It’s never too late to try something new. My choice was coffee. Where has it been all my life? I obviously didn’t know what I was missing. Anyway, I’m into coffee now, and at this late stage of the game, I’m loving the stuff.
It’s sorta like discovering single malt scotch whiskey. I was smitten. I am fascinated by the subject as well as its many many options. The July 2, 2012 issue of The New Yorker features a story about Aida Batlle titled “Sacred Grounds… Letter from El Salvador”. You’ll savor it.
Aida Batlle and the new coffee evangelists.
Aida Batlle is a fifth-generation coffee farmer and a first-generation coffee celebrity. On the steep hillsides of the Santa Ana Volcano, in western El Salvador, she produces beans that trade on the extreme end of the coffee market, where a twelve-ounce bag may cost twenty dollars or more and comes accompanied by a lyrical essay on provenance and flavor. These beans have made Batlle an object of obsession among coffee connoisseurs and professionals—the coffee equivalent of a European vigneron—and she is willing to play the role, if it helps raise coffee’s status. Talking about coffee makes her happy; even her complaints are enthusiastic. “There are hundreds of Cabernets, and that’s O.K.,” she says. “Coffee should be the same way—they all taste different!” In a small but growing number of cafés, you can order coffee more or less the way you might order wine, specifying the varietal and the region and the farm; for the price of a glass of house red, you will receive, if you’re lucky, a cup of drip coffee that is mellower and weirder than the astringent beverage most people know. Perhaps you will detect a hint of gingerbread, or a honeyed aftertaste, or a rich, tangy sweetness that calls to mind tomato soup. And perhaps you will find it difficult to go back to whatever you used to drink.
During the Salvadoran civil war, which lasted from 1980 until 1992, the Batlle family took refuge in Miami, which is where Aida Batlle grew up. After trying and forsaking college, she settled, with her husband, in Nashville, and sometime after her marriage fell apart she realized she had no good reason to stay there. She was twenty-eight, managing a restaurant and catering company, and she thought she might be more useful in El Salvador. Her father, Mauricio, was struggling: the price of coffee had reached a record low, and he was losing money with every harvest.
She arrived in Santa Ana, the country’s scruffy second city, in 2002, only vaguely acquainted with the business and practice of coffee farming. She knew that the family land had potential, because of its high altitude and rich volcanic soil. And although she had never actually drunk a cup of Batlle coffee, that wasn’t unusual—there was no such thing. Her father sold his crop to the local mill, which mixed it with crops from nearby farms and exported the product as a generic Salvadoran coffee blend. He gave his daughter control, assuming that, no matter what she did, the mill would still purchase whatever the farms produced.
Coffee is a fruit—the beans are seeds that develop, in pairs, within the gumball-size cherry. Batlle’s idea was to treat her coffee the same way her local Wild Oats supermarket in Nashville had treated fruit: she would grow the plants organically and pick only cherry (coffee people never pluralize “cherry”) that was ripe and healthy-looking—the ones she would want to eat. (During harvest, she often snacks on coffee cherry, which has a mild, watermelonlike sweetness and some caffeine.) Because she was a novice, and a woman, she faced no small amount of skepticism from her farm managers—more than one worker responded to her requests by asking, “Where’s your father?” Eventually, they realized that her requests were directives: at one point, she threatened to fire a farm manager unless he agreed to send his kids to school. Batlle occasionally startled the cherry pickers by diving in alongside them to show them what she wanted done and, to a lesser extent, to help. She is an accurate picker, but not a quick one. Although Batlle didn’t quite realize it, her approach to coffee farming was deeply peculiar—she was coddling a crop that has, for centuries, been subjected to rough treatment. (Why worry about the succulence of the cherry if all you really care about is the pit?) But she arrived in El Salvador just as a new international coffee movement, drawn to beans and stories like hers, was cresting.
For much of the twentieth century, coffee was marketed under brand names that promised reliability: consumers knew that their next cup of Folgers—or, for that matter, their next cup of Starbucks—would taste just like last month’s, or last year’s. By the late nineteen-nineties, more roasters were deëmphasizing blended coffee in order to highlight the singular virtues of their favorite beans. In 1999, a cohort of coffee professionals created the Cup of Excellence, a series of national competitions designed to identify and reward exceptional farmers. Experts would conduct a blind coffee taste test, known as a cupping, and the winning beans would be sold through an online auction. El Salvador’s inaugural Cup of Excellence competition was held in 2003, and Batlle decided to enter. Coffee from Finca Kilimanjaro, one of her farms, impressed the panel of judges, which included Geoff Watts, of Intelligentsia Coffee, the influential Chicago-based roaster and café operator.
Central American coffees tend to taste rich and chocolaty. Kilimanjaro had some of the rich sweetness that judges expected, but it also had what professionals call “brightness”: a tart, fruity flavor more commonly associated with Kenyan coffee. Batlle was relieved to discover that she liked her own product, even though she didn’t know why. “I knew I was tasting something, but my brain could not identify it,” she says. Kilimanjaro won the competition, and at auction a Norwegian roaster paid $14.06 a pound for it, a record at the time. The open-market price was less than a dollar a pound.
