Do you have any hobbies? Anything you’re passionately into? Something that you think about during the in between moments at work and make a point of fitting into your schedule on the weekend? And no “your Momma” doesn’t count.
Mine’s coffee. Surprise!
It’s like I’m working all the time….
When you think about something, chew on it, reflect on it, read about it and most important, consume it figuratively and literally you become sensitive to subtleties of style. Taken with the long view over the balance of years you’ll notice the ebb and flow of said styles and their nuances.
For better or worse our beginnings are formative years and can really cement into us a preference or a valuing of one style over another. As things change, it’s not that you’re unaware of the changes or can’t appreciate the new look-you just don’t really care. Nor do you think the “new” holds a candle to what was. It’s a place I find myself now.
And so it goes with coffee. In prior blogs I’ve alluded to the seasons of change that I have been witness to in my short time being present. Let’s flesh that out a bit more.
It starts with the Dark Roast.
Imagine a tender university student in Ontario (ok, ok the most tender) suckling from the teat of Tim Horton-what else was there? Nothing, that’s what. Then picture the arrival of, no not the white whale but close, the Mermaid. Popping up in Toronto, it was like the second coming of coffee. I made an appointment at a location off Young St., close to the Davisville TTC station. Trim, organized and uncluttered with a coffee centric essence that tapped into the heart of origin and made one’s heart beat in time with the drums of Africa. The coffee was unforgettable. A Kenyan, siphoned off and served, was like raw crude oil, crushing in its intensity. Oily, profound and unknowable…I also couldn’t finish it. If AC/DC’s “You shook me all night long” is coming on the loudspeakers of your mind at this point, (“Had to cool me down to take another round”) that’s good. I hear it too.
That was “it.” There was nothing else. Once you had built up your tolerance and succumbed to the “Siren’s…” (Oh, I can’t say it), it wasn’t too bad. Everything else that had previously seemed ok was suddenly insipid.
Was it the roast? Was it the strength of the brew? Who cares, this was new and it was distinctive. A world away from the known coffee universe at the time. The style, reduced to it’s essence, involved arguably solid coffees, roasted and roasted dark.
A tasty morsel hidden within this Kinder Egg surprise was the genius introduction of espresso to a piece of suburban white bread like myself and my ilk. It’s culture, fluffed up and pre-chewed for mainstream consumption. Let’s ignore whatever good thing existed in North Beach circa 1990. This was an otherworldly reality of steam punk goodness that brought the intensity up at least another quarter turn of the vice. I don’t know how Rome was built but the business of coffee in the ‘90s was built on the tall latte.
Now if good is the enemy of the great, have no fear because Seattle was running with this espresso thing and running hard. Enter stage left not just espresso but “Northern Italian” style espresso-whatever that means. I just believed and so did everyone else.
It was lighter. How light? Hard to say exactly. A hair past Full City but not too far into Second Crack. Way lighter than a Continental Roast but flirting with a reading of a #45 on the Agtron Scale. Basically nobody new exactly what it meant, except for a couple of folks that could, at the time, claim to have actually been to Italy-fewer people than you might think.
Seattle chambered the round for espresso centric culture. It became the centerpiece of coffee consumption. In light of the new leggy relative the latte (ch-ching), drip coffee was ignored.
The culture around espresso was experimental on every level, married to the healthy “F%$! You” mentality that couldn’t wait to unshackle itself from whatever the Italians “allegedly” knew or (mostly) didn’t know about espresso.
This coincided with Barista Competitions. A freight train of ambition that necessitated competition level espresso. It no longer was enough for it to be good-it had to be a revelation and basically part the Nile to get noticed. If it did that, it might garner a 3…ok 3.5 out of 5 from the judges. Suddenly “bam,” I’ll give you something to notice; light roasted, Kenyan, single origin espresso and with it a whole can of whoop ass, and many, many imitators of this, light, light roasted “espresso” style.
Somewhere, someone in Rome is making the sign of the cross as the bells toll in St. Peters Square. The sacred has been violated. Hushed, monk like whispers of the espresso canon “Brazil base, blends only, precisely 7g” have been ignored and, and…I’m breathless.
The coffees chosen, roasted and presented this way were ringing the doorbell on your palate. Doing it early and doing it often.
Dosing was up. Not a little bit either. It was a signature effect that if you believe in magic (and I do) won the World Barista Competition in 2004. Next day the gaggle of lemmings all got their Hula Hoops, their Rubik’s Cubes and in this case their 23g of coffee in a triple basket pulled s-h-o-r-t and gave any young Turk brave enough to drink, the equivalent of a facial peel for their tongue.
