Lately we’ve been thinking about quality coffee’s current obsession with all-things-technology. While there’s arguably more science than art to making good coffee, the current climate seems to have pushed any art aside. It reminds us of civilization at the turn of the 20th century, when society held a common belief that technology was going to solve all our problems. Right before the mechanized killing of World War I, the Industrial Revolution giving way to the Great Depression, and the invention of the atomic bomb.
So today we witness a lot of obsession over incessant measurement — sometimes merely in the pursuit of more measurement, and even to the level of confusing the act of measurement for actual science. This technological obsession also manifests itself by a holy-grail-like belief in the new espresso machine that will revolutionize coffee. All of which creates a lot of interest in coffee but has rarely created better coffee — or at least better coffee experiences.
As a result, quality coffee feels a bit soulless and sterile these days. This sterility has even gone mainstream in a mass-produced way, at least at the general consumer end, most notably in the form of espresso pods, single-serving coffee devices, and superautomatic espresso machines. Hence this reactionary article in last week’s New York Times: In Defense of Old-Fashioned Espresso – NYTimes.com.
Can good coffee be saved from itself?
How might we overcome this clinical obsession and save the soul of good coffee? A few months ago, Ben over at Chemically Imbalanced proposed a very thought-provoking (and discussion-provoking) idea of Le Coffeeing — a sort of coffee variant on France’s recent and reactionary Le Fooding culinary movement. Le Fooding may be a weak analog for what coffee needs, but the inspiration behind Le Coffeeing carries a lot of merit.
We’ve recently been thinking about the potentially constructive parallels between the wine and coffee industries (at least where they make sense), and today’s coffee vanguard has a lot more in common with Napa winemakers than they do with the stodgy-but-vaunted restaurant establishment of France. This is why we caught a glimpse of potential quality coffee salvation in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article on Napa Valley Wine’s Retro Dudes | Jay McInerney on Wine – WSJ.com.
The Retro Dudes of Napa are more than familiar with Napa’s cathedrals to perfectly manipulated premium wines — for example, high-performance Cabernets that smack you in the face like a plumber’s wrench made of fruit and oak. What makes the The Retro Dudes interesting is their “passion for quirky, individualistic, artisanal wines” — pursuing neglected wine varietals, blending their wines in Old World ways, keeping the skins on their grapes for natural fermentation rather than the modern technology of controlled yeast additions, and generally “rejecting some of the technological winemaking of the modern era in search of wine authenticity (and presumably, drinkability)”.
Today coffee lovers are bombarded with hype about the pressure profiling technology of new $18,000 espresso machines, $20,000 Japanese siphon bars, $11,000 superautomatic Clover brewers (i.e., until Starbucks purchase of the company made them uncool), disproportionate fawning over $100-per-pound Cup of Excellence microlot winners that devalues all runners-up, and $400+ gadgets providing digital readouts of your total dissolved solids and extraction yields that risk making statistical gymnastics the ends rather than the means to better coffee. The pursuit of the mythical perfect coffee may be giving us more to learn and experience, but it’s also sapping the soul and even the enjoyment out of the beverage.
Here’s to hoping that a generation of Coffee Retro Dudes can come to the rescue before its too late.
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