The auction earned Batlle almost forty thousand dollars, which helped her convince her father that there were eager buyers for coddled coffee. More important, the publicity introduced Batlle to the coffee buyers she calls the “dream team”: Peter Giuliano, the scholarly co-owner of an idealistic North Carolina company called Counter Culture Coffee; Thompson Owen, the mad scientist behind Sweet Maria’s, in Oakland; and Duane Sorenson, the pugnacious founder of Stumptown, in Portland, Oregon. All of them understood Batlle’s conscientious farming—and they were willing to pay enough to allow her to keep at it. She had stumbled upon a community of people who cared almost as much about her farms as she did.
One warm morning this summer, Batlle drove up the side of the volcano in her off-road vehicle, a Toyota FJ Cruiser, to check on her farms. For most of the twentieth century, El Salvador was one of the biggest coffee producers in the world. But the Salvadoran coffee business still hasn’t recovered from the civil war, and today El Salvador exports less than half as much coffee as it did in 1975. In this diminished industry, Batlle is a visible symbol of rebirth, although the visibility comes at a cost. El Salvador is smaller than Massachusetts, with about as many people, and it has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. So Batlle travels with at least three companions: two armed guards and one extraordinarily well-trained German shepherd, Chief, who seems to be saving up all his barking for a sufficiently critical situation. On that morning, though, crime presented a less immediate danger than the washed-out dirt road. “Back when coffee ruled El Salvador, my great-grandfather used to be able to drive up here in a Buick,” Batlle said. She now requires not just her FJ Cruiser, with its row of four-wheel-drive controls (she calls them her “magic buttons”), but also a pair of black Harley-Davidson gloves so that she doesn’t get blisters from squeezing the steering wheel.
It is possible to grow coffee near sea level, just not very good coffee. The rigors of elevation—lower oxygen levels, colder nights—force the plants to grow more slowly, creating harder, denser beans that produce the vibrant, slightly acidic flavors that are generally considered indispensable to a great cup. It was June, a month or two after harvest, and the farms bore few obvious signs of agricultural enterprise. Waist-high coffee plants with vinelike branches grew in no discernible pattern; they covered a hillside so sheer that pickers sometimes have to be lowered on ropes. (Batlle pays her pickers eight cents a pound, more than twice the going rate, because her exacting standards mean that everything takes longer.) Tall fruit trees, jocotes de corona and pepetos peludos, provide shade, which retards the ripening of the coffee cherry and intensifies the flavor of the beans; in some areas, sturdy copalchí trees form a wind curtain, letting breezes through but protecting the plants from damage. As Batlle’s truck arrived at a small farmhouse, the farm manager appeared: a lanky man in a camouflage Superman T-shirt, with two machetes hanging at his back.
The coffee plant is native to the part of Africa that is now Ethiopia. By the fifteenth century, traders and thieves were planting it farther afield. It spread through the Arab world to India, to Southeast Asia, and, largely through a French colonial officer in the early seventeen-hundreds, to the Caribbean and the Americas. In El Salvador the small farmers, much romanticized by coffee fanatics, are often small landlords, some of whom don’t have much interest in agronomy. But Batlle’s managers have grown accustomed to her daily visits and detailed questions. Perhaps she didn’t seem intimidating at first: she is a small, friendly woman who wears jeans and a T-shirt whenever possible, and she has a shy smile, although her shyness dissolves whenever talk turns to coffee, as it always does, often at her instigation. She hates public speaking, but she excels at chatting up strangers, many of whom find themselves peering at photographs of coffee plants on her iPhone.
Batlle’s farms are dominated by a temperamental but fertile cultivar called bourbon (pronounced “bour-BONE”), a member of the arabica species named for the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, formerly known as Bourbon, where it thrived. Bourbon came to El Salvador more than a hundred years ago, acquired from Guatemala by the governor of Santa Ana Province, Narciso Avilés, Batlle’s great-great-grandfather. She waded into a copse where spindly bourbon plants grew alongside a newer hybrid, pacamara. Batlle’s heterogeneous inventory is partly a result of El Salvador’s complicated history: civil war interrupted the national coffee industry at a time when other Central American countries were replacing their bourbon plants with hardier hybrids; as a result, in El Salvador more of the old varieties survived. “To me, these bourbons have always been ballerinas—tall, elegant,” Batlle said, fondly. “These pacas are more like gymnasts—short and stumpy.” As she left one farm, she called the manager over and pointed to some bourbon shoots. “Treat them with love and kindness, please,” she said.
In order to have her coffee certified organic, Batlle must pay for annual inspections, which often lead to further expenditures. One year, the inspector noticed that a neighbor had cows, and Batlle had to erect fences to keep the nonorganic cows (and their nonorganic dung) away from her plants. Because she can’t use chemical herbicides, she is always looking for organic alternatives. “I tried the natural one, made from clove oil and cinnamon oil—it’s called Weed Zap,” she said, shaking her head. “Nothing. The weeds were like, ‘Hey, thanks for this!’ ” At Finca Kilimanjaro, where workers were digging small holes to replant one slope with juvenile bourbon plants, she spied a white speck in the dirt, picked it up, and summoned an overseer. “La gallina ciega,” she said—she was holding in her palm a tiny beetle larva, curled up into a ball. “They eat the roots,” she said. “They’re horrible.” Coffee plants also manufacture their own pesticide: a chemical that is toxic to some small organisms and mildly intoxicating to larger ones. For many coffee drinkers, that chemical—caffeine—is all that matters. The beverage, in its humblest incarnation, is little more than a pesticide delivery system.
