Read an Excerpt
Preface to the 2003 Edition
In the twenty years since I began obsessively researching coffee, it has become a lot easier to find a good cup in the United States. Where I live, in Boston, I have American coffee history and the always changing world of beans from distant lands within easy reach. I can drink the benchmark blends of Peet’s, the Berkeley-based chain that inspired the American movement for coffee with real flavor and integrity, and buy the beans to brew my own at home. I frequent cafés that use beans roasted in Seattle by Batdorf & Bronson or Torrefazione Italia, two companies that rode the quality-coffee wave and managed to keep afloat after it crested. I can stop in for a cup of defining East Coast coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, the ubiquitous chain that got its start near Boston and has been influenced by the national move toward better beans. If I want to buy extremely fresh roasted beans, I can watch the process through a neat plastic window at a gleaming new branch of Whole Foods, the national chain of supermarkets dedicated to raising the standards of how food is raised and sold. A few years ago, Whole Foods bought a pioneering Colorado coffee roaster, Allegro, and incorporated its mission to educate people and supply fine beans. Or I can go to the gleaming new Copacafé, the brainchild of one of America’s coffee greats, George Howell, who is roasting just a few of the world’s finest coffees, hoping to bring world attention—and higher prices— to the people who grow them.
All these companies show America’s increased focus on coffee quality, which is probably unrivaled in any other country except Japan or Italy. They also show the reality of how the coffee renaissance, which was steaming through the country just when the first edition of this book appeared, has shaken out. What I can no longer do is go from alternative café to café, where impassioned hobbyists turned semi-professional fuss over roasting machines that look like old locomotives and waft heavenly smells through the store and the neighborhood.
This is because of Starbucks, the Goliath of the coffee world. From the time I began chronicling coffee, I have watched Starbucks move from a company with ambitions to increase its Seattle base a bit north and south to a national chain that bought out and dissolved many competitors— including, most notably, The Coffee Connection, a Boston-based beacon of quality for the whole country which was founded by Howell. Now, of course, Starbucks is an international company practically as famous as McDonald’s—and a similarly reviled and admired symbol of America.
Starbucks changed our view and expectations of coffee. Whatever can be said about its expansion techniques and the commodification of the quirky delights of café life, the company has made an immense number of people care about decent coffee and allowed them to find and drink it. Critics point out that Starbucks plowed over the independent local competition in its drive for hegemony. I, too, miss the many small, dedicated experimental roasters who proudly display prize burlap coffee sacks on the wall and urge customers to try their latest find. Such impassioned people are the transmitters of coffee wisdom—the people who can set others on lifelong quests to find, as The Coffee Connection’s slogan had it, “the ultimate cup.” Expert coffee men like George Howell, Jerry Baldwin and Ernesto Illy gave me my education—and will give you yours, in the pages of this book. While the independent, dreaming roasters will always have my heart, it is Starbucks that holds the key to the future. The origin of the company was an idealistic group of men, including Baldwin, who wanted people to sample and enjoy the coffee they discovered and loved. The degree of personalization changed utterly as the approach became sheerly corporate. This everyone knows. There’s plenty more to criticize, too, about Starbucks, including the varying degree of freshness in beans roasted thousands of miles away and the dark roasts that can smudge the delicate differences coffee farmers sweat and sacrifice to achieve.
But it is also true that thanks to Starbucks, a wealth of coffee information and, yes, coffee quality is available to millions more people than a few years ago. Starbucks held the line at flavored coffees, which as the coffee fad took hold threatened to paint the country in lurid crayon colors, and bought a leading espresso-machine maker to provide the shiny, steaming heart of its stores.
And then there’s the crucial question of the welfare of coffee farmers and the land they work—the question that has become foremost to anyone who loves coffee and cares about the world, the question that has taken oon urgency since the first edition of this book appeared. Here, too, Starbucks holds the key. With its worldwide reach and immense buyingg ppppower, Starbucks has the ability to affect the future of coffee with the choices it makes and the policies it sets.
Especially in the last few years, the outlook for quality coffee hasn’t been good. Fewer and fewer farmers can make a living. The news in recent years has been the startling rise of Vietnam from a very minor producer to the world’s second largest, after Brazil—heartening for a Southeast Asian country with a tormented history but terrible for Central and South America, home to relatively disorganized groups of smallholders who have the potential to grow great coffee. So do farmers in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, which, since the book came out, has only become more politically troubled, meaning that distribution is uncertain even when good beans are grown and processed. Both Latin America and Africa have the altitude and cool nights required for arabica, the species of coffee with real flavor. All coffee in Vietnam is robusta, the low-growing kind that can withstand the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. Robusta is cheap filler coffee.
