I try to write everything from a point of at least some first-hand experience. That is, I don’t just jump into typing away about a topic I don’t know at least a little about and that I’ve spent time thinking over. I know that doesn’t sound all that revolutionary like you’d expect that from writers, but when you go on Twitter and see the armies of people who were infectious disease experts in 2020 then pivoted the constitutional law experts the next year, then suddenly they’re scholars on post-Soviet politics but can switch and wax poetic about what Taylor Swift means, it’s easy to get to a point where you think that people writing stuff maybe don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. So when I say something like “Good coffee isn’t good anymore,” please understand that I consider myself an expert on this. I’ve been paying attention to this for years and it’s high time to discuss it.
Once upon a time, there was nothing. Well, there were some things. There was Maxwell House and Chock Full O' Nuts. There was General Foods International Coffees and there was Sanka. This is where I will cop to inexperience because I wasn’t really drinking coffee then, but I can only imagine that in 1979, when you opened up a magazine like New York and saw an ad featuring the owner of Sardi’s saying he gives his customers “the best,” and that means he served Taster’s Choice freeze-dried coffee, then the only conclusion I can draw is that the best wasn’t all that great. The dark days when robusta beans were the norm and there was little to no oversight in how or who picked the beans and how they were roasted. You just drank your unfair trade coffee and didn’t ask if it was doused in weird chemicals to give it a special taste or help it last longer. Sardi’s might not be showing up on the Eater Heatmap or any best restaurant lists anytime soon, but in 1979 it was a hot spot. The sort of place you went to start a whispering campaign about your unproduced musical to try and get people excited. I don’t think the 2022 version of that (hopefully there are still places that would allow frogs to show up and get a table in this city, and hopefully you’ve seen The Muppets Take Manhattan) would let customers know they’re serving Taster’s Choice.
I mention all of that because I’ll take any excuse to talk about one of my favorite movies ever, but also because it’s a small way of showing how far we’ve come in terms of what we consider “the best” coffee. No longer is “good” coffee simply something relegated to the specialty aisle at Whole Foods or something people in Manhattan go out of their way to get at Zabar’s. You can go pretty much anywhere and if you can’t find a Stumptown or a Blue Bottle, a La Colombe or Intelligentsia, you can likely find a small coffee shop using their beans. It’s probably not far from the one or two or three Starbucks locations in the area. “Good” coffee is easier than ever to come by, or so we’ve been led to believe.
And, for the most part, yes. It has. It’s likely that the coffee you’re drinking from the local coffee shop tastes better than whatever you could have gotten 20 or 30 years ago, thanks in part to the massive growth of Starbucks first as a symbol of quality coffee, a brand that said something about the person drinking it and eventually as something to rally against. The rise of even more specialty coffee shops like Blue Bottle or La Colombe grew as a solution to the monolith that was and really still is Starbucks. If everybody could drink Starbucks, then a lot of people didn’t want to be like everybody. They wanted something else.
So we hit peak coffee at some point in the last decade. You have countless choices when you go to the grocery store in terms of the beans you can buy. And the truth is that making coffee at home is really the way to go and this argument isn’t about that coffee. Instead, it’s about how everywhere you go now offers that “good” coffee and it costs anywhere from three to six dollars, maybe more. And the part that’s more offensive than the price is that a lot of times it isn’t good.
What’s good and what isn’t is obviously subjective. You might like any and all of those places I mentioned, and that’s totally your thing. You might go to Blue Bottle and get your single origin pour over every day and that’s your moment of grace and calm as you sit there slowly sipping it. I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong or that the coffee you’re drinking is low in quality because that’s not the case. The coffee isn’t the problem; it’s the places that sell it. Places that buy expensive beans and charge a lot of money per cup, but don’t really have much or any of a coffee program besides having somebody behind the counter making it. A restaurant or coffee shop signs on with a provider, they use their beans and in some cases, the roaster even provides some of the coffee equipment. That’s not every case, but I’ve been told first-hand by more than a few coffee shop owners that they went with whatever roaster not because of the quality, but because of price. And that makes sense from a business perspective, but from the other side of the counter, if I’m walking into a place and the number one thing they do is serve coffee and that coffee costs five or six bucks, then I damn sure want it to be excellent and I want the owner of the establishment to really care about what they’re serving.
That care is also a bigger part of the problem, unfortunately. We’re stuck between the two worlds of snob culture and good investments. Some coffee shops are opened because fiscally it’s a better investment than a restaurant or bar. Less worry, less overhead, etc. There are countless shops like that and they’re easy to spot. They’re the ones that have zero personality, where the whole point is the transaction. The art is usually corny, the seating uncomfortable, the pastries or food offerings bland and boring. The rise of Blank Street Coffee is the result of this sort of thinking. Just a place with no soul that serves coffee. It’s actually not a bad idea, to be honest. As Issam Freiha, one of the founders told the New York Times recently, “We don’t need to be the most amazing cup of coffee you’ve ever had […] We want to be the really good cup of coffee that you drink twice a day, every day.” Pricewise, the Blank Street coffee that’s “good” sits right between two places that serve as the bookends for where we see “Good” and “Bad” coffee starting, Dunkin and Starbucks. Now, I personally will go for Dunkin over Starbucks because if I’m offered the two I know I only need the coffee and it’s likely not going to be an enjoyable experience sitting in one of those places and drinking it. I drink my coffee from there with milk, so I’m truly not looking for the delicious coffee taste. I’m looking to get caffeinated because I’m addicted to it. That’s why as much as I don’t like Blank Street and I see it as another cynical “disruptor” cash grab, it does serve a purpose. It’s whatever coffee. You don’t have to put much thought into it. The owners themselves aren’t trying to blow you away—they’re trying to make money. Which is fair. That’s how this all works, right?
