Press-Republican

FYI...

July 24, 2013

Be a B+ coffee snob

NEW YORK — Mocking people who care about coffee is a proud American tradition dating back approximately to the birth of Starbucks. The same jokes about coffee-dandyism that filled up many a half-hour of the '90s-era sitcom "Frasier" still work for "The New Girl." (And "Portlandia." And "Funny or Die.") The attitude has become so commonplace that it infects journalism about contemporary coffee appreciation. Glance at The New York Times' recent item on the latest high-market brew outfit to open a glitzy showcase space in Manhattan. There is a faint but unmistakable note of derision in lines like, "If you want to learn how grind size affects extraction, here's your chance."

But if coffee is something you drink every day - perhaps multiple times a day - why shouldn't you want to learn how grind size affects extraction from a coffee bean? Why should paying attention to such a detail be regarded as any more annoying a habit than having the patience to remember to preheat an oven, peel an onion, or perform any of the sundry other preparatory tasks that we endure in order to improve the taste of products we intend to ingest?

The answer has to do a lot with access to knowledge about coffee and comfort with being seen as pretentious - both of which work overtime as markers of class. Today's elite roasters don't do much to undermine popular conceptions about coffee connoisseurship: note the dandified presentation that appears to be mandatory for Stumptown baristas, or the very name of Intelligentsia Coffee. But that's all marketing, which a person can - and often should - choose to ignore.

Coffee evangelists also undermine their own cause by making the brewing process appear too fussy. The New Yorker's Kalefa Sanneh memorably narrated his own personal practice ("If you are staying in a B.&B., you can barge into their kitchen and insist on making coffee with your own gear"). Slate's June Thomas profiled a champion barista with a "meticulous attention to detail" ("I write down how much coffee I'm using, how much water. I take a record of the time it took to brew, of the grind size. And then if I don't like it, I change one variable each time.") Just last month, Wired's Mat Honan offered his "Coffee Essentials for the Perfect Cup," to the tune of $509 (and that's before beans). I suspect that many readers of such detailed, information-rich items may experience them as further evidence that artisanal coffee appreciation requires too much investment of time and money. All of those articles have useful information in them, but their proud precision makes them not-at-all persuasive introductory guides for the uninitiated.

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