The bright spots in the business today are the increasing number and ambition of groups that aim to help small farmers. The International Coffee Organization, for decades the cartel that attempted to keep prices reasonable by having its members stockpile coffee, has for the first time since the 1980s announced the revival of a price agreement. This could be good news for many member farmers, who for years have been forced to sell their crops at a loss. The ICO is also trying to improve the quality of coffee in its member countries—overdue efforts by a long-moribund group.
When I first wrote this book, people were coming alive to the idea that coffee could have real taste and realizing that something they’d viewed as simply a commodity that woke them up in the morning could have a wonderful range of flavors, flavors anyone could capture at home. Now coffee drinkers are awakening to the recognition that it is people who grow the beans, that families work to raise coffee trees, and that their labor and sometimes love should always be amply rewarded.
As in agriculture everywhere, though, middlemen pocket payments that rightfully belong to the farmer. Several groups that existed when I wrote the book have expanded their programs in the hopes of righting this wrong. Equal Exchange, a for-profit and right-minded group, pioneered the concept in the United States of buying and selling organic Fair Trade coffee from farmers and cooperatives in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The international Fair Trade program requires importers to guarantee farmers a minimum price and extend credit to them, and it provides technical assistance to help farmers make the transition to organic growing. Oxfam, the international aid group, has taken an active interest in coffee growers, devising a Coffee Rescue Plan to encourage big international companies to buy more Fair Trade coffee. Paying the modestly higher price for Fair Trade beans will make an enormous difference to the future of farmers around the world as well as the future of the environment— a concept Oxfam hopes roasters large and small will understand. Part of the plan requires large growers to destroy stocks of coffee that do not meet the International Coffee Organization’s minimum quality standards, thus giving small farmers a better chance to sell all their coffee at a decent price. Coffee Kids takes a different approach, enlisting coffee merchants and individual consumers to contribute money that it redirects to community development and education and health programs. This directly improves the lives and futures of farmers and their families—even if those futures mean livelihoods not involved with the difficult practice of farming coffee.
George Howell, ever the visionary, thinks that the only solution for farmers and drinkers who care about quality is to establish an identity for individual farmers. After he sold The Coffee Connection, he worked for several years in Brazil and Central America to establish the Cup of Excellence, a rigorous tasting competition that brings small farmers to the attention of buyers around the world—and, through an Internet auction of their tiny but fantastic annual crop, brings the winners rich rewards and, crucially, name recognition.
Since the first edition of this book, the interest in organic and sustainable agriculture coffee has increased. Shade-grown coffee is less economically efficient than coffee grown with no taller trees to shelter it. But it tastes much better, because the longer growing cycle means the possibility of greater flavor. Shade-grown coffee is also immeasurably better for the survival of other kinds of crops and birds and wildlife than beans grown on land stripped of shade trees—for years the standard way to grow coffee.
People who care about flavor and quality ask whether any of these groups—however laudable and essential they are to the future of small farmers and the environment—actually help the cause of better-tasting coffee. The answer is that some do and many do not. Their priorities are the welfare of the growers far more than the preference of the consumer. Unless farmers pay closer attention to planting practices and especially to better processing and storage, countries that produce huge amounts of mediocre beans will continue to force small farmers with the potential of producing great (or at least good) coffee out of business.
No matter how lovingly raised, of course, nothing can rescue badly made coffee. Here’s where The Joy of Coffee can change your life. I had fun puzzling out the rules of brewing in various machines and have been extremely gratified to see, on various websites, my experimental formulations carry the weight of stone-etched commandments. Since the book came out, there has been no great leap forward in brewing machines or methods. The small changes here and there are noted in the completely updated Sources.
Coffee is a blessing and a gift. A well-made cup gets close to heaven. The making part is easy, and there are dozens of tips in this book that even followed one at a time can radically improve the quality of the coffee you make at home. As for the beans, I’ll just say as a last word that I hope you seek out a roaster who cares about where every bean came from and who does something, however small, to help the people who raise them. Big ideas start small, and helping small farmers grow better beans is a big idea in which every coffee drinker can take part.
My coffee education began at full speed when I tried to keep up with the instructions and opinions coming at me from a group of coffee experts— fanatics, really. Wanting to write about coffee in the mid-1980s, I had come to San Francisco to hang out at espresso bars, which at the time were hard to find. On the very first day of my trip, someone told me I was in luck: just then was the annual meeting of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a small and fairly new group, and if I wangled an invitation to its opening cocktail reception, I could get a jump-start on my research. I thought my time would be better spent ordering espresso, but I went anyway. I knew I loved coffee. I just didn’t know why.