As Batlle drove higher up the hill, blasting Eminem, the climate shifted. At fifty-three hundred feet, which is about as high as coffee will flourish, the air was cool, and leafy bushes had given way to spindly cypress trees. The truck came to a stop on a neat lawn next to a house that looked out over the valley to Santa Ana and beyond. This was Los Alpes, the family’s highest-altitude farm. Next to the main house was a rectangular patch surrounded by the remains of concrete walls. It had been one of the family houses, and it was burned down during the civil war. Batlle experienced the violence of the eighties only indirectly, through the brutal and surreal things she saw during her occasional visits to El Salvador. “It sounds bad,” she said, “but you get used to seeing dead bodies by the side of the road.”
Batlle has been back in El Salvador for almost a decade, but she lives like an expatriate—when she talks about home, she often means Miami. In Santa Ana she doesn’t drink the water, and she keeps her distance from the roadside venders selling pupusas and corn on the cob. She almost never goes to San Salvador, except for meetings or flights. “I do need to have more of a personal life,” she says. “But my problem is I don’t miss it.” Her passions include the rapper Flo Rida and the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which she plays online, using a screen name one of her nephews came up with: coffeerockstar.
As she toured her farms, Batlle was distracted by a series of e-mails and phone calls. Her father had died a few weeks before; Mauricio Batlle had been seventy-two. There were lawyers and documents that needed Batlle’s attention, and decisions that only she could make. She had learned her father’s business just in time to succeed him. Back in town, inside a family compound ringed by a fifteen-foot-high wall, Batlle showed off the small office that she had shared with him. The room was dominated by his desk, and was full of mementos, including a hand-drawn map of the family farms from 1938. On a small table in one corner, there were nearly fifty bags of her coffee, from roasters around the world, most accompanied by testimonials. From a 2008 Stumptown offering: “Aida Battle’s relentless focus on picking perfectly ripe cherry during the harvest and her flawless processing . . . are virtually unmatched and evident in the cup.” When she first saw that blurb, she dispatched a friendly e-mail to Stumptown, both to say thanks and to point out politely that someone had misspelled her last name.
Most coffee farmers don’t fact-check their clients’ promotional material, but these clients are Batlle’s peers and her closest friends. Her success has to do with culture as well as agriculture: she speaks unaccented English, she isn’t intimidated by coffee connoisseurs, and she understands foodie culture in the global North. Plenty of farmers have great land and great cherry, but almost none of them share Batlle’s keen understanding of what her customers want to drink, what they want to hear, and what they’re willing to pay.
The commodity-market price of coffee, known as the C, hit a modern-era low of around forty cents a pound in late 2001, just before Batlle arrived in Santa Ana. When she got there, she encountered a slew of programs designed to help producer countries capture more of coffee’s value, including the Cup of Excellence competition. During the down market, nonprofits and coöperatives often made common cause with importers and roasters, all of whom wanted to keep coffee farming viable. A patchwork of certifications, such as Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance, assured farmers higher prices in exchange for specific economic or environmental practices. (Coffee inspires people to think about it while they sip, which explains why the demand for ethically farmed coffee is much higher than, say, the demand for ethically farmed sugar or bananas.) At first, Batlle could afford to ignore the fluctuations of the C, because her crop was worth so much more. At boutique cafés, there was no incentive to lower prices—customers liked the idea of paying a premium for a premium cup, especially if the cup came with a story about a plucky farmer’s daughter and her organic experiments.
In the past decade, though, the C has climbed steadily upward, which has complicated the lives of high-end farmers and their clients. Roasters were forced to figure out whether to raise their prices, lower their standards, or swallow the difference. To buy her newest farm, Finca Tanzania, Batlle had secured a line of credit on the basis of a purchase order from Stumptown, which contracted to buy her Finca Tanzania crop for two dollars and fifty cents a pound—more than a dollar over the C. By harvesttime, earlier this year, the C was heading toward three dollars, the highest price in decades, and Batlle found herself prepared to sell some of the world’s most coveted coffee for less than the price of a generic lot. (In the end, Stumptown willingly paid more.)
Some relationships aren’t so friendly, and roasters who refuse to adjust their contracts in rising markets might find themselves confronted by shortfalls come harvesttime. (“Now, that’s technically in breach of contract,” one buyer explains. “But try suing five hundred Mexican farmers for coffee.”) The rising C has also made coffee more valuable to thieves. One day this spring, armed pickers arrived at Finca Kilimanjaro: they held the farm manager at gunpoint while they cleaned out the plants. “Kilimanjaro had the highest yield this year,” Batlle says. “But it turned out to be the lowest, because we had two days of non-stop theft. It was awful!” No doubt her beans were blended and sold as generic high-elevation coffee. To Batlle, the thought of this adulteration is more painful than the theft.
Expert coffee pickers don’t pluck cherry; they spin it, separating the fruit from the stem by rotating it between the thumb and the first finger, which enables them to strip a branch quickly. In Ethiopia, farmers customarily left their cherry out in the sun, where the dry heat evaporated the moisture from the pulp, making it easy to detach seed from skin. As coffee was introduced to more humid climates, this method, known as the dry, or natural, method, became somewhat unreliable: cherry that didn’t dry properly might mold or rot. Now most high-quality coffee is processed using the wet, or washed, method, in which cherry is skinned and pulped, put in fermentation tanks to soften the mucilage, and moved to washing tanks, where the mucilage is sloughed off; only then are the beans set out in the sun to dry. In El Salvador, coffee farmers take their cherry to the local mill, which does all the processing, finds a buyer, and ships the unroasted beans, known as green coffee, to its clients around the world.
