The coffee drinking habits in Somewhere, Developed World

Last night I dropped in on the Counter Culture Coffee “Works in Progress” event in Boston, MA, USA. For three reasons it was very different from other coffee events I have attended.

  • First, the espresso machines went unused. There was neither milk nor sugar anywhere to be seen in the building.
  • Second, the discussion was about genetic variability in coffee plants, and the flavors that each plant brings forward.
  • And third, the 10 coffees were served slowly, side-by-side, in 1-2 oz saki glasses.

All this occurred in Boston. King of the 16 and 20-oz Styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup. Blue collar Boston. Boston-Strong Boston. Starbucks on every street corner with pushbutton espresso machines Boston.

I felt like I was in the movie Sideways (thanks,… Jack: Man! That's tasty!  Miles Raymond: That's 100% pinot noir. Single vineyard. They don't even make it any more.  Jack: Pinot noir?  Miles Raymond: Mmm-hmm. Jack: Then how come it's white? Miles Raymond: [laughs] Oh, Jesus. Don't ask questions like that up in wine country. They'll think you're some kind of dumbshit, OK?

…except the same conversations occurred over and over as people were discovering the edge of what coffee is becoming – a beverage to be tasted, like wine.  Random quotes from the room… “Geisha – the Meryl Streep of Coffees" (Erin McCarthy) – “What’s that? Think of it as a French press that doesn’t suck” – “This is the genetic family tree of coffees in Latin America” – “Taste the Papaya in that coffee – it’s like a completely different beverage”.

Yet if Boston is a dipstick to test the state of coffee consumption in Somewhere, Developed World, and tasting coffee is where the industry is going, I wondered this morning: how far do we have to go.

A quick scan of the menus of those at the top  of Zagat’s 10 Boston Restaurants reveals just how far. 

  • #1 in Zagat… O’Ya – consistently at the top of the Boston scene – and a masterclass in Japanese cooking serves flights of wines, sakis, teas and water. No coffee. Nevermind that Japan is the birthplace of Hario and Kalita.
  • #2… Oleana – offers up 6 options of  desert wines. 7 sherries. 7 teas. 1 coffee.
  • #3… La Campagnia – 40 white wines, over 100 reds. No mention of coffee in their online menu at all.

Maybe the list is the problem. So I checked two more perennial Boston favorites for the business crowd…

  • L’Espalier - a French restaurant - held a “Fantasy Tea Party” last month – which is the closest you can find to a hot-beverage tasting menu. Coffees treated similarly? Nope.
  • Hammersley’s Bistro lists coffee like water. One word… coffee. In the brunch menu, it is relegated to the place for bottomless consumption “juice or coffee”.

Does this matter, really, if coffee is tasted vs. consumed en masse? Listening to the owners of Finca El Puente, Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero talk about their work (and investment) in testing new varietals, improving farming and drying practices, and collaborating on developing markets for high quality coffees makes it clear that it does. Indeed, last night screamed to me that developing palettes for tasting in the developed world is driving investment in improved farming practices, raising the quality of the best coffee-growing regions, and the standards of living in the developing world.

Hats off to Counter Culture for their efforts last night to improve palettes one saki-cup at a time.

- Bruce


Bruce Constantine