Recently I was approached by a writer exploring ideas for an article to be published by Wired in the UK. (This wouldn’t be the first time.) The subject line of his e-mail? “The Future of Coffee.” His goal was to put together a piece about the “vanguard of the coffee industry,” featuring “new and disruptive technology or methodology to do something entirely new.”

This is hardly an uncommon theme these days. Problem is that there is little “there” there (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein on her hometown of Oakland). For a Wired audience nurtured on futurism bombast, there is more bleeding-edge innovation going on with sous-vide cooking than the much more ancient art of coffee per se. However, coffee is far more universal and something many can relate to on a daily basis, so it naturally garners more readership.

For some people, this hideous contraption suggests “The Future of Coffee“:

What we have now is a critical mass of consumers who have “rediscovered” good coffee in recent years — even if good coffee has been around for a long time. Just that it used to be that much harder to find. In the six years since we started this Web site, the best shots we’ve ever had have not improved. But places that serve very good shots have become much more common.

But when people experience what seems like a sudden eye-opening discovery or awakening — such as the realization that there’s more to coffee than mass-produced fodder — there’s a tendency to mentally project some hockey-stick-like growth in coffee innovation for what has essentially been pretty much the same process since the 1800s. Once opened up to new possibilities, that this process of discovery and awakening doesn’t continue on some trajectory just seems too boring and mundane to accept.

Parallels between coffee and the Web?

In fact, I’ve come to liken what’s going on with coffee consumers to my experiences with the genesis of the World Wide Web — even if the Web has actually innovated while coffee has much less so.

What's 'push technology' again?Back in 1991, I was working among particle physicists with gravity-defying hairstyles who spoke in triple integrals at SLAC, home to the first Web site in the U.S. So I got to witness it all from the beginning — from the advent of image support in Web browsers to finally distinguish the Web from Gopher…to the 1996 psychotic rush to anoint push technology as the Web’s next revolution (Twitter 0.1?)…to the 1997 predictions by marketing wonks that we would all be shopping online at 3-D storefronts employing VRML that Christmas (shades of 3-D TV?). We even have Third Wave coffee, which I find jokingly analogous to the trite and nonsensical Web 2.0.

Coffee or the Web, the sense of experiencing an innovative rush begets more demand of, and expectations for, the same. Just read the sloganeering on the Slayer espresso machine Web site:

What lies on the other side of Caffe Artigiano, David Schomer, PID, FB80, Fair Trade, Cup of Excellence, and all the dreams of an organic, authentic, Coffee Universe now circulating and seemingly just beyond our grasp?

If Slayer was a Wired-friendly dot-com circa 1999, it would have been ridiculed for buzzword/hyperbole overload before finishing that sentence. And yes, Cup of Excellence competitions are clearly more recent constructs for coffee advancement. But for each legitimate advancement, there are dozens of examples such as the Japanese siphon brewer: a modern spit-shine on manufacturing design applied to 1830s coffee extraction technology.

Coffee punk’d

Even if most “future of coffee” claims are vapor, what’s the harm in a little excitement, right? Well, things have gotten so ridiculous, and consumers have been so duped into thinking things are changing too fast for them to keep up with, that we have things like this video published a few days ago: How to brew a good cup of coffee Boing Boing.

From the post on BoingBoing.net:

Simple steps for brewing a right proper cup o’ joe. It’s really the “handsorting” step that trips up the less sophisticated coffee drinkers, but then, failure to prime one’s coffee filters is also a common mistake

Huh?! And then looking at the comments on these pages (and other online references to the same video), the great majority suggest that viewers took this video quite seriously … that they were completely oblivious to how much they were being punk’d into believing anything about innovative coffee technique and technology. Here’s the direct video as published by Ben Helfen, who works at Octane in Atlanta, GA:

Not long after posting this, Ben later had to add a disclaimer on the video’s Vimeo page, worried that people would take it seriously and make themselves horribly sick in the process:

DISCLAIMER: This video is meant to be a joke for my coffee industry friends. If you were to actually try this, it would taste nasty and probably make you sick.

Former US Barista Champion, Kyle Glanville, was obviously in on the joke with his excessive use of exclamation points in his Twitter feed. But despite its great humor, unfortunately the joke went over most people’s heads. That merely reflects how bad false expectations about coffee innovation have become today — and it is clearly what Ben Helfen was exploiting.


UPDATE: Feb. 4, 2010
“Fourth Wave Coffee” or Third Wave Hyperbole? The New York City arrival of the Slayer has brought out more bombast (as if we had a shortage): Baristas Test The Slayer, the New $18,000 Espresso Machine | Serious Eats. We still wonder how serious “Serious Eats” can be if it follows the crutch of the clueless: referring to new espresso machines by their MSRP price tags in its headlines.


UPDATE: Feb. 10, 2010
Thankfully, the New York Times wasn’t as easily duped by MSRP price tags: What Kind of Coffee Do You Get for $18,000? – Diner\’s Journal Blog – NYTimes.com. They correctly noted that the $18,000 quote for the Slayer machine isn’t out of line with a standard La Marzocco GB/5, for example. But interesting that the Times should cite the Slayer’s pre-infusion for single origin espresso shots as one of its big advantages. Particularly given the faddish nature of single origin espresso shots and quotes like CoffeeGeek.com’s Mark Prince’s, “I still have yet to meet a single origin coffee I’ve truly enjoyed as an espresso.”

The Slayer could make the single origin shot more palatable in theory. But is all that devotion to a second-rate espresso shot made from trendy beans with a limited flavor profile worth it?