Is this the crescendo? No, not yet. In all of this, not a word of dissension. My right eyelid still twitches with the memories.
There is an alluded to thread of pain and with it the importance of purity as a theme in being at the cutting edge of coffee. I assume you know that. Keeping it real, keeping it legit. So good it hurts. Hoo boy does it ever.
Today interest in espresso has cooled. Been there, done that. We are now in the perfect storm of micro-lots, manual brew methods and globe-trotting coffee buyers needing to feed their 7kg roasters. Combined with the Internet and the prophet like influence of Europe it brings us all to our destination: Single origin coffees roasted lighter than I ever thought possible, presented for your reflection. Notice I didn’t say enjoyment. That would be an additional, but not assumed benefit.
Going for coffee now is finally about the coffee. Not you, not the conversation you might have over a shared cup or the *ahem* blog you might write that in turn tilts the course of peoples’ lives. The coffee is the focus, requiring your undivided attention to fully appreciate the purity and heretofore never experienced awesomeness of what coffee could be like.
It’s exhausting. I’m genuinely afraid of what the next level is going to be. But the good news is that we’re finally here.
Know that behind the curtain there has always been a desperate and ongoing desire for the keen in Specialty Coffee to bring their message and passion for the product to the front door of your life. To make coffee not just an accessory to a life well lived but the focus of it.
The closely held hope being to serve people coffee in the way they never thought to ask, that is, the way I (the barista, café, roaster) want you to “enjoy” it. You’ve read about those restaurants that don’t offer salt and pepper on the table because the kitchen has perfectly seasoned your food? That’s the gist of it.
You think I’m kidding but I’m so not.
Now I love me the minimalism. I aspire to it. No excess. Clean, pared down. So good. It’s the stuff of young baristas’ daydreams. Wondering aloud, “wouldn’t it be cool if there was no menu, no signage, no cream or sugar, heck, no espresso machine? We just served manual brewed by the cup, single origin titularly roasted, nano-lot coffees. And we played only vinyl?” Ok the vinyl thing is actually pretty cool.
People been talking this up for years and we’ve finally arrived.
But now that we’re here, I can’t totally get into it. Did it take so long that I managed to age beyond the appeal of a young man’s idealistic world view and in turn excuse myself from what is currently cool and find it instead…not cool?
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to go one better than suggesting youthful idealism is to blame for the current vogue. I’d like to suggest that the process of cupping and its widespread adoption is at the crux of it.
Cupping, as I’ve mentioned before is a unique tasting experience. The lighter roast commonly used when cupping coffees can be revelatory. It wasn’t until reading BLINK (thank-you Malcolm Gladwell) that I was able to connect the dots as to why the cupping experience when ported over to the regular world, falls apart.
As more thoroughly and eloquently put by Malcolm in BLINK, Coke was having the wood put to them in the Pepsi challenge. In the challenge format (small samples of each beverage) the preference was consistently for Pepsi. Where it gets interesting, was that this format and impression called a CLT (Central Location Test) prompts a different result then when a person is called upon to try samples over the period of a week or so. To actually live with it.
Cupping coffee is the Pepsi challenge of coffee consumption. Small little sips that are often held in the mouth and then spit out. The light roasted uniqueness of the “cupping roast” flavours play exceptionally well in this format and almost everyone who is into coffee would effuse positive things about cupping fine coffees. It’s fantastic and exciting.
But when called upon to live with coffee roasted this light, to drink it repeatedly or in any kind of volume it’s neither pleasant nor enjoyable. To qualify-myself and one other person I’ve spoken to believe this and are willing to admit to it publicly. We’ve started a small group called the “Friends of Reason.” Membership is open.
This has led to many roasters and cafes waving the flag for these uber light roasted coffees and in turn bringing the cupping table experience to every cup of coffee you have.
Sure it appeals to my inner Director of Coffee (how many do you know?) but it doesn’t in any way foster an appetite for the lovely routine of a morning cup or an afternoon cup or…any cup for that matter-ever. I’ve switched to tea on the weekends.
A little roast on the coffee can be nice. It does nice things, develops and flatters the coffee. I get that your green coffee is the most special. You’re telling the world you have the Waygu beef equivalent of this current crop of Kenyans. Cool. But can we let the cupping take place in the cupping room? Please?
Let the enjoying take place out in the cafes and kitchens where the coffee isn’t so distractingly boutique and light roasted it hurts. A smidge more roast, that’s all I’m asking. I’ll still think you’re cool and buy good coffee. Really.