Your first ever cup of coffee

When you started drinking coffee what was it like?  Was it well brewed? Fresh ground? Well sourced, carefully roasted?

Possibly, though probably not.  A huge portion of the coffee drinking public began regularly drinking coffee regardless of the fact that it didn’t taste very good.  Huge sales of instant coffee across the globe only drive home the point that we expect very little of our coffee.  It has to be bitter, hot and caffeinated.  And wet.

This isn’t to say that we don’t appreciate a better cup.  Those exposed to good coffee are often mildly shocked at how good it tastes, how sweet or how complex and incredible.  The educated consumer remains in the minority which in many ways is a frustration.  We have a population happily knocking back cup after cup of filthy coffee and what really boggles the mind is that they know it doesn’t taste good.  They almost seem to expect it, a cup of coffee both a jump start in the morning and a mini-ordeal.

The masses have great power.  Their wallets can apply pressure to those in the industry holding back coffee, keeping the focus away from quality.   We need them to start sending back coffee that tastes bad, not the cups that haven’t been served boiling hot.

We can encourage baristas to want to work with better coffee, we can spell out the virtues of buying a higher quality of roasted bean but we need the consumer to want more and right now their expectation is for an unpleasant experience, not a complex, pleasing culinary one.

I don’t know what the answer is.

16 Comments Your first ever cup of coffee

  1. bz

    i’m glad you’re still talking about this. it’s yet another way i think we can keep the whole quality espresso thing from becoming an elitist insider’s club and leverage the people we’re supposed to be serving — the masses — in the interest of raising their expectations and experience.

    good stuff.

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  3. Phil

    i’ve been thinking a lot about this sort of thing lately too, and after putting in a poor effort at my local competition have just been focusing on making really great coffee. I know that every week we expose a bunch of new people to really great coffee in our little bar (hamilton, NZ). I love seeing the looks on peoples faces when they get a coffee that truely blows them away, it’s why I do what I do.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a bunch of really keen, quality focused baristas touring malls n stuff with a mobile set up, serving free coffee simply for the purpose of quality espresso “evangelism”. There’s just so many problems with the idea, finding the money to back it for a start….

  4. Alistair Blake

    My first cup of coffee was Nescafe Gold Blend as a child, and here is the problem. While we all know that instant coffee is only a distant cousin of real coffee, Nescafe does unfortunately have a pleasant taste. It might not taste like real coffee, but it is not undrinkable like many other instant coffees. I have lost count of the number of people who tell me they prefer Nescafe to freshly brewed coffee! Nestle did a great job in convincing the world that instant coffee is real coffee.
    This is all part of a wider problem, like instant machines making espresso, cappuccino and latte, Pictures of latte art on bean to cup machines, instant cappuccino sachets in supermarkets. Some products have successfully created rules of authenticity, like Champagne and Scotch Whisky for example. It’s about time the coffee industry was governed in some way. This could be the ideal area for the SCAA and SCAE to make a real difference.

  5. Hugo

    Still enjoying the Blog….

    Plenty of people (Brits anyway) will remember the dark days of Watneys Red Barrel, the tasteless overgassed bitter of the early eighties and Blue Nun Liebfraumilch, the ghastly alcoholic syrup pretending to be wine…. there is a lot to be learnt from the transformations of these industries and their customers in the last twenty years. There’s a dissertation to be written on the subject (and funnily enough I wrote mine on the resurgent real ale industry twenty years ago) but I digress.

    The beer and wine markets are still dominated by a few brewers producing bland, indistinguishable rubbish that relies almost entirely on brand and price to achieve sales. Craft brewers and vintners remain a niche part of the industry, unable to compete with the marketing budgets and economies of scale of the globalised behemoths but enjoying an almost fanatical following from those people who like good beer and wine. I will always go out of my way to find good ale. Not just the right brand, but a publican who serves a great pint.

