How to navigate the brave new world

Red Bay Coffee
Credit: Courtesy of Red Bay Coffee Archives

Suppose you are a member of the clear majority of Americans choosing to drink coffee every day, and have been for a very long time—longer than very good coffee has been widely available in this country, before the women and men now serving it to you were old enough (mostly) to drink the stuff, or perhaps even born. Today’s bright, often beautiful coffee landscape can be, well, the tiniest bit overwhelming. In your day, you got out of bed in the morning, and you drank the stuff. Suddenly, it’s a lifestyle.

There are plenty of times where skepticism of the new might be encouraged—this is not one of those times. No matter how unnecessary recent developments may appear, take it from a fellow old-timer, someone who has been fanatical about coffee since my very first shot of espresso at Intelligentsia in Chicago, back in the mid-1990’s—it's all so much better now, better than many Americans can even imagine. Like others, I grew up in a coffee-from-a-can household, and never imagined I'd end up hooked—turned out, all I needed was a taste of the really good stuff.

While I have been an enthusiastic fan of coffee and coffee culture from that first moment of awakening, I came to Food & Wine's Best Coffee in Every State project back in 2017 as a mildly bewildered consumer, my nose somewhat out of joint over the way things had evolved—coffee suddenly seemed so complex, and everything was moving so quickly; one by one, the places that were supposedly the best were being absorbed into major corporations, while others appeared content to slouch into mediocrity. I had watched the retail price of coffee in the United States climb ever higher, to the point where it was starting to feel more like an occasional luxury than a daily essential. Was I finally over the thing I had loved the most? Two memorable, highly educational years—I read some great books, I sat with some of the best and brightest in the industry, I tasted a ton of quality product—radically changed the way I look at coffee, the way I think about coffee, and the way I talk about coffee. The journey began quite simply, with a history lesson, and then lots more learning, about where coffee comes from, how it gets here, just how delicate the process can be, and how easily that beautiful chain can be broken.

Ultimately, I’ve come away with so much respect for the people who make coffee possible, from the underpaid farmers, all the way up to the best, often underpaid baristas who have turned preparation into an art form. And while most coffee drinkers don't have the luxury of sending themselves back to school for a crash course, I can only recommend doing the best you can, because the less you see coffee as a commodity, the more you begin to look at the whole picture, the deeper you drill down, and start to understand just how delicate the process can be, the more you will appreciate this beautiful thing. So much of your life revolves around coffee; why not get to know it better? Besides, your country needs you—in too many states and cities, enthusiasm for the new coffee culture still tends to outpace roaster expertise, or consumer knowledge; the smarter coffee drinkers become, the more we know, the better the industry will be. That good cup, in the long run, will be an even better one. Shall we get started? Here are ten important things to know.

#1 Start thinking about coffee the way you think about wine, and everything will open up for you

Remember how, way back in the day, the question at the dinner table was red or white? Now, we know all about terroir, and our favorite varietals, and which country or appellation is strongest at what—coffee might not be quite there yet, but it's getting close. There's so much lingo to learn now—there are natural coffees, high-elevation coffees, shade-grown, single estate, small lot. Then there are the cultivars, your Geshas, your Pacamaras, your Bourbons. The temptation to turn tail and walk out of the coffee shop is understandable, but in the long run, the industry's turn toward the terribly specific should be celebrated—just think of a coffee bean the way you'd think of a certain wine grape, and watch it all open up. The more information you have, the easier it will ultimately be for you to zero in on the exact kind of coffee that you like best—a worthy effort, considering that these days, good coffee will not come cheap. Where to begin? Borders and regions tend to matter less these days, but geography can still be a fine indicator—taste your way around the globe, and figure out which countries, and then which regions in those countries really speak to you—many coffee roasters deal directly with specific farmers, or coffee-growing cooperatives; with the finest coffees, the finished product will now be nearly as specific (and memorable) as a bottle of wine. A caveat: Just because your local roaster knows the words, and has the buying power, does not guarantee greatness, at least not yet; the more coffees you taste, and the more you know, the more you’ll begin to trust yourself, and the faster you’ll be able to sniff out the average operators, or the straight up imposters. Want to speed up the process? Find out which shops or roasters near you are hosting public cuppings or tastings—these entertaining (all that slurping!) and informative experiences are is sometimes even offered free of charge. (The Friday morning tastings offered at Counter Culture Coffee training centers around the country are a fantastic jumping off point.)