Batlle’s local mill is J. Hill, which was founded in 1896 by James Hill, a British-born coffee dealer. The company has maintained its founder’s original house, next to the main factory. The bedroom balcony, which overlooks the drying patios, is equipped, rather ominously, with an antiquated spotlight and loudspeaker. Batlle’s beans represent less than one per cent of what J. Hill processes, but she often visits the mill, where she monitors everything from the health of her beans to the screen-printing of the jute bags they are shipped in. For Batlle, the mill is also a laboratory, where she can experiment with methods from around the world. Her favorite place in the compound is the cupping room, where she can roast small samples of her coffee and judge the results. El Salvador, like many coffee-producing countries, has never really developed a coffee-drinking culture, so J. Hill’s cupping room is the closest thing in the area to a well-equipped café. The espresso machine is a stainless-steel GS/3, made by the Florence-based company La Marzocco; its suggested retail price is sixty-five hundred dollars.
Batlle’s most trusted lieutenant, Douglas Chinchilla, had run some recently roasted samples through a retail-grade Mahlkönig grinder, and he was apportioning the grounds into small white cups, adding precisely twelve and a half grams to each. The cups were arranged around the perimeter of a circular white table that turned on a stem. Batlle spun the table, picking up each cup of dry coffee and pressing it to her face to inhale the nutty fragrance. When she was finished, Chinchilla added two hundred and fifty millilitres of hot water to each cup, and he gave the coffee four minutes to steep. When coffee and hot water combine, undisturbed, most of the grounds sink to the bottom, and a layer of foam and fine particles, known as the crust, forms on top. Batlle used her cupping spoon to break each crust; by disturbing the top layer, she released a small, scented burst, which she inhaled. Then, with a spoon in each hand, she skimmed off the crust and prepared to cup.
To cup a coffee, you slurp a spoonful, as quickly and loudly as possible—the idea is to spray coffee at all your taste buds simultaneously. Batlle slurped for a few seconds, expelled the specimen into her spit cup, rotated the table a few degrees, and began the process again. Coffee cupping was formalized in San Francisco, in the late nineteenth century, by dealers who wanted a standard way to assess and certify their product. They were looking for defects: a peanutty taste indicated the presence of beans from unripe cherry, known as quakers; a foul, fetid taste meant that the beans had been attacked by the tenacious borer beetle. At the high end of the coffee market, though, cuppers search for pleasant tastes instead. “Kilimanjaro has always been described as a fruit cup,” Batlle said. “Like fruit in heavy syrup.” One of the coffees on the cupping table was a new experiment: beans from Finca Kilimanjaro, processed in the Ethiopian natural style, to create a more pungent flavor. She slurped and spit. There was an earthy sweetness, fading to reveal something brighter and juicier. “I’m getting chocolate-covered cherries,” she said.
Everyday coffee drinkers, like everyday wine drinkers, often suspect that the experts are bluffing, or free-associating. The industry is sensitive to this aspersion, and takes pains to dispel it: at the Cup of Excellence, judges must be able to describe samples the same way when they are presented at different tables, in different orders. For a novice, the cupping room can be a disorienting place. You slurp and spit, ingesting small but palpable doses of caffeine, trying to taste chocolate-covered cherries. Before long, you might start to suspect that the coffee is cupping you—with each clumsy slurp and tentative adjective, you are revealing your defects.
After watching the experts grade her coffee at the Cup of Excellence in 2003, Batlle resolved to teach herself how to taste. Within a week of non-stop cupping, she was able to identify coffee’s basic flavors. The skills required—sustained concentration, precise sensory awareness, decisiveness—came naturally to her. “Sometimes I think about that,” she says. “Like, what if, when I first started cupping, I sucked at it?” Her mastery meant that she could talk to clients about the beverage, not just the plants. In an industry where farmers and connoisseurs have often been kept apart, Batlle is both—she’s a producer who speaks fluent consumer. Last year, she became the first coffee farmer to earn a certification from the Barista Guild of America.
After a few rounds in the J. Hill cupping laboratory, Batlle agreed to go to the nearby branch of a Salvadoran chain called the Coffee Cup, which has about two dozen cafés. A display near the counter was inscribed with coffee-shop boilerplate, in English: “After the roasting process, we sort our roasted coffee beans by hand—meticulously—to pick out only the highest quality beans.” Batlle peered at a photograph of some unroasted coffee beans. “They look like they have too much humidity,” she said. “They weren’t dried properly.” She turned to a photograph of roasted beans and pointed to a few light-brown beans among the dark ones: “See? Quakers!” When her cup of americano finally arrived, it didn’t disappoint—which is to say, it did. She slurped, and swiftly wished she hadn’t. “You burned me,” she said. “When the top of your tongue goes numb, that’s burning your taste buds. Luckily, I’m not cupping today. Or tomorrow.” Scalding coffee is the bane of cuppers, who prefer their coffee warm, not hot, because the best coffees get sweeter and more complex as they approach room temperature. Nevertheless, Batlle managed to supply some tasting notes. “One thing I did get was a papery taste,” she said. “That could be from last year’s crop. Or it could be coffee that wasn’t stored properly.” To someone who’s really paying attention, coffee is a form of communication—each cup, even a bad one, tells the story of how it got that way.