    The coffee industry will remain dominated by large companies producing brand led products that satisfy the masses, but only because they’ve never tasted the real thing. Who would touch a glass of two year old supermarket’Reseve Claret’ when notwithstanding price they could have a glass of a vintage Chateau Latour 1ere grand cru classe? An extreme comparison but in a taste test I think the difference in flavour, depth and sheer sensory thrill is comparable that between the dross banged out in 95% of the UK’s coffee shops and the elixir produced by a comitted, educated, practiced barista.

    I plan to make a living our of making exceptional coffee. I have the same tools as virtualy every coffe shop in country but I hope to hell my competition doesn’t start caring as much as I do. I need my competitive advantage. I will talk to every customer who drinks my coffee and make sure they know how good it is and why. Educating individual customers is the way I intend to spread the gospel. Mass coffee education will remain in the hands of the companies that can afford it, the results are predictable. Tassimo. Starbucks. Costa. Kenco Really Rich…..

    Excellence in any business can only ever occupy a small sector of the market. Walk round any Tescos and take a good look at what’s on sale. The range of coffees available has exploded to almost absurd levels, yet the vast majority of people who buy it buy on brand, image, marketing… and then brew it to death and believe they’re drinking good coffee. Let them.

    I’m so sorry, I’ve started to rant and ramble.

    Time to shut up.


  6. Hugo

    Thanks for the link Phil,I’ve just had a good read.

    After posting my little rant I thought about things a little more, there is so much I wanted to say but it is mostly negative. From the brands to the finished product to the people who consume, the industry is a long, long way from where it should be. I don’t know enough about growers, importers and roasters so can’t comment on them.

    As I’m in the process of opening my own outlet I’ve made a point of trawling around all the competition in Cornwall and deliberately saying ” Hello, please can I have a really good espresso?”.

    The look on the ‘baristas’ face is invariably a mixture of shock and confusion. As if I’ve just asked them for a hand job. If there’s more than one person behind the bar they invariable look to each other to pull the shot. They don’t know what they’re trying to achieve, they have no confidence in what they’re doing, and they’re surprised/worried by a customer wanting better. They mumble as they present it, they’ve no idea of where the bean’s grown or roasted, they apologise before I’ve taken a sip.

    I’ve had a couple of passable espressos, but they’re mostly bitter, flat, under extracted/watery, crema free, full to the brim, served in a cold cup etc…. everyone knows what I’m saying because anyone who reads this blog suffers it every time they take a punt in a coffee shop.

    The problem isn’t the coffee, I’ve had it wonderfully brewed by the suppliers own bristas. The problem isn’t the machinery, a Mazzer Super Jolly and Gloria Astoria. The problem isn’t the supplier, I know for a fact they’re spending a helluva lot of time and money training. It’s the barista and his/her manager.

    They believe if they have the right kit and Beans they’re making good coffee. The public think the same. A big, shiny espresso machine, a well thought out brand and bingo, a half pint of watery, overheated, cotton wool and chocolate coated cappuccino is worth £2.50. And the profit margin is huge….

    I’ve always been in the restaurant industry, during my career the chef has became the focus for the public, not the food grower (though thankfully that’s changing, led once again by california), cooker manufacturer, the decoration or the view. Think Mossiman & the Roux bros through to Ramsay and Blumental. They may use good ingredients but it is their skill that matters. Sadly today it’s more about their television appeal but that’s a side effect of the national obsession with celebrity.

    Barista’s and Beans need to become the focus. Not the brand, the machine, or the advert. The beans are getting great, baristas are just beginning. I learn’t a helluva a lot competing in last years UK champs. Watching Herr Hoffmann do the stockfleth move nearly gave me a heart attack…. what the hell did he just do? Why? By the finals I knew I knew nothing, I was blagging it. Since then I’ve learnt a great deal, but without pulling a single shot.

    I really wanted Jim’s map of the UK’s great coffee outlets to become huge. People who know about coffee letting others know. And, like michelin restaurants, the accolade is to the barista, not the cafe.