#2 Don't be automatically dazzled by lots of talk about sustainability

There’s no tiptoeing around the fact that coffee is in trouble. Growing conditions are subject to the whims of an increasingly temperamental climate, and of course coffee is still a commodity—market forces are cold and unfeeling, and most of the people who put in the hardest labor remain chronically underpaid. You will hear plenty of people in the business talking about this problem, and how concerned they are about it, but business is business, and in the end, many coffee roasters will buy as low as they can, because that’s just how capitalism works. All the caring in the world can’t stop coffee futures from plummeting, and warm thoughts are no match for climate change, but there are many ways that your local roaster can do their part to make life easier for coffee farmers, and the planet; some are relentlessly committed to lessening the impact of coffee production on the already fragile environment, plenty are taking real steps to pay fairer prices, others are actively investing at the point of origin. You can help speed things along by buying from roasters with a consistent track record of holding themselves accountable, for instance Olympia Coffee in the Pacific Northwest, or Equator Coffees & Teas in Northern California. Certainly, top quality, ethical coffees can cost good money, but you're still getting a deal—consider recent developments in Southern California, the lone growing region on the American mainland—a public cupping was held recently at San Diego’s Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, and to cover costs, participants were charged $100 each to attend, which included just 200 grams to take home. The event sold out in hours.

#3 We’re getting closer to the source, and that’s such a good thing

Does it feel like your favorite roaster is starting to spend more and more time in far away places? Origin travel, it's so hot right now, but it's not just for the Instagram content, typically—many roasters are working hard to develop closer relationships with cooperatives and individual farmers overseas. There are excellent reasons for this, both ethical and delicious—for all the effort poured into relationship building, coffee buyers can end up ensuring that farmers see more of the money they deserve, but they might also wind up with exclusive access to some of the world’s most interesting coffees. Not that your roaster has to be in Colombia or Kenya every other month, to be good, or ethical—no matter how it was purchased, nearly all (if not all) of the green coffee being bought in the United States still comes here through an importer, for logistics reasons; some top roasters choose to leave the entire process to the likes of Red Fox Coffee Merchants out of Northern California, or Collaborative Coffee Source, founded in Oslo, to name two importers that are well-known for going the extra mile.

#4 Calling yourself a coffee roaster is pretty easy, these days

So your local shop just announced they’re going to start roasting. Great news, right? Possibly! Check back in two years. Ask anybody in the industry who’s been at it for more than ten minutes, and while most of them will be very polite and encouraging, because that's just how coffee people tend to be when speaking about each other, there seems to be a general consensus among the truly experienced: it takes roughly two years for a new roaster to reach their full potential. Certainly, go ahead and try new things, certainly support your local businesses, but even the most capable operations can sometimes struggle with the transition from making coffee to roasting coffee—with rare exception, only time can tell just how good they really are.

#5 Even the best roasters can let themselves down at the most crucial moment in the process

Much has been made of the trend towards lighter touch roasting, and it will not surprise you to learn that many roasters have rushed into things without knowing exactly what they are doing. Coffee is extraordinarily delicate; one missed or wrong turn, and everything’s pretty much ruined, whether it’s a light roast that goes down like battery acid, or a deeper coffee that didn’t have to end up charred and lifeless, but somehow did. Even the brightest citrus sparkler from Colombia will meet your palate right where it's supposed to, when handled correctly; the fruitiest Ethiopian will never wind up murky or muddy, retaining a thrilling kind of clarity. If you want to know, for once and for all, what these very fashionable lighter roasts are all about, a good idea is to go directly to one of the genre all-stars, like Denmark’s La Cabra, or, here at home, Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters in Colorado—properly prepared, it’s some of the best coffee the industry has to offer, and will convert very nearly any French roast junkie. Bottom line: Don’t be fooled into thinking you don’t like lighter coffees—hold out until you’ve tasted the good stuff.