That was always my problem with the rise of the coffee snob. And, again, I’m not saying you, the person with all your gadgets at home to make your perfect French press or espresso on your machine. The real-life versions of Ari Spyros from Billions, the compliance officer obsessed with his office setup is, honestly, goals. I wish that I took that much interest in the coffee I make. But I don’t. I do buy certain beans and I researched my grinder and coffee maker, but the truth is that I live in a city with countless options to just walk outside my door and get a coffee from and the idea is that since they all charge the same price that they should all serve good coffee.
And yet, that’s never the case. This is a very arbitrary assessment, but of the six (yes, six (I do live in Brooklyn, remember) places I could count that are all within eight minutes of my home (I timed these and rounded down to eight, I swear I didn’t just pick a number at random) that serve “specialty” coffee from roasters like Sey or Counter Culture, Partners or Intelligentsia, where the average price of a small coffee is four dollars, I’d say that four of those places just aren’t worth the cost. The coffee just isn’t that good. The two-dollar cup I get at the bodega does the trick.
Yet this is something any self-proclaimed “coffee snob” would sneer at me for. They’d also likely make fun of me for buying cups of coffee in the first place, and I get that. But it’s all part of a larger problem, about how everybody thinks they’re a coffee snob now because supposedly “good” coffee is easily attainable. It’s the same with beer or wine and especially with cocktails. 15 years ago, most bars’ versions of “cocktails” were two-ingredient drinks, but then owners caught onto the “mixology” trend and saw a new way to charge more for drinks even if the quality or care wasn’t there. All of a sudden every other bar had “cocktails,” but the bartenders maybe didn’t know how to make them or they just didn’t have the same amount of time or space afforded at places that were owned and operated by disciples of Dale DeGroff or vets from Death and Co. But the price didn’t reflect that. It was still 13 or 14 bucks for a not-so-great Old Fashioned.
A big problem, as more than a few people pointed out when I tweeted my thoughts on this matter, is scale. Making coffee for the masses is usually going to net out lower quality from the roasting process and some bad batches getting past quality control, to the shops making it not paying attention to how much they put in the filter, how hot the water is or how long the coffee has been sitting. My theory on good and bad coffee, oddly, can be summed up by something they talk about in Top Gun: Maverick, about how it isn’t the plane but the pilot flying it that matters. What makes coffee “good” is partially based on your preferences but also on the person making it. I still go to Italian neighborhoods or go out of my way to drink Cafe Cubanos when I’m in Miami not because the beans are anything special, but because there’s usually one person making those drinks and they have the time to make something you want to sit and enjoy and not take to go, and more likely than not, that’s the best coffee I can find. The coffee somebody made for me that I can enjoy. That, more than anything is what has helped make “good” coffee suck. We’re so busy that we grab these expensive cups of coffee and don’t even give ourselves time to realize that we could have just gone to Dunkin or the bodega and paid half the price and the result would have likely been the same.
You’re not wrong. I generally hold my tongue on this topic as I have lots of skin in the game, having started now two roasting companies (Tonx & Yes Plz) premised on the idea that you can make coffee at home much better than the current crop of third wave coffeebars—if the roaster is doing their job well. There was an era, more than a decade ago, where new indie shops and roasters opened and presented something new, with a distinct style, and a real dedication to quality. Today we’re left with this template that sort of works, a set of best practices that kind of deliver something good, and a lot of reputable roasting companies and professionals who mistake bending their goalposts down to the grass around what tastes good with being unpretentious. Very few shops swing for the fences anymore, and lots of inside-baseball trends around mediocre but weird experimental processes and super rare coffees to make shops/baristas feel like there’s still a vanguard to join up with. Plenty of snobbery still, just not much of it that actually lands in your cup. There’s more decent coffee in more places than ever before but arguably fewer places to have a really wow experience than 10-15 years ago.
I have also been thinking about this a lot. As someone who owns every coffee tool under the sun and was constantly disappointed by the $5+ cup. I think you nailed it. It is all about expectation setting — if a specialty shop is going to claim to be specialty coffee with a high price tag, people will expect exceptional tasting coffee. If it misses the mark they supremely over-promised and under delivered.
I have resorted to DD / Sbux bc you know what you are getting every time. Consistency > 1 amazing cup and 10 bad cups. If I find myself at a specialty shop, I always go for the cold coffee bc its a lot more consistent (usually), even if it is still $$$.