Faster than my pen could write, people told me in urgent bursts about the superiority of arabica beans over robustas, the criminally destructive hot plates on home and restaurant brewers, the importance to the true connoisseur of single-estate coffees. Seemingly everyone in the room gathered around me, talking over each other as if this were the one chance they’d get to convey everything they had learned. Even though I don’t drink coffee at night, a cup suddenly seemed like a good idea.
Finally, the owner of a local specialty-coffee shop, who had silenced everyone else to deliver a long monologue about when to cut off the airflow in a drum roaster, stopped herself. “You have to understand,” she said by way of apology. “We all love the bean.” Over the next eight years, while standing behind espresso-bar counters, beside huge industrial roasters and in rooms where professionals taste hundreds of cups a day to evaluate beans, I learned to understand and even speak the language sprayed at me that first night. I had a wonderful, long trip researching coffee up and down Italy, across America and even in South America and Germany, meeting people everywhere who had spent their lives passionately devoted to the bean.
Throughout my journey, I kept looking for better and better answers to the basic questions I began with: What matters most in buying coffee? How can you sort through the jumble of place names and whimsical labels on beans and blends? Is a dark roast better, more sophisticated, than a light roast? Is it essential to grind coffee beans at home? How can you keep coffee fresh after you buy it? What are the best brewing methods, and do you have to buy a new machine to try them? How do you pick and use the right equipment? How is espresso different from brewed coffee? How can you make densely flavored, silkily foamy cappuccinos and caffc lattes at home?
I also wondered just how bad for you caffeine can be, because I wouldn’t want to go a day without coffee, and every year there seems to be a new verdict. I sifted through hundreds of articles and found that although caffeine probably won’t take any time off your life, dependence on it to get you through the day carries its own price. Because everyone’s sensitivity to caffeine is different, and my own sensitivity is high, I searched out the newest methods of decaffeination, hoping to find coffee with more body and flavor than the rinse water I was used to.
I found it, and much more. In back rooms of warehouses, in bean- filled holding rooms on German docks, in decaffeination plants in southern Italy, in shrines to espresso in Rome and Naples and in dozens of the new coffeehouses that opened all across America while I continued my search, I learned some fundamental truths about coffee: Freshness matters more than just about anything. Nothing is as sophisticated as your own taste buds. No kind of coffee will keep for very long, and the freezer is by no means a better storage choice than a countertop or cupboard.
I learned, too, that a few very simple steps can drastically improve your everyday brew. Using metal filters instead of paper, for instance, or letting boiled water cool for a few seconds before pouring it over ground coffee, or just making sure you clean the brewer thoroughly every so often—little tricks make gigantic differences.
No one bean is best. Once you know some of the main differences, you have to decide what pleases you the most in a cup of coffee. Before you know what your favorite bean or blend is, you should put yourself in the hands of someone like the woman at that San Francisco conference who tastes dozens of coffee samples a month before selecting the beans she will roast in her own store. If you don’t have someone like that where you live, it’s easy to find such a person at the other end of the phone who will mail you fresh-roasted beans.
After talking to every expert I could find—and sipping more cups of delicious coffee than I imagined existed—I collected a mountain of information and tips. This book contains the best of what I learned: enough to help you have much, much better coffee than you’re used to and to appreciate the whole culture that has grown up around coffee. The group that met in such small, clubby quarters in San Francisco has grown explosively; that hotel room wouldn’t hold even one of its subcommittees today.
In these chapters, I’ll take you through a coffee plantation, where, midway through my research, I became reinspired by the smell of coffee blossoms and the sight of fruit-bearing coffee trees on volcanic Costa Rican hillsides. I’ll take you into the mills, where the beans are liberated from the fruits, dried and raked on big patios and carefully prepared for shipping; and into secretive “cupping rooms,” where experts who sip and spit dozens of samples a day decide which beans you’ll find in a supermarket can or in a bag at a fancy coffee shop. We’ll visit the noisy floors of roasting plants, where men and women with the skill and sensitivity of chefs decide how to unlock the flavors in each kind of bean.
Finally, I’ll take you into your own kitchen, where I’ll show you exactly how to make coffee as wonderful as the cup you remember from a vacation long ago—the one that tasted better than all the cups since. Because I enjoy a cup of really good coffee even more with a delicious cookie or piece of cake beside it, the last chapter is devoted to mostly sweet, and a few not-so-sweet, things that make coffee taste better, and certainly make drinking it more fun. At the end are sources for the equipment and coffee beans I recommend.
The point of my long journey was never to become a coffee insider. It was to enhance the pleasure I take in something that I will probably drink every day for the rest of my life. I hope to enhance your daily pleasure too.
Copyright © 1995, 1997, 2003 by Corby Kummer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.