#6 Most American coffee shops struggle with quality

Even the most rigorous training can’t turn a barista into a robot—humans make mistakes, surprise, surprise, and even the best roasters are often let down by poor management at the retail level. Whether it’s a shot of espresso with notes of ashtray, or a $5 pourover served with all the body of a cup of hastily-steeped Lipton's, it’s all out there, it's being served every day, and too often, consumers lack the information needed to be able to ask for better. Even the most trusted shops in the country let themselves down, time and again, with a lack of attention to detail—one day heaven, the next day hell, depending on who’s behind the bar, how much sleep they’ve had, how much coffee they’ve been drinking, how much talking they’re doing, while they’re prepping that shot—you get the idea. There are some extremely dependable providers out there—Methodical Coffee in South Carolina, Passenger Coffee in Pennsylvania, Good Coffee in Portland come to mind—but most retail operations suffer from a chronic lack of quality control, and this will have to change in the long run, as markets become more crowded. In many cities, making coffee at home remains the best solution; good thing there are so many cool new toys to play with, now. (The best method, as ever, is the one that's right for you.)

#7 Those dark roasts you like are once again in style

Wasn’t it just yesterday that everyone was making fun of dark roast? (Fact check: Yes.) Apparently, we're done with that now, because some of the top professionals in the industry are working hard at reimagining the 1990’s style for the 21st century (which is to say, not burning the coffee), and they’re doing a pretty bang-up job. You’ve got Tandem Coffee in Maine selling their Stoker blend, which they refer to as “kinda dark,” Louisville’s Good Folks Coffee introduced their no-judgments Deep Space blend, while Coffee Manufactory in California doesn’t even beat around the bush—they’ve got a Dark in their lineup, and they’re constantly tinkering with it to make it better, as are other smaller roasters, like Carrier in Vermont, Blanchard’s in Virginia, and Arcade Coffee, one of Southern California’s standouts, which recently offered a top-of-class espresso—rich, full, but still almost delicate. For now, it remains a pretty good idea to not storm into local coffee shop, asking for a dark roast—you may end up being subjected to a whole spiel; there are some roasters that prefer not to think in terms of light or dark at all, instead talking about how they prefer to work with each coffee individually. Fair enough. Avoid long, drawn-out interactions by reading the now-popular tasting notes, which so many roasters are printing straight on the bags of coffee that they sell—you’ll want to go for something with caramel, or chocolate, or brown sugar, over anything citrus-related. Of course, you could always just grab something from Ethiopia—even when handled super delicately, that naturally fruity quality—not to generalize too much—tends to satisfy pretty much anyone who can’t wrap their head around the idea that their coffee is supposed to taste like a bowl full of lemons.

#8 The batch is back, and you should be happy about this

With the exception of shops willing to install, say, the fashionable Poursteady equipment, the clock is ticking on the whole idea of the pourover-to-order, not because pourovers aren't great, but because they take too long, there’s too much room for error, and the labor costs are too high. These days, many of the best shops will have the upgraded brewing technology needed to make sure that each cup is a good cup, without the long wait. Don’t be disappointed—instead, embrace the economy of it all. If it helps, even the best places that have committed to batch brew are often charging roughly half of what inexperienced roasters are still charging for a pourover—$2.50 for a small cup of coffee instead of $4, or sometimes $5? Obviously, this means you can drink twice as much.

#9 Don’t buy into the freshness hype—at least not all the way

One of the better coffees I tried last year came from beans that had been kept in a freezer for months, served without apology, at the last place I would have expected to have been served coffee from a freezer. While they may not like to trumpet this publicly, more than a few industry insiders admitted that the growing obsession with straight-out-of-the-roaster coffees is somewhat misguided—some even felt that coffee evolves and even improves, a few days after being roasted. Nobody is advocating for stale coffee, but how you make it is still probably more important to the process than whether or not it is three days or three weeks, or, if stored correctly in the freezer, three months old. Apart from not grinding it until you’re ready, which remains the ideal, relax.

#10 If the earliest years of the coffee revolution frightened you off, it’s high time you came home

The cliche of the coffee snob is just that—a cliche, and a very tired one, at that. In any city that's remotely up to speed, all of that nonsense is well on its way out. These days, the very best places are about hospitality, about giving the customer what they want, even if that means a rotating menu of seasonal flavored lattes. (You wouldn't believe how many upmarket pumpkin spice creations I came across, last fall.) By now, if you walk into a coffee shop and find yourself at the receiving end of a lecture on how to drink your coffee, or about how this place is not like the other places you might be used to, there's an excellent chance you might be in the wrong coffee shop.

Looking for the best coffee near you? Read Food & Wine's The Best Coffee in Every State 2019.