When Batlle’s coffee is ready to be shipped, she sometimes packs it herself, and when the last of it has been sent off to the U.S. or Norway or Japan she follows it. Her trips north are both social visits and investigative missions. She says, “If I ever went, and they were roasting the shit out of—or blending, God forbid!—my coffee, then it’s over.” Steve Kirbach, a roaster at Stumptown, remembers being introduced to Batlle some years ago at a Stumptown café in Portland. He had been roasting for only a few months, and apparently he had let a batch of Finca Kilimanjaro go too long—roasters measure their recipes in seconds, not minutes. Batlle had examined the beans, then smiled at him and said, “Oh, you feel comfortable with this roast?” Kirbach, who is now one of Stumptown’s head roasters, remembers feeling humbled and guilty. “How many days did Aida work on this product? And then I had it for, what, fourteen minutes?”
Kirbach got a chance to redeem himself one day this summer, when Batlle visited Stumptown’s New York roasting facility, a cramped warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn. A shipment of Kilimanjaro had just arrived. He dropped twenty pounds of it into a nineteen-fifties-era drum roaster, which spun the beans and then dumped them into a cooling bed. Kirbach was concerned with temperature and momentum (the speed at which the beans were heating up), and with all the things he couldn’t control, like the weather, which was hot and humid. He tried not to be too distracted by the presence, a few feet away, of an extremely interested party.
A drum roaster comes equipped with a tryer, a cylindrical wooden-handled scoop that slots through a circular hole in the door; a roaster is constantly removing the tryer and inspecting the beans in it. Around four minutes later, the beans reached three hundred degrees, and they started to swell. “You can tell it’s an organic material,” Kirbach said. “There’s, like, a fat there.” At six and a half minutes, the beans were getting brown, and there was a hint of the nutty aroma that would soon emerge. “There’s something super special about that smell,” Kirbach said. “A lot of people describe it as popcorn, but I can almost smell, like, sweet pea.” He handed the tryer to Batlle, who inhaled and then beamed proudly. At thirteen and a half minutes, Kirbach opened the roaster door, and the beans spilled out into a circular cooling bed, raked by spinning radial arms. When the coffee cooled down, he scooped up a handful of beans and dropped them into a grinder, which spewed grounds into a shot glass. Batlle inhaled, and her eyes got bright. “Wow,” she said.
Kirbach inhaled. “There’s a molasseslike note,” he said. “But at the same time you can also pick out honey—almost like a chestnut honey.”
Batlle nodded. “Like the top of the crème brûlée, when they burn off the sugar,” she said.
Next door, in the cupping lab, Aleco Chigounis, Stumptown’s coffee buyer, had set up six unlabelled stations, with Kilimanjaro and coffee from five other farms. He asked Batlle which one she preferred. She sniffed, broke crusts, sniffed again, scooped, slurped, and spit. “No. 1 is my favorite,” she said, firmly. “Because that’s the Kilimanjaro.”
Chigounis looked at her. “No, it’s not.”
Batlle looked back. “Yes, it is.”
Chigounis sighed. “O.K., you’re right,” he said. “You’re good!”
Batlle seemed wounded. She said, “You don’t think I know my own coffee?”
Stumptown came to New York two years ago and quickly found a market. Cafés bragged about brewing Stumptown beans, and locals proved willing to rearrange their commutes to accommodate Stumptown’s Manhattan café, which is inside the Ace Hotel, on West Twenty-ninth Street. Stumptown, with its Red Hook roasting facility, is one of a handful of small Brooklyn roasters. Café Grumpy, a home-grown outfit, has been roasting in Greenpoint since 2005, and Blue Bottle, from Oakland, arrived in Williamsburg last year.
This flurry of activity marks the revival, on a smaller scale, of an old New York tradition. America became a nation of coffee drinkers in the eighteen-hundreds, and, after the Civil War, New York replaced New Orleans as the main entry point for coffee shipments. In 1881, the coffee mogul John Arbuckle built a coffee warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront, in what is now Dumbo. The Maxwell House company, Arbuckle’s great rival, built a grand Brooklyn factory in 1921 and, soon after, an even grander one in Hoboken.
The rise of Maxwell House was a triumph of advertising: like most successful coffee companies, it promoted itself with vague assertions of excellence. The coffee historian Mark Pendergrast views Maxwell House as an early example of the value of “snob appeal,” and one 1907 advertisement had a distinctly challenging tone: “EVERY HOUSEWIFE who has a knowledge of coffee value will appreciate the rare quality of Maxwell House Blend.” Before the rise of national roasters like Maxwell House, consumers typically roasted (or ruined) the beans themselves or bought from local grocers; like many other twentieth-century food conglomerates, the big coffee companies convinced consumers to trade freshness for consistency and convenience.
Brewing habits were changing, too: instead of boiling the grounds along with the water (a common nineteenth-century practice), coffee drinkers wanted easier methods and better-tasting coffee, although then, as now, these two wants often conflicted. The percolator, a turn-of-the-century invention, pushed boiling water up a stem into a separate chamber full of grounds; the mixture would steep, and coffee would drip back down into the main chamber, where it would mix back into the boiling water. The device’s main asset was also its main liability: you could turn it on and forget about it, pushing increasingly bitter and burnt liquid through an increasingly bleached bed of grounds, creating an infinitely bad cup of coffee. By the nineteen-seventies, the endless-loop percolator had been displaced by the electric drip coffeemaker, which was a vast improvement (because water passed through the grounds only once) but in many ways a crude technology, because it offered users no way to control water temperature or steep time.
