from Ka'u. Service is, like the cafe's name implies, casually friendly. The same maragogype was also available in a honey natural process.

    Anyway, I mention them because I think their high prices are justified because they are selling you unique, hard-to-get, truly local coffees that are really good, and not because they're fetishizing some baroque, inefficient brewing system. The store opened and started with vacuum pots, but after the Japanese halogens kept burning out due to the slightly different Japanese line voltage, and the owner not abiding with the idea of disposing butane cartridges, they switched to the pourover system.

    They also have the regular menu of espresso drinks. Their espresso blend is also all-Hawaiian, and quite good.