The joke goes something like this: “I’d like a half-soy, half-decaf, double shot, grande, vanilla—extra wet, no whipped cream—latté to go,” or some ridiculous coffee order to that effect.
The days of ordering a simple cup of coffee are over, but whether coffee is here to stay is another matter.
The 1980s was when coffee culture took hold of the Pacific Northwest, and it hasn’t looked back since. “We were blessed 25 years ago when the founders of Starbucks arrived on the Seattle landscape from Berkley, California, where Peet’s Coffee was just getting established as the new mainstream coffee,” recalls Paul Odom, CEO of Seattle’s Fonte Coffee Roaster. “Before then, our options were limited to coffees manufactured by large food companies that were generally stale, sour tasting, and used an altogether different bean known as Robusta, which was relatively inexpensive. My father represented several of these suppliers and I can remember the sour smell as if it was yesterday.”
Closely patterned after Italian practices, but modified with an expanded use of steamed milk to better cater to American tastes, West Coast coffee culture appealed to a generation raised on milk, yet one that turned up its nose to weakly brewed and instant coffee, preferring the more assertive, contemporary coffee flavor of espresso. The ubiquity and convenience afforded by coffee shops on every corner sped the coffee revolution like caffeine in the vein.
“Northwesterners embraced their new coffee identify not only in the terms of displaying affluence, but in a rebellious sense to the contrast and reaction of the rest of the country’s amusement at the complex terms employed in ordering a cup of coffee,” says Fonte’s head roaster Steve Smith.
Fast forward to today’s boom in micro-roasters, who are focusing on high-quality, small-production, single-origin coffees. Fonte’s commitment to equitable trade practices, also pioneered by grocery cooperatives and other large-scale coffee buyers, has resulted in a previously unheard level of connection and communication between producer and consumer.
Single-origin coffees are “laying the foundation for a more mature appreciation of refined coffee flavor profiles,” says Smith. “Our ability to source an exquisite estate Guatemala Antigua might only be appreciated by a small percentage of coffee lovers, but was paid for by the sale of thousands of lattes.” Refined brewing methods—coffee brewed in the pour over method, or in a vacuum pot or French press apparatus—is also contributing significantly to today’s appreciation of coffee.
“There’s a broad palette of exceptional quality coffees, unprecedented in its scope and variety—rivaling that of the finest wines,” says Smith. “If a pound [of coffee] retails for less than $16, it’s probably not worth brewing.”
If you just choked on your cappuccino, consider this. Today’s price for a cup of coffee, in the $2-to-$5-dollar (US) range, is a far cry from the days when a nickel or a dime bought a cup of Joe. But Smith cites a multitude of global factors for the price increase—from the effects of climate change to rising land values as farmers choose to sell prime growing acreage to developers serving a growing middle class, as is happening in parts of Guatemala. Also a factor is the competition for the purchase of quality green coffee, which intensifies each year as China, India, and increasingly the producing countries themselves encourage domestic consumption. At the farm level, the cost of petroleum-based products and financing make the change to other agricultural products more attractive.
“We find ourselves in a position of having the finest coffees ever produced in the history of agriculture and a consuming public on the verge of understanding their value,” says Smith. “I believe 25 years from now, in 2037, we will have a stable system in place, which will consistently deliver excellent and interesting coffees to highly discerning consumers. This will be influenced by future innovation from the Northwest coffee community.”