This week we came across a curious video published by Voice of America:
VOA News – Seattle: Capital of Coffee Houses. If you wonder why something called “Voice of America” produces video, you’ll question that even more after viewing this parody of a 1980’s corporate training video. But the video is essentially a review of Seattle’s notable contributions to American coffee culture: from the good (David Schomer and Espresso Vivace) to the bad (lukewarm customer responses to Starbucks) to the bikini-clad barista.

But one point from the video really stood out for us. It came from an interview with Tatiana Becker — a UC Berkeley grad, 2008 USBC competitor, and co-owner of Seattle’s Trabant Coffee & Chai (voted “Best Coffee 2008” in the Seattle reader’s poll — now three years running). In the video, Ms. Becker bridges her previous high-tech career to her new role of coffee shop owner, saying, “There’s always new advances being made as far as equipment and techniques go. So it’s really challenging to stay on the cutting edge of coffee.”

The “cutting edge” of coffee?!?

Why do people make futile attempts to convince us that they’ve reinvented good coffee? Good coffee is good coffee, and what makes good coffee really hasn’t changed all that much in over a century.

Sure, many more professionals have become much better at it — leaving it much less up to chance or accident. But the idea that coffee has a “cutting edge” smacks of all the consumer marketing gimmicks for “new” coffee, such as blending it with ginseng or yerba mate and every other attempt to fashion coffee as some sort of nuevo energy drink. If your coffee has multiple ingredients, or worse — if it needs a recipe, it’s not coffee. (This is the main reason why we find the specialty beverage portion of barista competitions to be the most creative but also the most irrelevant.)

And if you visit the Trabant Coffee & Chai Web site, you’ll find it littered with references to the term “spro” (short for “espresso”). Use of the faux-word spro is yet another contrived attempt to create something new out of what is essentially old and traditional. (That and it comes off like your dad trying to speak to you in hip-hop rhymes to feign street cred.)

Trabant Coffee: Spro me

A Clover is only as good as the beans you put in it

As for coffee equipment and techniques, look no further than the Clover brewer B-roll in Ms. Becker’s video segment. How much of the Clover is truly a coffee innovation, and how much of it is just mere kitchen gadgetry? A $300 Williams-Sonoma electronic garlic peeler might seem revolutionary, but it holds little merit when you can still produce the same results with the broad side of a chef’s knife. More often, an innovation in gadgetry is really just an innovation in spending opportunities. Is it any wonder why the Clover is known more for its cited $11,000 price tag than for any of the coffee you can produce with it?

We even argue that a Clover doesn’t produce coffee any better than an 1840’s-technology vacuum pot. What’s largely been lost among all the Clover brewer talk is that they are pointless without the appropriate bean sourcing: a Clover is only as good as the beans you put in it. And if you can’t taste it in the end product, we argue that it’s rather superfluous to the cause of good coffee.

You can call it cutting edge or Third Wave, you can call it spro, you can showcase a Clover brewer, and, in Ms. Becker’s case, you can even break out the halter tops at barista competitions for your sorority girl routine. But all of that does nothing to convince us that your coffee is somehow brand new or innovative. None of that is even about the coffee. Instead, these are all more akin to carnival barking — as if to convince us that Aunt Flo’s menopause makes her the Bearded Lady worthy of a $10 admission.

If coffee has a cutting edge, it couldn’t slice butter on a hot summer’s day.