Good coffee is not about your choices, it’s about your process

Courtesy of Julian Aguilar.

In my imagination, college students go on dates. Cafes (or “coffee shop,” if you prefer to invoke New York speech) serve as popular venues for these fanciful rendezvous. At Vassar, we have three caffeine establishments that serve as date spots (no, The Retreat doesn’t count): Crafted Kup, the most obvious; Starbucks, for the (slightly) less pretentious; and Dunkin’ Donuts, if you’re from a working class family. Each location offers both Italian-style espresso drinks and the more American “drip coffee,” which most of us would just call “coffee.” Full disclosure: Were I to go on a coffee date, I would probably order a flat white, made with soy milk if available. My oh-solucky companion would subconsciously make a judgement about me based on my coffee order. And I would make a judgement about them based on their own.

Unfortunately, judgements about how we take our coffee are woven tightly into social discourse. Starbucks’ many coffee and non-coffee options (lest we forget the infamous Pink Drink—how is it that colors have become flavors?) and the Starbucks brand itself are cultural signifiers tied not only to class, but also gender, race, sexuality and social status. A quick Google search will conjure up articles comparing a person’s drink of choice and their level of “basicness,” as well as guides for the aforementioned basic people. (Spoon University, Tell Us Your Starbucks Order and We’ll Tell You How Basic You Are.” 2019) (Odyssey Online, “The Basic White Girl’s Guide to Summer at Starbucks,” 05.21.2016). Young women have been patronized for the better part of a decade for ordering sweet, artificially-flavored beverages at Seattle’s most famous coffee chain. When men order socalled “girly drinks,” they too expose themselves to all-too-common misogynistic criticisms, which often manifest as absurd, homophobic suggestions that a guy might be gay because he likes to drink lattes.

When you order, say, a pumpkin spice latte, you are given two unbecoming associations: First, you are womanly, girly, feminine; second, you are “basic,” unsophisticated or common. In the eyes of society writ large, you have neither the masculine-associated fortitude nor the upper-class caliber of sophistication necessary to appreciate and comprehend the value of bolder, bitter, undiluted coffee.

Of course these judgements are ridiculous. People should drink what they want! While I firmly believe in trying new things, and that some of the best tasting things take time to fully appreciate (I myself am a lover of beer, dry wine, dark chocolate and rhubarb pie) there’s no reason to torture yourself or waste time. If, after trying a double-shot espresso or a macchiato (the Italian way, not the Starbucks way), you find you like Iced Passion Tango Tea Lemonade infinitely more, then that’s what you should order. Life is short. Don’t pretend to like things just to impress people. And don’t think that you can compress an entire person’s history and personality into an eight ounce bottle.

Subtly underneath the inherent misogyny of judging people for not liking certain coffees is a hard truth: Most coffee in the United States, espresso in particular, is bad! Yes, I’m looking at you, Crafted Kup. I’m sorry. People are ordering drinks with lots of milk and lots of sugar because American Espresso often tastes burnt, too bitter and too acidic. The texture is off, too. Ever order an espresso and find that it’s really oily and syrupy? That’s not right. But let me give you a little history on coffe and let you know how we got here.

Believe it or not, we’re now firmly in the so-called “Fourth Wave” of coffee. If you’re unfamiliar with the framework, I will try to briefly outline. “First Wave” is your grandparents’ coffee. Think Folgers or Maxwell House. These inexpensive, accessible coffees were the status quo for most of the 20th Century. During the “Second Wave,” ushered in by the likes of Starbucks, coffee went from almost exclusively made at home to something bought and consumed in specialty shops. Coffee’s “Third Wave” was the slow wave of independent, sustainably sourced, locally roasted coffee shops. The “Fourth Wave” is the return to home-brewed coffee, an escape from the cafe, with all of the improvements and accoutrements that coffee shop culture has developed. In other words, it’s high quality, sustainable, local coffee you can make at home (Full Cup Flavor, “4 Waves of Coffee,” 10.26.2017).

The advancements of coffee’s Fourth Wave are great. You can find great beans either locally or online, grind them at home and purchase your very own pour overs and aeropresses (things my parents have never even heard of). But such advancements and preoccupations (debates about brewing method, temperature, light vs. dark roast, etc.) regarding home brewing have, at least among coffee connoisseurs, drawn attention away from the espresso we buy and drink in cafes. It seems Starbucks is becoming something akin to the McDonald’s of coffee (or at the very least, In-N-Out): It’s not as good as what you can make at home, but gets the job done. A skilled home brewer (not me!) with a pour over can beat your average barista nine times out of 10. Even though we generally consider espresso to be of a higher quality than coffee made at home, our bar for espresso is actually considerably lower, especially since Americans don’t even have a reasonable framework of what espresso is supposed to taste like.

There is hope for espresso fans in the United States but, alas, that hope is tempered by some bad news as well. For the hope, I point readers to a recent YouTube video by World Champion barista, coffee author and well-coiffed silver fox James Hoffman titled “Did Science Just Reinvent Espresso?” (Youtube, James Hoffmann, “Did Science Just Reinvent Espresso?” 01.31.2020). Hoffman cites an academic paper which, in short, uses mathematics to model the fluid dynamics of espresso making to optimize the espresso making process for “ideal” extraction and flavor (Cell Press, “Systematically Improving Espresso: Insights from Mathematical Modeling and Experiment,” 01.22.2020). In his video, Hoffman himself describes recreating the paper’s methodology to ultimately find the so-called “tasty point,” for a given pressure setting. What I’m trying to tell you is that math can save America from bad espresso. Or, more accurately, math can make good espresso techniques easier to reproduce. .”

So buckle up, coffee comrades: The revolution may be coming. We can’t really hope for large chains like Starbucks to change their brewing methods, but maybe, just maybe, independent cafes like our beloved Crafted Kup will give the math a chance. I hope they do. Let us, together, hope the age of bad espresso is over, and the era of great espresso is about to begin.

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