    There are no short cuts and there is no end point. Let’s just be passionate about what we do, teach anyone who wants to know and demand good coffee from every cafe/retaurant we risk an espresso in…

    Enough already! Humble appologies for rambling on again!


  7. dankbean

    My first cup of coffee was probably something my dad brewed up before going to work. My dad was the epitome of the old-fashioned, use-coffee-for-caffeine person. The commute to work began before sunrise, and coffee kept his eyes open in the truck. It was more than likely one of the freeze-dried, vacuum-packed bricks of Foldgers or 8 O’Clock, which would last months in the freezer without even thinking of an expiration date. Coffee expires?? Wha???

    I fell into the same habits. In college, I would venture out during study nights to the local gas stations, hoping that I could hear the distinctive GURGLE SPIT PLOP of an empty airpot before my cup was full: at Sheetz, if you empty the airpot, they normally don’t make you pay for the coffee! Cheap? Sure. Tasty? Mmm, not so much.

    My first cup of artisan-roasted coffee was actually on the interview for my first coffee-specific job. I won’t shamelessly plug my employer, let’s just say it was eye-opening. Coffee went from a habit to a treat, from a source of caffeine to a culinary drink. The ceiling for what coffee can help me achieve in my life has still not stopped rising, and i hope it never does. Coffee is now not only my favorite drink, it’s also the lifeblood for a newly discovered career path!

    Please pass the Yirgacheffe!

  8. Nick Brown

    Without going into my first coffee experience per se, I’ll talk about my first glimpse of specialty coffee. I got a job at a Vancouver shop that will go unnamed– the owner, utterly clueless about anything coffee related (anything!), harboured delusions of excellence. He would go on and on about being “upscale” whatever the hell that meant, and even expected that we learn how to pour latte art (ostensibly to compete with my future employer, an already emerging concern) despite having no knowledge or desire to provide us with adequate training, and despite the fact that most of us could barely pull a decent shot or texture milk properly. Sigh…

    The upshot, however, was that the head barista at this shop, my future coworker and blog cohort Barrett Jones, was braving this sea of mediocrity and false expectations in a noble, though often futile, attempt to provide something close to decent in the cup. To be fair, none of us really knew anything about origins or roasting, but we were doing our darndest to figure out the machines and adopt correct espresso technique. I’m pretty sure we were forbidden from touching the grinder settings (it was a semi-automatic, and set to dose a pathetically small amount of espresso– we would often dose several times to get what we considered an appropriate amount of coffee in the portafilter in an act of workplace sabotage that ultimately benefited the customer!). And through the wonders of the internet, we learned how to pour latte art, with the related benefit of having to figure out how to steam microfoam. What this amounted to in the end was that when Barrett and I left (coincidentally within one week of each other), customers were appalled at the decline in quality, something that we would happily have rectified if Barrett was given any time at all to train the other baristas. Sadly, there is no happy end to that shop except that it provides a cautionary tale to owners to trust their staff, give them the appropriate resources, and hell, maybe try to learn this stuff themselves.

    So we moved on, and I will always look back on this as my formative coffee experience. Compared to others, I was still in an enviable position as I valuable information at my fingertips. Had this been a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to seek out information on the web to supplement the dearth of quality leadership and training at that shop. But I’m glad it happened that way, it all helps me to understand exactly why most shops in Vancouver– a purported Mecca of coffee in North America– still totally suck. People don’t know any better, and they have no way of learning. I don’t have any proper answers to this problem except to say that every customer I’ve had in the last year and a half who’s demanded to know why their cup was so much better than anything they’d experienced previous is a testament to the ability of regular people to be discerning customers. As soon as more people begin to demand quality, the marketplace will not be able to bear mediocrity as a standard and more will follow. Let’s keep pushing, folks.

  9. Barrett

    Yeah. We weren’t allowed to mess with the settings on the grinder. Oops. I’m such a bad employee.

