A common first question asked by those interested in specialty coffee is something along the line of what the 'best coffee' in the world is. There are many subjective ways to answer this question but usually the individual is asking about something quantified. They may want to know about high cupping (coffee tasting) scores, but more often than not it is expense that they want to know about. They are curious about whatever is currently 'hyped up' and costly.
The specialty coffee industry is like any other high craft in that there is always a 'hype throne' generally occupied by one thing. These 'hype kings' can be almost anything. They can be particular roasteries, novel machines, rediscovered treasures, unusual processing (of beans), regional terroir (where coffee is grown), boutique varieties, etc. One thing is certain—the 'hype king' is always in a state of being supplanted.
Seasoned coffee professionals have an interesting relationship with whatever currently occupies the throne, as it may or may not be a true reflection of their convictions on quality. A common dilemma is when a customer is willing to pay top dollar for whatever is trendy, without pursuing an actual knowledge of value. Furthermore, we can infer a lot about our progress as an industry based on where the big money is going.
Some Historic Examples
The most amusing instance of this phenomenon is something known as 'animal coffee.' There are a few creatures around the world that eat raw coffee cherries regularly. There is a civet (kind of like a weasel) in Indonesia and a bird in Brazil that are the most well known coffee eaters. When these animals are fed a diet of coffee cherries and 'picked up after,' their droppings can be roasted and served. In this case, scarcity (definitely not quality) led to some of the highest prices the coffee market has ever seen. This may be one of the most poetic examples of what hype is often made of—pure crap. The current state of this unique 'processing' method is that many of the animals are treated poorly. It is an unfortunate gimmick with cruel consequences.
Another example is coffee grown in Blue Mountain, a region of Jamaica. Coffee with this protected provenance is rather unremarkable by modern standards, but it is scarce. For those stuck in the sensibilities of the 1990s, rest assured Jamaica Blue Mountain still fetches 5 or 6 times the price that it should.
Some Recent Examples
In the beginning of this century, we saw a tremendous emphasis on brewing equipment. One notable example was the Clover machine, famous for brewing one cup of french press style coffee at a time and costing a whopping $12,000. There was a period of time when the presence of this machine in a coffee shop was a guarantee of being 'cutting edge.'
More recently, the industry has shifted back to bean details. The recent 'cult of cultivar' has led to an obsession with coffee genetics which is sometimes justified and other times very obviously hype. For instance, there has been a trend for the last few years involving an heirloom African variety 'rediscovered' decades after having been transplanted to the new world. It has mistakenly been called 'Geisha' because it sounds elegant. It is actually named Gesha, after the Ethiopian region it originally came from. It is by no means a low quality variety, but its cost can become obscene and not necessarily always informed by honest cupping scores.
What Does This Tell Us About Where We Are?
The clear progression is that we embraced scarcity first, tempered it with defined regional peculiarity, focused on craft, and finally found that genetics are important. This is an interesting dance with steps toward and away from lasting value at every stage. It feels like we might be on the brink of a more universal awareness of all quality contributors, but much depends on you—the coffee lover.
Get educated enough to see through the hype and have confidence in rewarding real quality. Don't be afraid to admit that you don't agree with others or you don't taste what others taste. If you can't taste it, don't pay for it!