In 1946, Americans went through forty-six gallons of coffee per person—a record, and one that has never been broken. The cola industry convinced children and their parents that caffeine could be fizzy and fun, and it made coffee seem like an old folks’ drink. The coffee industry’s response was to fight its playful rival by embracing seriousness. In 1952, the Pan-American Coffee Bureau popularized the phrases “coffee break” and “coffee stop,” encouraging workers and drivers to build coffee into their routines; according to Pendergrast, this campaign spread to hospitals, churches, political events, and schools. A social ritual turned into an institutional one, and, just as important, a recreational drug was rebranded as a functional drug—something to get you going and keep you going, not something to love. The U.S. coffee market has been shrinking ever since: Americans now drink about half as much coffee per person as they did fifty years ago, and soda consumption passed coffee consumption in 1977.
It’s not hard to see why a generation of frustrated American coffee lovers grew up idolizing European coffee culture. Europe had coffeehouses, which had long been linked (sometimes erroneously) to intelligent thought; Europe had musky dark roasts; and Europe had espresso, a turn-of-the-century Italian invention, created by forcing water through finely ground coffee at high pressure. The European-style coffeehouses that emerged in cities like New York served intense, unusual coffee to intense, unusual people, some of whom found they liked the beverage even more than they liked the scene. In 1966, a second-generation coffee roaster from Holland, Alfred Peet, opened Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Inc., in North Berkeley, which might have been the first evangelical café in America, aiming not just to serve its customers but also to enlighten them. Peet, who died in 2007, viewed typical American coffee as not merely bad but wrong: overbrewed and underroasted. Guided by his edicts, locals could learn to drink a richer, more alkaline form of coffee. Among his fans were three young men in Seattle who bought Peet’s beans for the coffee shop they opened there in 1971, called Starbucks.
Howard Schultz came to Starbucks in 1982, when it had five locations. It didn’t much resemble a budding fast-food empire, and Schultz didn’t much resemble a coffee person. He was an executive at a Swedish kitchenware company in New York. He had noticed that Starbucks, an account in Seattle, was ordering an unusually large number of coffee-filter cones. When he travelled to Starbucks to investigate, he ordered a simple black coffee made with Sumatran beans and had a revelation: “The coffee I had been drinking was swill.” After a year of negotiation, he was hired as the director of marketing, and in 1983, during a business trip to Italy, he tried latte for the first time. In his memoir “Pour Your Heart Into It,” Schultz eulogized the moment:
Here was the perfect balance between steamed milk and coffee, combining espresso, which is the noble essence of coffee, and milk made sweet by steaming rather than by adding sugar. It was the perfect drink. Of all the coffee experts I had met, none had ever mentioned this drink.
“Coffee experts” are often purists, which may explain why none of them had ever encouraged Schultz to drown his espresso in steamed milk. Schultz’s conflicting impulses—his love of coffee’s “noble essence” and his eagerness to improve upon it—became the blueprint for Starbucks, which has always portrayed itself as a company built on unadulterated coffee enthusiasm while cannily recognizing that few of its customers actually want unadulterated coffee. (The Frappuccino is essentially a milkshake, except that people aren’t ashamed to have one at breakfast.) Even so, by turning the latte into a fast-food staple, Starbucks encouraged an astonishingly wide range of consumers to think of themselves as coffee people, and, more specifically, espresso people.
The farmer-obsessed coffee movement that has arisen over the past decade is sometimes called the “third wave,” to distinguish it from the European-inspired, espresso-oriented second wave, which produced Starbucks. (In this model, the first wave would be the enthusiasm of a century ago, which created national brands like Maxwell House.) “Third wave” is an imprecise term, and in some ways a misleading one, since it reduces hundreds of years of coffee history to a few decades of American whims. When Peter Giuliano, of Counter Culture, lectures on coffee, he likes to show a slide of a woman in Ethiopia squatting on a dirt floor, boiling coffee over a fire. “This is what coffee has been for thousands of years,” he says, to remind audiences that even the most bare-bones, old-fashioned modern coffee preparation is, in some sense, a perversion.
The architects of coffee’s third wave credit Starbucks with helping build what’s known as the specialty-coffee industry, but few of them have any kind words for Starbucks’ standard, dark-roasted-coffee offerings, which have a distinctive, charcoaled flavor that is detectable even in Via, the company’s instant coffee. Schultz argues that dark roasting is a way to celebrate exceptional beans. “The darker the beans are roasted the fuller the flavor,” he says. His successors in the third wave are more likely to view dark roasting as a way to burn off all the personality that makes coffee interesting, and they blame Starbucks for convincing consumers that darker is better. One buyer for a Starbucks competitor sighed when asked about French roast, the darkest variety. “It’s probably my least-favorite roast, but it’s our biggest seller,” he said.
