Coffee from Fools for Masochists

Okay, the phrasing is a bit harsh, but it's inspired by the great George Howell's equally pointed (and dead-on) characterization of kopi luwak: "coffee from assholes for assholes." My iteration is my broad brush stroke take on a great deal of the coffee (and all of the espresso) I've had in the past couple of years at leading "Third Wave" coffeehouses.

The "from fools" part refers to owner/operators who are typically as passionate about "quality" as they are ignorant about how to actually go about providing it. The disjunctions are gigantic:  the desire to "buy direct" alongside little-to-no cupping and sourcing expertise and commercially meaningless purchasing power. Painstakingly sourced and carefully roasted coffee roast-dated but then packaged in tin tie bags and sitting stale on the shelf, complete with GPS coordinates and farmer photos. $8000 worth of espresso equipment being used to brew utterly undrinkable coffee thanks to roasts too light for drip brewing being extracted through a pressurized brewing method that requires a darker roast in order to corral the acidity (exacerbated of course by massive dosing and über-ristretto pours). No sugar or milk on the counter in conjunction with coffee so thin and acid it needs all the doctoring possible in order to render it drinkable.

It doesn't help matters that what little press coffee gets is fluff like this paean to coffee "expert" Oliver Strand and the New York coffee scene. My comment on this particular piece of fine journalism from Facebook:

 "New York's foremost Java expert" has never worked in the coffee business, knows next to nothing about roasting and nothing at all about green coffee but has hung out with a bunch of "expert baristas" (very much equivalent to saying "skilled burger flippers" in terms of the skill level required). And that's expertise in coffee, 2013 style."

Entertaining as watching the Stumptowns, Blue Bottles and Intelligentsias of the world squabble over grossly overpriced microlots grown by this month's "star" farmer may be, there is an actual coffee business out there, and it's growing by leaps and bounds in no small measure due to the lack of excellent, affordable, properly roasted and brewed coffee at retail. It's called the single cup business, and by that I certainly don't mean the papery, tepid and screamingly acid mug of Chemex drip I waited 10 minutes for @ $7 a cup at my local Third Wave outlet. No, I mean Keurig K-cups, Starbucks' Verisimo and Via, Nespresso and the like, which today comprise nearly 25% of the coffee market in the U.S. and are growing by leaps and bounds.

With Keurig's new Vue line we now have mass-market single-cup brewers that are fully capable of achieving the brew temperature and dosage requirements of a truly great cup of coffee. All that's missing is for someone to put a cherry-picked selection of top offerings from today's leading Third Wave roasters into a K-Cup, and that seems inevitable once the absurd focus on bottled cold brew lets up.

We knew when we put the first espresso machine in a Starbucks store some 25 years ago that coffee by the cup, made on the spot, would quickly become the gold standard for coffee, with batch brews relegated to commodity status. What we didn't know was how it would unfold, or that roaster-retailers would simply give up on supplying their customers with the means to brew great coffee at home.

Interesting times. I'm glad I'm not a coffee farmer.

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