Here’s a shocker. In today’s news, Vietnam seems to have suddenly discovered that much of their coffee is of utter crap quality: Viet Nam News | Coffee quality drops off alarmingly.
What’s curious is that the article seems taken aback by the discovery that Vietnamese coffee might not be the richest coffee in the world, as recent statistics show that 88 per cent of the coffee rejected on the world market was from Vietnam. “The biggest loss, however, was the prestige of Vietnamese coffee in international market,” the deputy chairman of Vietnam coffee production is quoted in the article.
Hello? The world’s leader at dumping $0.40/lb C-grade robusta beans on the market? Beans so foul that Sara Lee literally has to steam clean them to “remove the burnt rubber taste” — just to make them palatable? Perhaps they’re only smoking, not drinking, the stuff over there.
You know the phrase “knowing just enough to be dangerous”? A good example can be found in the regular stream of rip-and-read medical research press releases that appear in the daily media cesspool. And scuttlebutt on the health benefits and detriments of coffee are in steady supply.
I promise not to go off on my usual tirade about mainstream media’s sorry state of science and medical reporting. But I’d like to tackle the more general issue of how food-as-medicine thinking can create a sorry world of over-anxious people and sterilized, unenjoyable edibles (and drinkables).
First, take a lot of the salesmanship buzz about the growth of tea consumption in the press these days. Inevitably, they play the health card. We learn that tea drinkers have always known it’s better for you than coffee, and now there’s proof (thanks to one study that apparently suffices as the basis for all our health care decisions). We learn that consumption of tea is on the rise because of rising interest in the health benefits attributed to tea.
Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy tea and all its yummy anti-oxidant goodness (just call them “flavor crystals”). But how much should my choice of beverage be dictated by an actuarial assessment comparing my mortality risk of cancer or stress hormones? Even if this uncoordinated media mass of medical non-sequiturs truly came to a coherent conclusion that I had a 0.16% higher risk of cancer by drinking coffee instead of tea, when does that statistic become the prime determinant of what I should consume? Flavor, apparently, is just an inconvenience.
Tea aside, coffee itself has been alternately viewed as a monster or savior, depending on your study du jour. An alarmingly obese America seems very worried about the nine-calorie coffee, despite its regular consumption for hundreds of years. Over the weekend, one cited study claimed coffee harmed sperm — arguably taking a page out of the “smoking may reduce the blood flow and causes impotence” threats you now see posted on cigarettes in the U.K.
I’m not advocating ignorance. Everyone is capable of making personal choices based on available information. But when alarmist health-consciousness sets the standard, we all suffer.
Oddly enough, take the example of pork. While in Portugal, I was lucky enough to eat quite a bit of proco preto — literally a “black pork” that comes from a special line of pigs in the Alentejo region that’s popular around Lisbon (black is the color of the animal, not the dish). Porco preto, like any other pork in Portugal, tastes nothing like pork in America. Why? Because at some point Americans got the idea that pork was the taste of premature death on four hooves. So pork was bred to be leaner, drier, whiter, and without any flavor — and ultimately not worth eating for many.
A more famous example concerns unpasteurized cheeses (i.e., cheeses that are not pre-heated to kill off some bacteria). America can claim production of a number of good cheeses, but many of what are considered the best cheeses in the world are unavailable here due to U.S. pasteurization laws. Roquefort, Camembert, Brie … safely consumed for centuries, the real deal may carry a rare risk of salmonella or E. coli. But there’s a good reason the French call pasteurized cheese “dead cheese“.
Moderation and personal choice should always play a role in our food supplies. But when we’ve let the forces of health paranoia rule our choices, most everyone loses out. We’ve made ourselves sick and made our food far less appealing in the name of health fads and the conventional wisdom of the moment. All of which is another major reason why, when someone presents me with another study du jour that says coffee may cause additional limb growth, I just want to smack them upside the head with the third arm growing out of my back.
Sunday’s Seattle Times posted an article on the 15th annual Coffee Fest held there over the weekend: The Seattle Times: Local News: Vendors swap tricks of the trade, peddle their wares at Coffee Fest. Coffee Fest is an industry trade show, closed to the public, where the latest business wares and fads tend to come out in spades. They also regularly host a latte art competition.
One of the more interesting lines from the aimless article:
Faema espresso machines from Italy cost $5,900 to $9,000 with discount … an automatic version that tamps, grinds and brews at the touch of a button costs $15,000, but “that one is not popular in the Northwest because of the connoisseurs.”
$6,000 to $9,100 still won’t make a decent barista out of a minimum-wage high school student, but at least it will buy you consistently underwhelming espresso.
Yesterday Tom Philpott posted about his discovery of a great place for espresso in Austin, TX called Cafe Medici (it opened last month). However, the bulk of his post was on why “it’s getting harder and harder to find great coffee in the U.S.”: Mad Flavor in Austin: good espresso in a fallen world | Gristmill: The environmental news blog | Grist.
The core theory of his rant is that the consumer-fed proliferation of Starbucks is cementing the following equation in the public consciousness:
great espresso = warmed up $5 pumpkin pie/egg nog milkshake with a dash of mediocre espresso
His post raises some interesting questions, even if I don’t believe the alarmist message that Starbucks is sending quality coffee back to the Folgers crystals ages.
