Who is our Alice Waters?

I remember back when I was first starting out as a cook hearing people dismiss the idea of a restaurant that did not have a fixed menu. "That will never work, people want to know what they're going to get," all the experts said. Restaurants like Du Marche in New York were scoffed at. The idea of a limited menu that changed every day that was based purely upon what was best and freshest of the local products on that one day... they all said it would never fly. Tasting menus... the pundits all claimed people required choice - the required control. "Customers want comfort in their food - they want to order the Chicken Diane with the side of spinach every Thursday night."

But some brave souls ignored the experts. And as a result, food as cuisine (as opposed to food as sustenance) took root in the US.

These same experts are now claiming the same things about coffee. "Consistency is the most important attribute in coffee," they say. "People want comfort in their coffee." These are ideas borrowed from the worlds of traditional retail and from fast food -- from commodity based markets. They are conservative worlds and conservative models - where quality is less important than product brand, where volume is the goal and the workforce is one step up from slave-labor (and in some cases may well be slave labor).

For the Starbucks of the world - this advice is both valid and valuable. Starbucks, after all, is fast food. But for the true specialty coffee companies and more so for the artisan coffee companies this advice is not only incorrect - it is destructive and damaging. It is fundamentally the wrong model. Those companies are not in the commodity business, they are not in the fast food business and they are not in the traditional retail business. They are in the culinary business.

The minute some brave souls take the risk, ignore the advice of all these experts, we will see our first American Place, our first Du Marche, our first Chez Panisse. And some of those brave souls will reap the rewards.

It takes a huge amount of passion, courage and vision to take a risk like this. But I truly believe that someone is going to do it. I truly believe that we will see businesses like this emerge - where coffee takes center stage - in all its idiosyncratic and ever-changing glory - and where it is celebrated as it deserves. I truly believe that this is where we will, finally, see the mighty $5 cappuccino.

And when it happens, you will see me there - standing at the bar drinking a $3 shot of the espresso of the day with a big huge smile on my face.

So... who has balls big enough? Is it you?


If there is one thing to fight in coffee, if there is one wrong to right, it is the concept that coffee (in all forms) is just a commodity. Many of the problems in the "specialty" coffee world spring from this one issue.

"Espresso should taste the same, always" -- the whole "consistency" thing in espresso blends continues to reinforce the impression that coffee is just coffee, espresso just espresso... it's all the same. Until people take a stand and start not only accepting that espresso blends will (and have to) change over time - but in fact start celebrating and marketing this fact... well... until that point we're still at the point where customers won't be able to get their heads around why an espresso at Stumptown should cost more than an espresso at Starbucks. I dream of a world where there is a blackboard menu for espresso, and each day there are 2 or 3 single origin options and another 1 or 2 "blends of the day". These blends can be numbered or nicknamed or dated - what they should be is described. "Espresso Blend #10095 - This blend is based on a Cup of Excellence Pulped Natural Cerrado from Brazil, with accent coffees from El Salvador and Rwanda. Expect tons of caramel and honey sweetness and a cocoa butter medium body with winey fruit high notes and belgian chocolate in the finish." Regular customers could have conversations about that blend two months ago and how it compares to this one.

"I don't like African coffee." -- in almost all countries and regions the range of coffee available represents a huge subset of coffee itself. Until roasters stop labeling coffees "Guatemala" or the like and instead start going to the point of celebrating and marketing the different sub-regions, estates, farmers and harvests customers are never going to understand why they should pay more for a coffee like the Guatemala Finca San Vincente than they should for a "Guatemala" from Trader Joes. I think roasters need to label their coffees not only with origin and roast date, but also harvest, estate... the whole deal. At this point, roasters will actually be able to mark up their expensive coffees by the same percentage as their cheap coffees, expensive coffees will no longer be "loss leaders" and perhaps we can say farewell at last to the glut of defective, horrible, generic and well-marketed aggregated coffees from places like Columbia, Peru, etc.

Great coffee is not a drug.
Great coffee is not tasteless or bland.
Great coffee is not a habit.
Great coffee is a passion, it is an experience, it is exciting and wonderful and weird and different and most of all it is memorable.

Reject the generic.
Celebrate the difference.


a turning point?

so the question is - does consistency matter when it comes to espresso blends?
or, more accurately, how important is consistency in espresso blends?

i have to say that i feel like the perceived requirement for consistency has led to a vast array of vaguely similar lowest-common-denominator espresso blends that range from okay to boring.

i don't want "okay" and i don't want "familiar".
i want great.

as an analogy - i'll use the food thing again... there are people who eat at McDonalds when they travel because no matter where they go a Big Mac is a Big Mac. me... that sounds horrible. eating the exact same thing every day? experiencing the same taste time and time again? experiencing nothing new, nothing wonderful? i'd rather die. for me - i love going to new and random places when i travel. sure - sometimes i get food worse than what i'd get at McDonalds but sometimes i get to experience new, wonderful and/or strange things.

i wonder if it's all about fear. fear of the unknown, fear of change. i wonder if people are just willing to sacrifice the chance of greatness to avoid something bad.

maybe i'm weird - but i want newness and growth. i want to learn.

i want my espresso to be different - all the time.

and the thing is --- the reality of coffee is that it will be different, all the time. coffees change, become unavailable. they change month to month and lot to lot and crop to crop. trying to pretend otherwise is just silly.

to me, the goal of an espresso blend should be to taste good. if one month it tastes good in a rich and chocolatey way - that's great. and if the next month it's all berry and caramel - that's good too.

just say no to boring coffee.


Barista Magazine

So I got my copies of the new issue - and it is really amazing.
It has some great articles - and even an article I wrote (grin).

Actually, I'm really happy about this issue, and the magazine in general. It's really good to see the magazine improving. It's cool that baristas have their own magazine finally - and it's even cooler that it's the best of the coffee industry publications.

Anyway - check it out, subscribe, it's very cool.

Oh... my article is the one on the physiology of taste.