It’s a great time to be a barista. I love transitions. I feel the most alive in them. And coffee culture, to my mind, is evolving right now. Even at premium coffee shops in Seattle, you can pay around $2 for a shot of espresso that will peel the enamel off your teeth, or you could pay $2 for a transcendent elixir that will make you fall in love with the world. I can’t think of another product with such a dramatic difference in quality. It’s a coffee jungle out there.
But lately, people seem to be demanding better. Why? I think it’s the tension between two factors. First, there’s better quality coffee to be had nowadays. Fresher coffee is being served, and you’re more likely to be told where your coffee comes from, and therefore what it really tastes like. “Kenya” or “Guatemala” tells you more than “Breakfast Blend” or “Dark Roast.” And you can order a Kenya coffee made in a variety of ways that will also affect the product, from French-pressed to vacuum pot to espresso.
Second, there’s the pre-existing condition, or the Starbucks effect. It’s easy to take shots at Starbucks when you make espresso at a micro-roaster. But I’m not into that at all. Starbucks as had an enormous impact here and around the world, and a look at coffee culture would be incomplete without considering it. What they do is standardize a product that’s better than terrible and make it so uniform that people always have their expectations filled. And that’s valuable to people. Up to a point.
What’s interesting to me now is that many people seem to have reached that point. We want more than predictability; we want flavor. We want to taste coffee, at long last, after 200 years of drinking it in this country. There are a myriad of flavors available in coffees grown in different countries, different regions, different family farms; all distinct. Also, each method for extracting coffee from beans brings out different characteristics. And each extraction method has a sweet spot where the best intensity and balance of flavors is achieved. This is what we geek out over at work. Sometimes, you get such a perfect coffee that it sends shivers down your body.
And everyone can experience that, not just coffee geeks. It’s a jungle right now. Even I don’t know what to expect half the time I order. But I do know that the more I listen to my palate and to the people serving me, the faster I will learn. I will continue to find new ways and reasons to love coffee.
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