    I remember the first time Nick went to Artigiano, he brought in a bag on Black Cat he’d purchased there, we ground it on the silly Bunn grinder – the thing for retail coffee, dosed it by shaking the bag, tamped, and made shots. Mind blowing difference to say the least. The owner walked in on us… what did we do? Made him a coffee, and told him he should start by switching suppliers. That was 2 years ago. He still hasn’t.

  10. Mark

    Ahhh. Kits Coffee.

    There, I’ll say it.

    Did you know B and N, that cafe, and some of the things I was told about them ended up being one of the “inspirations” for that article, “so what the heck is wrong”? Not the only Vancouver coffee shop to do so, but one of many.

    Another inspiration for what the heck is wrong was a cafe crawl that Aaron Delazzer and I did on Main Street maybe 4 years ago now. 12 shops hit. 13 espressos had by each of us. The best shot, I kid not, came from a demo on the (then brand new) Starbucks Barista consumer super auto that the ‘bucks at 14th was selling. And the machine was not initially turned on – it was given a 2 minute start up then the demonstrator pulled a shot for both of us. (this was before the JJ on Main was built).

    In that crawl, we tried to engage some of the baristas and managers in discussions about good espresso. It was a futile effort.

    But I’ll say this. Now there’s JJ on Main setting a decent bar for the others to follow, and now I also have hopes that the cafe at Broadway and Main, CuppaJoe, is ramping up their quality – those guys were at the coffee and tea expo, right next to Frankie’s booth, and got the “buzz” of all the quality driven people dropping by to check out La Marzocco.

    So maybe things are changing, albeit slowly. But my complaint last year, two years ago, four years ago about barista comps, the “official bodies” that run things, etc etc remains the same – until some way is found for true evangelism towards the consumer about quality coffee, from the top right on down through the trenches, we’re fighting a difficult battle. Barista comps preach to the converted; they don’t scale well to Joe Latte thinking his 20oz milk drink is “specialty coffee”.

  11. Hugo

    Coffee Evangelism… now there’s a thought.

    I’m vehemently atheist and feel a mixture of terror and bewilderment, amusement and pity when I read/watch/hear anything about western evangelism or for that matter, the majority of religion. But, love it or loathe it, it’s got a vast, willing, enthusiastic, burgeoning audience and makes an awful lot of money for it’s purveyors…

    Cue choral music….

    And it came to pass that a messiah was born. He preached espresso, the one true expression of coffee. On his journeys through the wilderness of fledgling cafe culture he found followers, willing to dedicate hours of their lives in the belief that there’s more to coffee than bitterness, unfulfilled craving and sensory hell. There is a drink, that with time, dedication, simmering fanaticism and a slightly warped perspective on what life is all about, can be made using simple tools, available to the many, understood by the few.

    The Messiah, call him JC, no perhaps JH, gathered about him a flock of willing, slightly gullible but nonetheless self interested disciples. They spread the word, coffee shop to cafe, canteen to service station, bistro to bar, restaurant to catering tent. The purveyors of foul brews were lambasted and saw the error of their ways and sent on a spiritual journey to reach an understanding of the truth, the reason and the lipid. Soon true espresso was known and understood by many and anything but the one, true espresso was rejected, cast out, demonised. The deceit of drip and instant, the greed of the 20oz latte, the pointlessness of scorched milk and the dirty steam wand, the misunderstanding of an uneven tamp, the laziness of the unset grinder, the ungodliness of the cold cup and chocolate sprinkles… all were recognised for what they were, the manifestation of man’s stupidity, his willingness to follow the easy path to profit, his acceptance of mediocrity.
    The gospel according to JH became the one true word. Followers demonstrated their belief by quoting his blog, undertanding his teachings on lipids, admiring his photography and coveting his girlfriend. He got a promotion and shares in La Spaziale. He married the aforementioned coveted diciple and she bore a child, kept secret for fear of reprisals by the evil behemoths Nescafe and Starbucks. A dynasty was born. Monuments were built, temples erected. The world rejoiced, overheated, and ended.
    The end.

    Guess who forgot the clocks went back?

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