Stumptown, which opened its first café in 1999, has pushed hard against the Europhilic approach. Customers can order espresso-based drinks, but the shops’ crowded blackboards are dominated by lists of farms and regions. The idea is to emphasize terroir over technique, and to deëmphasize fancy Italian drinks and secret house blends. At Intelligentsia Coffee’s shop in Venice, California, customers line up (there is always a line) in an open-air foyer, and when they get to the front there is a menu—anyone who wants a drip coffee must choose from the day’s list of featured beans. Then you pay, sometimes six or seven dollars, and then you wait, while a barista grinds the beans, tips them into a cone, and spends a few minutes drizzling water over them. The cafés of the nineties taught consumers that serious coffee drinkers drank espresso. Now the most influential cafés take pains to prove that humble drip coffee can be just as serious. Espresso is almost always blended, because a coffee’s quirks can be unpleasant in concentrated form. But drip coffee is an ideal showcase for idiosyncratic beans; Counter Culture recently offered a coffee from Sidama, Ethiopia, that transmitted the spicy, floral taste of bergamot oil.
In coffee, a shift in fashion is often linked to a shift in values: where once espresso epitomized an industry eager to sell luxury, now drip coffee epitomizes an industry eager to sell transparency. Earlier this year, Schultz published another memoir, “Onward.” In keeping with the current mood, he casts himself as a champion of coffee purism. He retells the story of his magical trip to Italy, and talks about the country’s seductive espresso-bar culture. But one drink is conspicuous by its absence from the story: latte.
Brewing a proper cup of coffee is a lot harder than uncorking a bottle of wine and a lot easier than cooking dinner. There are only two ingredients, which must be combined and then separated, but somehow these variables can produce an almost limitless number of errors and misjudgments, any one of which can smother the flavors.
Batlle has little patience for discussions about any apparatus more exotic than a press pot, also known as a French press, which is what she used when she was living in Nashville and still uses today. The design is nearly a hundred years old, and it has barely changed: coffee mixes with water in a large beaker, and then a metal mesh plunger is brought down, sequestering the grounds at the bottom. The resulting cup is rich, though perhaps slightly muddy, because fine particles can slip through the plunger. But an accomplished cupper like Batlle need not obsess over brewing methods, because she knows what she’s doing, and what she’s tasting, regardless of muddiness. An obsession with brewing protocol is generally the mark of an amateur—that pitiable person who makes a simple thing complicated in the futile hope of feeling kinship with the professionals. Nevertheless, if you are making coffee you might as well make it well.
For many home brewers, the problem starts in the refrigerator, or even the freezer, which is where a lot of Americans store their coffee. The idea is to keep the grounds from going stale or rancid, but refrigerators and freezers are full of odors that can wind up in the cup. The best way to drink fresh coffee is to buy whole beans and keep them in the cupboard; brew them a few minutes after grinding them, and no more than a few weeks after they were roasted. (Trustworthy roasters specify the roast date of every batch.) A spinning-blade grinder, which is what most people use, is much better than nothing, although a blade grinder isn’t actually a grinder: it’s a chopper, slicing arbitrarily through the beans, producing a riot of coffee fragments, from shards to dust. It’s impossible to get an even brew from uneven grounds, and once you have detected the acrid notes in partially overextracted coffee it is not easy to un-detect them. So if you are inclined to spend money on coffee equipment, spend it on a burr mill, which works like a pepper grinder, crushing beans instead of slicing them. (A hand-crank burr mill costs about fifty dollars, and electric versions start at under a hundred.)
Beyond that, home brewing gets more complicated, even, or especially, for anyone who just wants to make great drip coffee. A digital scale might seem like overkill, but weighing the beans and the water is one of the easiest ways to improve your coffee, and one of the cheapest. (Look for one with a capacity of at least a kilogram; there is no need to pay more than twenty dollars.) The other accessory you’ll need is a ceramic cone, with a small hole, and some paper filters. Boil water. Grind eighteen to twenty-two grams of beans. Fit the filter into the cone and flush it with boiling water—this helps prevent your coffee from tasting like wet paper. Put the mug onto the scale, put the cone on the mug, and put the ground coffee in the cone. Pour forty grams of water over the grounds and watch them bloom: if the coffee is fresh, it should swell and release small bubbles of carbon dioxide. After about forty-five seconds, start pouring the rest of the water, beginning in the middle of the grounds and circling outward. Pour slowly and pause often: the grounds should never drain dry, but the water level should remain low. Pour three hundred and twenty-five grams of water, including the initial forty, and remove the cone once the trickle has become a slow drip. The process should take about four minutes.
The steps are simple, yet there are countless ways to err—and to improve upon any recipe, including this one. Done properly, a pour-over should produce a cup that is rich but also slightly tangy, and complex enough to make the ostentatious tasting notes on the bag seem plausible, if not quite persuasive. Asked whether the subtle virtues of Finca Kilimanjaro were lost on most casual drinkers, Batlle shook her head. “I think anybody can taste the difference, if they’re drinking it black.”
Of course, most people don’t drink their coffee black, and they have no desire to start. (The gentlest, most savory, hand-brewed cup might nevertheless repel someone who has come to associate coffee with creamy sweetness.) The tradition of coffee evangelism, epitomized by Alfred Peet, can seem, in its clumsier expressions, capricious, or even pernicious: a small cabal of self-appointed experts, telling everyone else that they are doing it wrong. Even Starbucks, with its nearly eleven thousand American outlets, is widely perceived as an élite taste, an upscale alternative to the local corner store or fast-food chain, or the can of Folgers at home. Dunkin’ Donuts has targeted non-Starbucks customers with a slogan that evokes the utilitarian ethos of the nineteen-fifties, when the company was founded: “America runs on Dunkin’.” And, far from the world of ceramic cones and digital scales, the most consequential recent development in home brewing is the increasing popularity of the Keurig coffee brewer, a fuss-free machine that brews consistent—but rather drab—individual cups from pods full of preground coffee.
