Being a Coffee Snob Is So Last Decade
A leading industry publication has issued a new book that feels something like a turning point.
Let us suppose that you enjoy good coffee a great deal, just like any other good-hearted person, and yet, at this moment in time, you find it difficult to not feel somewhat overwhelmed by the way everything has changed. What is going on, exactly? How did this daily essential, this basic commodity, so quickly become a product as prized as fine wine, often with prices, and attendant fuss, to match?
The language is new, and it needs new teachers. There is so much you don't know, that you didn't know you needed to know, about processes, varietals, about roasts, about temperatures, and how you're probably doing all of it wrong. There is the matter of what many consumers perceive to be a lack of patience within a relatively young and cliquish industry, imagining mustachioed young men obsessing amongst themselves, about Bourbons and Honey Processed, about Gesha and Pacamara, and how this single origin has notes of watermelon candy, a Bon Iver concert, or night time on the Pacific Coast Highway, taking occasional breaks to practice their best "we do coffee a little differently here" spiels, punctuated with scornful laughter, because of how everyone knows so much less than they do.
Not that the industry is exactly short on spokespeople, if you know where to look. Among them, coffee's most likely house organ to be read by the common man is Sprudge, a web site founded in 2009 (in coffee years, terribly long ago now) by Jordan Michelman and Zachary Carlsen in the Pacific Northwest, naturally. Say you are looking to track the modern evolution of the ancient bean, or if you are just looking for the best coffee in Seattle, or even Atlanta, there is Sprudge, which strikes a good balance between being useful to the consumers, and being relevant to the barista who secretly thinks you're basic, down at your favorite coffee shop.
Many books have been written about coffee, also. Some of them are quite readable, notably Mark Pendergrast's Uncommon Grounds, something of a modern update of William Ukers' historic, still terrific tome, All About Coffee, published in 1922. (The latter, you can read online, for free.) There have been multiple attempts at deciphering coffee for the average, curious consumer, but it's all moving so quickly now, and keeping up can be difficult, and expensive, whether we are talking the glut of new and fashionable gadgetry, or the apparently bottomless supply of increasingly terrific beans, often found on the shelves of even the most average supermarkets.
What a fine time then, for the founders of an organization like Sprudge, to throw their hats into the ring, with the just-released The New Rules of Coffee: A Modern Guide for Everyone, easily one of the most user-friendly guides to How We Coffee Now. This is a book that reads as if it truly were for everyone, kicking off with a welcome reminder that the best coffee out there is the stuff that you like to drink. Does it taste good, ask the authors. Well, then—drink up.
As the title clearly states, the book, a quick, 160-page read, and including appealing illustrations by Kelsey Wroten, isn't meant for the industry, or for people who have already self-styled as coffee experts; this is strictly entry level stuff, written for the curious and mostly clueless, mostly free from undefined insider jargon, or superfluous condescension.
There are gentle prods towards growth, of course, and you will find the odd personal opinion tossed into the mix, but largely this book is a very nice, very kind gesture, not the sort of thing you might expect out of an industry with a reputation for being less than forthcoming. This is a come as you are, room at the table for everyone, gently made appeal to a more sophisticated understanding of an increasingly complex culture.
Apart from a brief introduction to the history of coffee, which could easily have gone a little longer, and a delving into the evolution of coffee farming, and how the farmers themselves are changing the way they view their own product, and how the industry is starting to look at them the same way we'd look at a winemaker or the owner of a highly-prized vineyard (and this is absolutely a correct way to look at things now), you will learn all sorts of things, by reading this book.
You will learn how the Scandinavians are influencing the way American roasters think, at least for now. How the Chemex pot—one of the most interesting ways to brew your coffee—ought to be viewed as a work of art. How caring enough to buy the proper cups makes the coffee taste even better. About harvesting, about the various washes, and the fact that vermiculture labs are now in all of Counter Culture's training centers, about the existence of a Millennial Pink batch brew machine made in the Netherlands by Moccamaster. You'll even find them advocating for extremely underrated food pairings, for intance a cup of coffee and a hamburger, which everyone should absolutely try, preferably at a diner counter nearest to them.
You will learn why heat is so important, or, more to the point, why you shouldn't race back to the counter to complain, when your cappuccino comes out at temperatures far below the hellfire you're used to, how milk matters (it really, really does!), about the brief life and death of condiment shaming, but also why you should first try drinking your coffee black (you really should).
Those concerned about the ethics of coffee will be pleased to know that the authors do not avoid the subject; there is frank discussion about costs, and how consumers need to change their thinking, from how much we pay when we buy a bag of beans for home, how much a barista's labor is worth, and even some very real talk about tipping in cafes.
There is good humor, here, too. It was nearly worth buying the book to read the authors rail against against the flat white, referred to here as a "pointless Antipodean import of little value," and it is hard not to read their passionate love note to the mocha without wanting to run out and pay $5 (or more) for one.
Other opinions come off like stubborn bias, a bit out of place in a book that's essentially calling time on coffee snobbery. Dark roast coffee, for example, is not always terrible without lots of cream and sugar, as they suggest. There is a passive aggressive swipe at Starbucks' Via line, followed by a strong pitch for the absurdly expensive new instant coffees coming out from smaller roasters. (Yes, instant coffee is back in style. Try to keep up, people!)
Not to pick at the authors too much, because as they say themselves, it is entirely fine to like the coffee you like, and in the end, the overwhelming sense you get from reading the book is that they are mostly on your side, particularly in the sections where they gently push back at the industry, whether the subject is "snotty baristas," or the flatter structure of cold brew coffee, which is apparently something that keeps a lot of coffee people awake at night. And really, seriously, who could fault a book that happily takes you through the many brewing methods, but also sticks up for the humble cup of drip coffee? The authors even admit to the occasional nostalgic sip of Dunkin' Donuts flavored coffee, and at one point can be found advocating for a couple of pumps of pumpkin spice syrup, as a "seasonal treat." They didn't actually have to mean that, what they said, but they said it anyway, and it was a nice gesture, and that sure feels like progress.