Cycling and Coffee: Why Craft Coffee is the new black
By Nick Kameron – Get Free updates of new posts here
Coffee is one of the oldest, most complex, and misunderstood drinks in the world. I won’t go into the history of coffee as there are many books and resources to learn as much about the history of coffee as you could even want.
What affects has the commodity market had on coffee
I would like to speak on the complexity and misunderstanding of coffee. The majority of coffee consumed (well over 90%), is commodity coffee. To understand coffee, it’s important to understand what commodity coffee is. A commodity is a product that is traded at market value to satisfy the wants and needs of a given market. There is one price for a commodity product around the world, regardless of quality. The idea behind commodity coffee is to ship consistent (albeit low quality) coffee around the world for a market rate that coffee consuming countries are willing to pay. This worked for a long time because people wanted their coffee and this was the best way to insure availability of coffee at all times without huge price or availability fluctuations.
The United States buys and sells a lot of products on the commodities markets. When it comes to food products, America embraced food commoditization in the 20th century completely due to many years of economic instability, and food and agricultural shortages. The industrial revolution lead to canning of food for easy storage and distribution over long distances. This is why in today’s super markets, we find a lot of food that is consistent in it quality and price, both of which are low.
This brings us back to coffee as a commodity. Coffee first gained popularity in the United States after the Boston Tea Party in 1771 as a patriotic drink and a caffeinated alternative to tea. Coffee again become popular during the war of 1812 when England cut of much of the American tea supply. Coffee remained a popular drink, especially during prohibition. It was the commoditization of food and the introduction of canning that led to what many refer to as the modern three wave coffee revolution.
Three Waves of Modern Coffee
The first wave is from what I like to call the Folgers Generation (in terms of coffee at least). Many of the men were drafted into WWII and coffee was one of the only drinks available to keep them warm and alert during the cold European winters. Coffee, like much of the food for the soldiers, was pre-ground and canned for ease of transport and freshness. When these soldiers returned from the war, they were hooked on coffee and the first wave of the modern coffee revolution began. Our greatest generation enjoyed pre-ground coffee from the likes of Folgers, Maxwell House, Yuban, Nescafe, and Sanka, for those not wanting caffeine.
2nd Wave – the Starbucks Generation
The second wave of the modern coffee revolution came from what I like to call The Starbucks Generation, also known as the Baby Boomer generation. Baby Boomers largely grew up in the 60’s and 70’s during times of civil unrest, war and massive cultural shifts. Baby Boomers wanted to be unique and different from their parents generation. They were artists, writers, poets, political activists and beatniks. They moved away from the East Coast and Mid West when they grew up and traveled west to cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. It was in these cities that the modern American coffee house was born. This progressive thinking generation didn’t want to drink the same stale, old coffee out of can they had learned to tolerate from their parents. They wanted to experience what more coffee had to offer. They wanted to enjoy it like they were enjoyed in cafes in Italy, Spain and France. Starbucks, Peet’s and other “specialty coffee” houses introduced the masses in America to espresso based drinks and fresh drip coffee that was ground, brewed and sometimes roasted on site. They introduced the idea of knowing where coffee comes from and understanding that different regions produce different coffee. Even though I believe Starbucks quality has suffered as a result of their tremendous growth, I have to give them credit for popularizing the European style cafe in America.
3rd Wave- Specialty Coffee
This brings us to today. We are now in the midst of the third wave of the coffee revolution. These consumers are what I refer to as The Specialty Coffee Generation, also known as the Gen Xers and the Millennials. These coffee consumers are more educated about coffee than any generation before them. Mostly because we know more about coffee than we ever have before. Part of what we have to thank for this wave is the dedication of the roasters who decided that commodity coffee was no longer good enough and there had to be a better way to get good coffee. They had the foresight to start treating coffee like an artisanal food and not a commodity. These roasters started sourcing directly from coffee farmers, built relationships, and helped the farmers learn better growing and processing techniques. This helped create the specialty coffee market which is not traded on the commodities market and where prices can range from a few dollars a pound for green coffee to hundreds of dollars per pound. This direct trade is not only better for the coffee, but it’s better for the farmer. They are no longer prisoners to a market they have no control over. They can work with roasters to ensure they are getting the best dollar for their coffee. The end result is we are finally starting to see coffee in the market that is incredibly complex and flavorful.
“I bought into it, hook, line and sinker…”
I am from this third wave and I want to explain how I got here. I started drinking coffee in boarding school as a way to keep me awake in class. I, like many people, loved the way coffee smelled, but hated the way it tasted. I would load it up with cream and sugar to bring it to a tolerable taste and cut down on the bitterness. When I was in college, the national Starbucks revolution was in full swing. I bought into it, hook, line and sinker. I loved Starbucks. I couldn’t get enough of it. But then I realized I was still just drinking coffee loaded with milk and sugar. It was just brewed as an espresso and presented in a fancier way. There had to be a better way. I tried to drink Starbucks black drip coffee, but it was the same bitter, burnt flavor of coffee I had come to expect from all coffee. Then one day something changed for me. A co-worker took me to a specialty coffee house and I ordered a regular latte. Something was different. I didn’t even add sugar but I could taste something other than burnt charcoal. Yes, it had the traditional coffee flavor, but I could taste other flavors in it too. From that moment forward, my opinion of coffee changed, and little did I know that was just the beginning. I started drinking coffee with less and less milk. Latte, cappuccino, cortado, macchiato and finally espresso. I started to understand the true value of good coffee and why it was such an important product.
Open palate = open eyes
Since I don’t have the luxury of a nice espresso maker at home, I have started drinking more drip and immersion style coffees. I regularly switch between Chemex, V60, and AeroPress. They each bring their own unique characteristics to filter style, but all utilize paper filters and thus filter out much of the oils in the coffee. This allows more of the flavor notes to shine though and leave a little less mouth feel on the coffee. By drinking only black filtered coffee at home my pallet has only grown with each cup. I can now more easily tell where a single origin coffee comes from and taste the uniqueness of each region and each variety of coffee plant. I am far from an expert, but my eyes have been opened to what coffee really is and for the first time in my coffee drinking life, the taste finally matches the aroma.
What will the future 4th wave of coffee bring?
What will the fourth wave bring for coffee? Only time will tell. Like any industry, it will take experimentation and risk from those passionate about coffee. It will take the small neighborhood roasters tinkering with micro batches and brewing techniques. It will take roasters and growers working together to develop new harvesting and processing techniques. It will take the industry as a whole to accept new ideas and not get stuck on the concept that coffee can only be produced, roasted and brewed in a few select ways. Some will try and fail, some will succeed, but all efforts will help progress a continuing wave of one of the most complex and temping drinks known to man.
What are your favorite cafes? Do you have a favorite 3rd wave coffee shop you frequent before your ride? Leave a comment below to share your favorite coffee shops.
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