Coffee evangelists believe that coffee deserves to be treated like wine, which has fairly well-established taste hierarchies that are supposed to correspond, however inexactly, to price hierarchies: plenty of people drink cheap wine, although a great many of them would probably switch to more expensive wine if money were no object. But what if coffee turns out to be more like beer? There is less variation in beer prices, and more brand loyalty at the low end of the market: people who drink Budweiser truly love Budweiser, and most of them have no interest in switching to a Goose Island ale or a Russian River lager, no matter the price. Microbrewers thrive, but that doesn’t mean that Budweiser drinkers are an endangered species, and only the most pigheaded snob could fail to see the appeal of a cold, watery macrobrew on a hot afternoon.
Batlle resists snobbery, as any good evangelist must: she thinks that coffee salvation should be available to anyone who seeks it. But the coffee community she loves, where everyone knows everyone, wouldn’t exist if the number of converts weren’t so small. In order for connoisseurs to exist, they must be outnumbered by philistines, and if the connoisseurs are honest they will admit that they enjoy this state of affairs. The citric flavor of a Kenyan coffee might seem unpleasantly sour to a novice, and so loving Kenyan coffee is a way to show you are not a novice.
There will probably always be a market for small roasters who can manage to stay one step ahead of the big brands, no matter what the big brands are doing. A few years ago, Stumptown and other ambitious cafés embraced an automated single-cup system called the Clover, which leaches coffee out of ground beans using vacuum pressure created by the slow pumping of a metal piston. Its strikingly smooth operation, which seemed vaguely sinister, earned the Clover a measure of YouTube celebrity, and its price—about eleven thousand dollars—made it famous. Among the shops that bought one was Café Grumpy in Chelsea, which is where Howard Schultz spotted it: he declared that it produced the best coffee he’d ever had, and in 2008 he arranged for Starbucks to buy the company that made it. The reaction came quickly: Stumptown, the first adopter, announced that it would sell all five of its Clovers and revert to press pots. The Clover backlash also bolstered the move, in many leading cafés, toward cheap but finicky methods like the slow-motion pour-over. Not coincidentally, these methods are more resistant to corporate encroachment—it’s hard to turn slow coffee into fast food.
Earlier this year, Stumptown accepted an investment from TSG Consumer Partners, the company that made VitaminWater a hit. Around the time the deal was announced, Stumptown rolled out a new product: cold-brewed iced coffee, served in a ten-and-a-half-ounce glass bottle called a stubby, based on an old beer-bottle design. Even with new money and a new product, the company operates on a much smaller scale than Starbucks, which has been bottling Frappuccino, in partnership with PepsiCo, since 1996. It’s hard to imagine artisanal coffee going mass-market. But then, not long ago, the triumph of Starbucks—which taught Americans the meaning of “latte” and popularized dark-roasted coffee, while also requiring its customers to speak Italian—would have been pretty hard to imagine, too.
For a small farmer like Batlle, the question of expansion is even more fraught: with the acquisition of Finca Tanzania, she can produce about thirty tons of coffee if the weather coöperates and the thieves stay away. She is experimenting with increasingly adventurous picking techniques (this year, she sorted some cherry by color, to emphasize micro-variations within her farms), and she is building a market for the dried skin of coffee cherry, which can be used to make a faintly fruity herbal tea known as cascara. When her father died, she inherited control over a low-lying farm near Santa Ana; she’ll have to find a way to keep the plants healthy without obsessing over them, since they will never produce great coffee. She has also gone into business as a consultant to her mill, J. Hill. The idea is to help other local producers make exceptional coffee, and to capture some of the value that her name has acquired: beans that meet her standards are stamped “Aida Batlle Selection,” and they command a significant premium.
One weekend in July, Batlle flew to Minneapolis to meet with some of the executives at Caribou, a coffee chain that buys Aida Batlle Selection. There are about six hundred Caribou cafés, mainly in the Midwest, and the company prides itself on being smaller and friendlier than Starbucks. Batlle was accompanied by executives from J. Hill as well as an elegant older Salvadoran couple, producers from the A.B.S. program. The group, which resembled a diplomatic delegation, was taken to a series of Caribou locations in Minneapolis’s labyrinthine downtown shopping center. Batlle had put on a crisp white shirt, tan slacks, and leather loafers—she looked very Miami. Many of the cafés were serving an A.B.S. coffee from a farm called El Majahual, which was given a brief description on one Caribou blackboard: “lighter roast: cherry / creamy / semisweet.” Batlle didn’t frown when she took her first sip, and she liked the way it sweetened as it cooled.
It was tantalizingly easy: you could walk into a mall, order a small black coffee, and be handed a drink that hadn’t entirely forgotten its past life as a fruit. Batlle lives in a world where exceptional coffee is the norm, but even now, amid the third-wave boom, the coffee that most people drink has little in common with the beverage that Batlle loves. Could big chains and small delis produce something to her liking, and do it consistently? Would their customers want them to? And if gently roasted, carefully brewed, high-elevation, single-origin coffee became the norm would the coffee evangelists applaud? Or would they find some way to call it swill? ♦