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Coffee History and Humility


Coffee History and Humility

Paul Haworth

Don't you always feel better knowing where you are? Even if you aren't trying to get somewhere, it's always nice to have a sense of placement. At Coffee Bureau, we believe it's not only helpful to understand our place in a sort of 'coffee timeline,' it's also a way of adding value to our everyday coffee experiences.

Considering specialty coffee, we are, of course, further along than we've ever been, but we have so far to go as well. History gives us a double humility, as we see that we stand on shoulders, and we get a glimpse of the immense possibilities. But it isn't just about humility. It can also offer encouragement and confidence to know our place. Knowing history can give us a validating sense of continuity, especially in an industry so fraught with trends and pretense.

So, where are we? A common response is to refer to it as a 'third wave' of specialty coffee. To simplify what many are saying, wave one was canned ground coffee, wave two was the espresso-based coffee house, and wave three is a focus on small batch roasting of traceable single-farm beans. This wave terminology is somewhat helpful but can also be a hindrance as it leaves us thinking less about a fluid context and more about punctuated efforts of marketing in immediate memory. It can also drive coffee lovers, both inside and outside the industry, to always be watching for the 'next big thing.'

We want to propose a slightly different perspective. Instead of seeing all of this as a series of 'waves' which supplant and supplant in succession, what if we are simply making new discoveries that, when properly realized, work in perfect concert with all the previous ones? What if each 'season' of coffee's industrial narrative has a truth to tell?

Originally, coffee was just some sort of interesting Arabian spice that could produce an aromatic beverage. Here in America, it became a patriotic alternative to the tea we threw in the Massachusetts Bay. Since then, we've been trying to figure out exactly what to do with it.

The industrial revolution offered some ways to roast, grind, package, and distribute the substance in a way that allowed for a confluence of aromatic preservation and convenience. Eventually, this gave certain large distributors an edge, creating the earliest form of 'specialty' coffee. It's strange for us to imagine today that ground coffee in a sealed can could have been considered the highpoint of quality, but this was absolutely the case at that time. So, the coffee discovery we can take away from this advancement would be that there is a value in mechanical advantage. The mass produced product was better than anything else because the machines utilized were fantastically more precise and consistent than anything that had been available for home or small mercantile use up to that point.

The next era could simply be called 'the age of the espresso machine.' An invention of the early 20th century, this Italian contraption was named for its ability to produce a palatable extracted coffee substance extremely fast. What was required for this speed was an immense amount of pressure, a level of fine bean pulverization that was only surpassed by the Turks and the Greeks, and people in a big hurry. In the age of Fascist Italy, it was all the rage to take a few minutes from your busy day at the factory and pay homage to the great coffee machine in the center of town with all its gauges, levers, steam, and mystery. After they lost the war, the nostalgic 'baristas' reformatted this into an art-form that required the utmost attention to detail in every respect. It became an obsession for each house of espresso to formulate its own particular coffee blend and technique. It was this interest in finitude combined with instant gratification that eventually crossed the pond and put the words latte and cappuccino in our dictionaries. The discovery here is that there can and should be a place for artisanal, personalized craft in the specialty coffee trade.

Finally, we are here. All current ideas of what makes coffee special and valuable owe something to both of these epochs; we are foolish to not admit this. What Coffee Bureau loves about our present position is that there is an unprecedented interest in the intrinsic detail of the bean itself. Subsequently, simple manual methods of making coffee are being rediscovered and gaining prominence. These dynamics, aided by our modern abilities of transportation, have led us to a heightened awareness of untold wonders relating to the entire craft narrative, from the farm to our kitchen. Those of us who are up to the challenge have a great responsibility in being humble, honest, and painstaking in our pursuit of this day's discovery.

Never has there been a more exciting time to be a home coffee craftsperson. The level of quality you can experience on your kitchen counter is unprecedented. You don't need to be enslaved to a shop with a few fast machines. You need patience and a few well selected tools to join in today's conversations about what we all love in our morning ritual.