Did you know that coffee has double the flavor characteristics of wine? Enjoyed by most people out of Mr. Coffee machines or at the nearest Starbucks, it has around eight hundred different tastes, depending on the bean, while red wine boasts roughly half that amount. That would’ve shocked me a year ago, when (thanks to Starbucks) I thought coffee offered only one flavor—burnt. But then a coworker turned me on to Blue Bottle Coffee, the San Francisco treat that inspires outright fanaticism in its customers, and a world of flavors opened up to me.
Blue Bottle is one of many coffee shops around the country that aim to bring quality back to the coffee cup. While Starbucks and its peers profit on consumers’ need for cheap coffee quickly, the new industry trend focuses on beans ground and filtered to order. Just as the Slow Food movement is the antithesis of fast food, the slow-brewing movement works against ready-made, reheated coffee. But is coffee made per individual worth the extra time and money?
Coffee Trends Come in Waves
Coffee connoisseurs deem establishments like Blue Bottle “third wave,” the first wave being instant varieties suited for mass production (Folgers, Taster’s Choice, etc.) and the second being purveyors of specialty coffee (Starbucks, Peet’s, etc.). Third-wavers roast high-quality beans in small batches to maintain freshness and flavor. The beans come from environmentally friendly farms—organic, fair trade, and so forth—with whom the shop owners establish close relationships.
The emphasis on sustainability is a relatively recent development, but the idea of brewing coffee by the order has been around for years. However, it’s really taken off only within the past decade, with the rise of artisan, well, everything. People who want their bread handmade from the best ingredients expect the same from everything they buy, including a simple cup of joe. They know that dark-roasted varietals are popular among shop chains because those types mask the flavor flaws in cheap beans. They’re willing to pay higher costs for lightly roasted beans that are ground in front of them and poured into drip filters, because they know it’s made with the utmost care. It’s an escape from mass-produced culture, a taste of something individually crafted with detail and precision—but it doesn’t come without a cost.
Standing in Line for Simplicity
What’s fascinating about the single-cup, filter-drip style of coffee is the amount people pay for something they could make at home. The process is simple: grind a small amount of roasted beans, pour them into a filter, put a cup under the filter, and pour hot water over it. But what these shops offer are skilled baristas who’ve been trained for months on proper temperatures and bean blends, as well as machinery that allows for total control over each brew. The Clover is one such machine; created by Stanford engineers and priced at $11,000, it works the same way as a regular single-cup, filter-drip machine, but it allows users to modify temperature and water characteristics for every brew. Since beans have unique flavor profiles, it can extract and enhance certain flavors in the individual cups it crafts. The cult following behind the Clover fueled the popularity of coffee brewed to order, so much so that Starbucks acquired its ownership and now refuses to sell it to other coffee shops. Even Starbucks, the creators of fancy coffee in two minutes or less, wants a piece of the artisan action.
But is this kind of coffee ultimately worth it? Individually made coffee takes almost twice the amount of time to prepare. Lines often extend out the door at Blue Bottle outposts. The extra work also adds up to extra costs; a barista from a Starbucks in San Francisco who uses a Clover machine says that the price difference between regular joe and the Clover kind is anywhere from thirty cents to one dollar. (It’s even more at some places, depending on the beans.) She says that customers do note the better quality, but that the fancier coffee’s no more popular.
I also spoke with two women, Allison and Heather, who drink and enjoy coffee regularly and have experienced the single-cup, filter-drip coffee shops in San Francisco. Allison finds Blue Bottle “pretty delicious” but doesn’t appreciate the service. “If I get a latte, I ask for skim milk, and if they don’t flat-out tell me they ‘don’t prefer to make [it] that way,’ they lecture me on why whole milk is so much better,” she shares. “I know these places want to show their product in the best light, but they get really uppity about their personal preferences, as opposed to what the customer wants.” She also doesn’t see the need to wait so long for coffee. “I tend to feel that coffee’s a mobile beverage, and I don’t want to spend so much time waiting around for it,” she says.
Heather, on the other hand, doesn’t mind the wait. “Sometimes, at Peet’s, I wait just as long for my generic latte,” she points out. As for the taste, she definitely detects a difference. “When I have coffee made to order, it tastes richer and more complex somehow,” she says. “But it could be psychological: I wait longer, so it tastes better.”
A Caffeinated World Slows Down
Made-to-order coffee is increasingly common around the country, but a few shops continuously set high standards for the rest. There’s Blue Bottle in San Francisco, Abraço in New York, Intelligentsia in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and Stumptown Coffee in Portland. Many consider these establishments the key players in the third-wave movement, but that group is growing as the trend gains notoriety.
As with anything, what single-cup, filter-drip coffee boils down to is a matter of preference. Some people are satisfied with coffee at its most basic, while others crave a more full-bodied experience. While there’s some snobbery attached to the third-wave coffee movement, it’s important to note that it’s not just about flavor characteristics and artisan beans. This trend promotes coffee appreciation as well as environmental sustainability, good business practices, and cultivating relationships with local producers. It encourages a little more mindfulness with every cup, which is something we could all use in our fast-paced daily lives. Sometimes coffee’s just coffee, but other times it doesn’t hurt to take time to smell the roses … or taste the beans, as the case may be.