The New York Times published an article this week (due in the NY Times Magazine tomorrow) from its coffee beat regular, Oliver Strand: Japan’s Pour-Over Coffee Wins Converts – NYTimes.com. It’s a relatively effective trend piece — dealing more with pop culture and a sort of social anthropology than anything it says about coffee. But coffee’s story over the past decade is primarily about an evolution of pop culture rather than any evolution in coffee itself.
The article introduces the notion of national coffee cultures and how Japan has finally earned some long overdue recognition. Giving credit to Japan’s long history of quality coffee is a refreshing change from the usual mainstream media take, as coffee reporting is rife with historical revisionism.
Just last week, the San Jose Mercury News reported that “there’s a new DIY trend afoot in the world of coffee lovers … they’re roasting their own coffee beans — at home.” This despite a good decade of noticeable decline in activity on home roasting newsgroups, online forums, and mailing lists — in response to the increasing consumer availability of high quality, fresh-roasted, date-stamped coffees.
Pour-over coffee is new if it’s new to you
But while Mr. Strand does a great job in recognizing that Japanese quality coffee culture wasn’t born yesterday, he isn’t nearly as successful with doing the same for the very old, very un-trendy practice of pour-over coffee brewing. To quote his article:
“…Cooking isn’t stuck in 1990, or we would still be sitting down to menus with honey-mustard glaze and sun-dried tomatoes. Why should coffee be any different? ”
And yet the article goes on to discuss pour-over coffee. Except that pour-over is a holdover from the 1990s, with coffee shops such as Oakland’s Cole Coffee (née Royal Coffee) and Monterey’s Plumes offering handmade, individual serving pour-over coffee since the halcyon days of car phone antennas and rollerblading along the Embarcadero. Long before Phil Jabar, of Philz Coffee fame, even thought about coffee.
But even 1990 doesn’t go far back enough. Monmouth Coffee in London has been offering individual pour-over coffee since 1978 — the days of the very fondue sets that Mr. Strand mentions in his article. And yet we have food blog posts announcing those “high-tech Chemex brewers” that were actually invented in the 1930s, and the original Melitta pour-over filter design was patented around the last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series (1908).
Is it any wonder why we roll our eyes whenever someone brings up the popular (and misused) form of the “Third Wave” tag — as if nobody had thought of making quality coffee until they just invented it three years ago? Even the Japanese Hario dripper kettle Mr. Strand cites in the article represents a simple modification of the hot water pot — i.e., hardly something revolutionary. Consumer toaster manufacturers change their designs every couple of years, introducing new features like bagel settings, and yet nobody speaks of toast experiencing a “Third Wave” or radical quality revolution.
Understanding the need for (perceived) speed
Which all makes us wonder why coffee has a tendency to put a new coat of paint on the Vatican and tell us it’s new and revolutionary architecture. Perhaps we all innately need to believe that we live in accelerated and interesting times to get us out of bed in the morning. A cultural environment that promotes a kind of faux anxiety is probably good for jobs, good for product marketing, good for filling conference seats, and even good for book authors, newspaper columnists, and, well, blog posters.
However you look at it, hand-pour coffee is old. Japanese coffee culture is even older. But the Western recognition of and appreciation for pour-over coffee and Japanese coffee culture is definitely new. Or at least new to enough of us to warrant a worthy trend piece in the Times.
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