If I compare the espresso in America to what I had been drinking for the past three weeks across Portugal, it’s clear that America has a long way to go before “going out for a good espresso” means simply walking up to the nearest café. Such a task in America largely requires a rather decisive act of planning and coordinated transportation (if not also airfare, depending on the location). However, if we compare where we are today versus 15 years ago, getting a mediocre espresso has become far more convenient in a way that was unthinkable back then. That much is progress.
Looking at the high end of the scale, I don’t see the proliferation of Starbucks really hurting the elite cafés producing top-notch coffee. If anything, I think the mainstream awareness and availability of Starbucks has served as a suitable “gateway drug” to hard core coffee enthusiasm — ultimately resulting in a greater demand for coffee of the highest quality available. And the numbers reflect this. Over the past 15 years, the number of cafés making truly great coffee has grown from a handful per time zone to a handful per state. And again, that much is progress.
Coffee’s ever-popular wine analogy works well in the economics case. There are some people who appreciate what goes into a $100 bottle of wine, and there are others who prefer beer and don’t see how that bottle adds up to the price of a few good cases of their favorite brew.
On a social level, however, the wine analogy starts to fall apart. A newly food-aware-and-obsessed American public wants to follow the comfortable path of wine appreciation to understand and appreciate coffee. While it works in some areas, it fails in others — for example, the newly popularized concepts of coffee cupping and coffee pairing.
Take coffee cupping. While there are a number of parallels to wine tasting, cupping carries some elements that are closer to slaughtering your own cow than they are to wine tasting. Picking the lobster out of the tank was one thing, but I’m not ready to be handed the hacksaw when I order my steak and fries.
More recently, I’ve also noted a trend towards coffee pairings. Some of it has come from Starbucks’ consumer education ads, while more experimental forms have included restaurant dinners featuring single origin coffees paired with each course of a meal. One example is the seven course pairing recently developed as a Coffee Dinner jointly between Navarre Restaurant and Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland, OR. Beyond the experimental novelty value, it forces the wine comparison too literally — with a mallot. Coffee pairing integrated into a meal plan makes about as much sense as pairing cigars with each course. And unless you’re Fidel Castro, that might not be too appealing…
Wine appreciation clearly provides a convenient, established, and familiar framework for consumers to educate themselves on and enjoy quality coffees. With a little time, I expect some of these more ridiculous literal translations to die out as the clumsy fads that they are. The good news is that there may be unique coffee appreciation experiences, wholly separate from wine appreciation, that are on the way as the market for excellent coffee evolves.
There are few things that illustrate the great divide between the old, traditional way of looking at coffee and something of a more recent way than reactions to the price of coffee. (Neither way of which is more or less correct than the other, mind you.)
On the one hand, we have the new psychology of paying top dollar for the greatest crops available. Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune reported on the latest escalation of high-end coffee auctions: This coffee costs $103.90 a pound. Is it worth it? | Chicago Tribune. To some who have made it their hobby to notice the difference, it is worth it. To them, coffee is a fertile ground of culinary exploration. There’s a romance to it that’s somewhat suggestive of wine.
On the other side of the divide, we have people who respond to the same news with incredulous disbelief and outright ridicule. When people whine about Starbucks’ announcement to raise prices a whopping $0.05 per cup, these folks shake their heads at the infamous “$4 cup of coffee at Starbucks” — even if you cannot buy a basic cup of coffee at Starbucks for that price. On this side of the divide, the appropriate response to news of coffee price hikes are articles about where to get the most dirt cheap cup of joe available (e.g., Five Places to Get Cheap Coffee – washingtonpost.com). To them, and to most New Yorkers, coffee is a basic consumable just this side of tap water with little differentiation other than price.
Of course, the divide ultimately comes down to personal tastes. Some people value and can appreciate an expensive bottle of wine with dinner — they can taste the difference. While to many others it can seem like a complete waste of money for grape juice with a price tag that reflects nothing more than the varying degree of snootiness that comes with the bottle.
Like “red” states and “blue” states, this divide, like many others in this country, is one that people are just going to have to get used to.
Maktoob Business, the business arm of a popular Arab portal, published an article this week revealing some international consumer attitudes towards coffee and cafés: Coffee culture: a global phenomenon? by Synovate | Maktoob Business.
Interviewing 5,806 respondents in the US, UK, France, Brazil, Hong Kong, Singapore, Serbia, Morocco, and Australia, some of the survey’s findings include the following:
Last week’s Willamette Week (Portland, OR) published an article announcing the Northwest Regional Barista Competition that took place this past weekend: Willamette Week Online | Culture | CULTURE FEATURE | Iron Baristas | Wednesday October 18th, 2006. The event was won by Billy Wilson of the Albina Press in north Portland.
The writer, Karla Starr, has an amusing writing style. But, of course, I’ll have to take issue with her comedic claim that robots making espresso in the future will be more error-prone. (I can’t leave comedy well enough alone, can I??) I only wish that were the case — then espresso might have the chance of being interesting. In reality, the increasing automation will essentially make espresso more error-free: consistently adequate-yet-uninspired.
While I’ve recently found quite a bit to mock from the Los Angeles Times when it comes to coffee journalism, Wednesday they published a series of mostly worthwhile articles about the local coffee scene in their Food Section (“Beyond Latte”).
Particularly worthwhile is a quick summary of notable neighborhood coffee haunts in the Southland: calendarlive.com: THE FIND – Serious (yay!) about coffee. Any article that mentions San Dimas’ Coffee Klatch has done at least a little homework.