A couple weeks ago, a regular reader made a very relevant comment on our last post: “You have become very negative. When was the last positive post?” They were completely on target, and we have noticed this trend in ourselves for months now. (See: Coffee Commenter Archetype #10.) The reasons are worth a post here.
Now we’ve always been prone to sarcasm and even a certain iconoclastic streak. But that alone is insufficient to explain why we’ve even caught ourselves asking, “Are we being too negative all the time?” before posting our next missive. After all, it’s no mystery that the ebullient, sunny, and awe-inspiring posts/tweets/viral-Internet-nuggets-du-jour are what motivate people to read and share.
A rising tide lifts all boats, but what if there are simply more boats?
We’ve come to a sort of conclusion that, since we started this blog in 2005, the quality coffee world has changed a lot — and mostly for the better. The number of places capable of reaching the highest quality standards have proliferated, reaching even what were traditionally coffee’s quality wastelands (e.g., suburbia, New York City, even Paris, etc.).
However, over the same time, the best retail places for coffee have improved little over the years. It may be our humble opinion, but the absolute quality level of coffee has plateaued. This suggests that much of the perceived improvement in quality coffee over recent years was primarily driven by more coffeeshops “catching up” to what the best ones had been successfully doing for years now: emulating their good practices, their quality sourcing, their commitment to training, etc. The stagnation in our highest espresso scores also supports this hypothesis.
In other words, many retail coffeeshops exploited a quantum leap in quality that’s now very difficult to reproduce. With starry-eyed talk about “Fourth Wave” coffee and the like, much of the industry seems to be holding out for the promise of yet another, equivalent quantum leap — the likes of which we will probably never see again. If you grew up eating nothing but canned vegetables all your life, fresh organic produce might seem like something descended from the gods with endless possibilities. But good luck trying to repeat that level of improvement.
Coffee hasn’t gotten better so much as more people learned how to make it properly.
What happens when quality isn’t a growth market
Thus quality coffee has been stuck in a kind of stasis in many ways. As the supply of great coffeeshops has grown, there’s a rampant copycat mentality among coffeeshops now imitating each other — creating a sort of rigid orthodoxy or dogma that, today, makes screwballs like Philz Coffee seem like radicals. One coffee shop replaces their Clover brewer with Hario V60s, and within months all the sheep follow. Local coffee pros echo each other’s trite Third Wave clichés across the globe in interviews. Monolithic opinions pervade about everything from roasting styles to blends. Purveyors wave the Third Wave flag as if to take full credit for the changing and more discriminating tastes of coffee consumers.
While that’s all been routinized, what’s actually growing is the business of generating hype with little substance to back it up — i.e., promising consumers a similar revolution in coffee every month that it never delivers. That it could never deliver. The business of coffee has grown a lot, and so has the marketing hype, the number of profiteers, and the haze and fog of sales & marketing spin.
Thus we find ourselves needing to (over?)compensate for the hype, needing to shine a brighter light through the haze and fog. We’re sure that makes for a real downer when reading some of our posts of late. Though if you were to follow the tweets coming out of the most recent SCAA conference in Houston last week, bad news seemed like the only news. Even if most of that bad news dealt with climate change, dwindling supplies, rising prices, and an inability to meet anticipated demand.
This is the end (of the beginning)
We wish we were a lot more optimistic rather than pessimistic about today’s state of quality coffee. Ironically, while this year’s US Barista Championship was going on in Houston, we were sipping espresso at Intelligentsia in Chicago — home of last year’s world barista champion, an organizational trophy machine at the USBC, and who was decidedly and notably absent from this year’s competition.
The espresso at the Monadnock location was as good as ever — although (surprise!) no better than usual. They had reconfigured their service counter since our last visit: taking up half the front counter-space now with their Hario V60 pour-over bar. As a bit of a throwback, the forward-thinking Intelligentsia now reminds us of coffeeshops that once prominently featured their pour-over bars back in the 1990s.
Fortunately, we occasionally catch a glimpse of other coffee cultures that have gone their own way ever so slightly, breaking from the monotony of the pack to suggest something unique is still possible. Our recent exposure to the coffee culture in South Africa being one reason to be somewhat upbeat. Perhaps as when punk rock refreshingly broke the tiresome conventions of the progressive 70s rock that preceded it, this shiftless, seemingly listless transition is a necessary step for coffee to bloom and blossom into something diverse and interesting again.
Until then, more of our delight may have to come from the occasional amusing typo, such as a New York start-up offering Mothra’s Day specials in the hopes of becoming the Starbucks of flowers. It’s about time Godzilla had to share some of the love.
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