company - education - coffee

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Why the North American cafe culture is a negative on coffee quality

We pull up to a table at the nearest cafe and nestle ourselves in with a 20oz to go cup of coffee flavored milk and sit. Content to settle in for a few hours of work. Comfortable watching all the others in the cafe sitting on their laptops, headphones on, happily typing away on study projects and work assignments. We just want a cheap tea or coffee that will justify our sitting in the cafe for hours on end, taking up space that the owner would surely love to have for other paying customers.

We should be ashamed of ourselves that this is what our cafe culture has come to. Isolated individuals who no longer converse and talk. Too easily irritated by the commotion around us. Impatient with the people behind the counter and complaining about the lack of ambiance. We miss out on great coffee experiences because the perception of cafe owners is that they will be over run with students or laptops so why pay more for good coffee? Why invest in training good barista? Why work on making the coffee prep consistent? Why buy the good equipment when the consumer will only douse their coffee with milk and sugar? They cynically believe consumers are a bunch of people who will come in and choose the cheapest menu item and pull up taking table space for as long as their conscience will allow. Many shop owners believe customers won't pay a nickel more for bettter coffee and they may be right in many cases.

The sword cuts both ways when we complain about the coffee or tea, realize that we, as the consumer share a fault in this. As long as we settle for less, we should expect only the minimum. The majority of us will miss out on great coffees coming out of the Cup of Excellence program. We will miss out on great barista who can pour and know tastes like a sommolier.

When it comes down to changing this, consumers need to see these tiny developing sections of coffee no longer as a commodity but as a true specialty that has nothing to do with syrups or chemical flavorings. These are the micro-lots of coffee that have distinct floral and naturally sweet flavors which need to be recognized as unique by themselves. Each region and microlot being distinct and unique in taste from the next.

When you demand to know the name of the farmer and the specific farm it comes from as well as it's growing climate and then begin to educate ourselves about what this means, we can begin to challenge things. We can demand the division of more auction lots of coffees into smaller lots too small for large commercial chain roasters but just right for artisan roasters who can focus on perfection of roast. We can get past burnt bitter over roasted coffees and defect laden under roasted grassy coffees to perfectly roasted ripe defect free coffees. We can learn to accept these disctinct coffees as quality experiences of flavor and not something based on volume or quantity. We can stop trying to get the most volume for the cheapest price and focus on the best tasting drink where caffeine is an afterthought. When we demand fresh ground, fresh brewed, AND fresh roasted(with dates), then we will see things begin to change.

When consumers and shop owners head in the direction that the Cup of Excellence is going, then the debate over what is good coffee will change from what goes good with milk to what flavors are inherent in a Grand Cru Kenya or is the Brazil CoE really worth $50/lb? That's a beautiful thought.