Get ready for the next wave of coffee culture. Consumers are learning more about coffee — how it’s grown, roasted and prepared.
They’re attending tastings called cuppings and they’re being asked to drink fine coffee black to experience its true flavors.
They’re also spending more for gourmet beans and fancy grinders.
“Coffee in many ways is now being treated as a very fine ingredient that requires a tremendous amount of care and stewardship from seed to cup,” said Nick Brown, editor of Roast magazine’s Daily Coffee News, noting “tremendous growth in the high-end, upscale, specialty coffee segment.”
While some say the trend is part of the farm-to-table movement, others compare the shift in coffee to wine and beer consumption. Wine tastings were once mocked as the province of snobbish elites, while beer brewery tours were a novelty.
But now wine bars, trails and tasting rooms are ubiquitous, as are brew pubs, microbreweries and craft beer.
“The more varieties consumers become aware of, the more they want,” said National Coffee Association spokesman Joe DeRupo. “People are eager for anything and everything new. They are accumulating the knowledge and sophisticated tastes that come with that knowledge.”
While coffee consumption overall has declined slightly in the U.S. in recent years, 31 percent of Americans say they drink specialty coffee daily, and 45 percent drink it each week, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
Semilla is an 18-seat restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, known for its adventurous, “vegetable-forward” $85 tasting menu. As each dish is served, the staff provides information about ingredients and preparation. What they don’t provide is milk and sugar for coffee, unless guests ask.
“If somebody of their own volition asks, ‘Could I get milk and sugar?’ of course we provide it,” said Gabriela Acero, Semilla’s maetre d’. “That’s their personal preference. But generally the way I phrase it is, ‘If you’re willing, I’d ask you to try the coffee without that and let me know what you think.’ I would say 90 to 95 percent find they don’t need milk and sugar.”
Milk and sugar, she added, are used to “mask coffee that’s bitter or over-extracted.” Semilla’s coffee is “sweeter, more delicate, more floral” than ordinary coffee. “It’s about the purity of the product,” she said.
Semilla’s coffee comes from a small Brooklyn roaster called Parlor Coffee. Parlor’s business is mostly wholesale, but the company also hosts cuppings for the public: twice-weekly free tastings featuring a half-dozen coffees, served black with spoons for slurping and spit cups for those worried about caffeine. At a recent cupping, tasting room manager Peter Higgins pointed out hints of “candied peaches and raspberries” in Kenyan coffee; “floral, like black tea or bergamot” flavors in an Ethiopian brew; and “dense, chocolatey” notes in a Guatemalan blend.
Parlor’s founder, Dillon Edwards, says the “niche world of micro roasters” to which Parlor belongs is viable thanks to what came before: the Starbucks boom in the 1990s followed by artisanal retailers like Blue Bottle, now a small chain, “supporting and celebrating the coffee producers.” Those waves paved the way for a marketplace where some consumers are “willing to spend $5 on a cup of coffee or $20 on a bag of coffee.”
Are you proud of grinding beans fresh each morning at home? If you’re using a $10 or $20 electric grinder, experts say you’re better off using a bag of coffee ground at the store. That’s because inexpensive blade grinders don’t grind beans evenly. You end up with different size particles, resulting in an uneven extraction that damages subtle flavors.
Industry mavens recommend burr grinders instead. Burrs are rough metal parts that crush beans uniformly. But even gourmet coffee lovers may be taken aback by the price tag. Popular burr grinders include the Capresso Infinity Die-Cast, $150, and the Baratza Encore, $130, while Baratza’s vaunted Virtuoso model runs $220.
“People are upping their game,” said Baratza co-founder Kyra Kennedy. “They want to taste the flavors and learn about that. Our growth really matches with what I would call the manual brew craze — the pour-overs, the AeroPresses, the press pots. People need a grinder if they’re going to do that stuff at home and get the same flavor they’re getting from a really good independent store.”
Baratza has been growing about 30 percent a year for the past five years and sold 80,000 grinders last year. But the challenge for Baratza and others riding this latest wave of coffee culture is to make sure the focus on quality _ whether it’s eschewing milk and sugar or recommending a $200 machine _ doesn’t come off as effete or snobby.
“Coffee is a journey,” said Kennedy. “The baristas and the specialty coffee world have been made fun of for being elitists. So we are very sensitive.”
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