The Perils of Coffee Snobbery

What the cult of craft coffee says about our country

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If you hate coffee snobs, or, really, just snobs, I urge you to watch the new Blue Bottle Coffee video, a trailer for the Blue Bottle Coffee book. You will take a kind of masochistic glee in how annoyed it will make you. I certainly feel this way. The cult of coffee, at least in its most puritanical form, is deeply alienating, even to me; for that reason, it strikes me as a telling fault line in American life.

(MORE: Coffee: Drink More, Live Longer?)

So-called “third wave” coffees, of the kind I wrote about two years ago, are the best coffees that can be had in America. And of the great third-wave coffee importers and roasters, Blue Bottle is one of the very best. Their founder/high priest, James Freeman, is a genial and truly dedicated man, one whose dedication to coffee borders on the evangelical. In this he shares much in common with many of the other leaders of the craft coffee movement. These guys see coffee not just as a hot beverage to drink in the morning, but as a way of life, an attitude toward the world, a spiritual direction and, most importantly, a passionate political statement about how to strive for a better world.

Which is why everybody wants to kill them.

Well, maybe not everybody. Their constituent communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Brooklyn, Portland, and elsewhere drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago. And anyone who was rescued from the Hobson’s choice of Starbucks vs. 7-Eleven must surely feel a deep gratitude. But coffee geeks represent, I think, so much of what many, if not most, Americans despise about urban progressives. It was the James Freemans of the world that the GOP’s propagandists were groping towards when they described President Obama as a card-carrying member of the latte elite. (Of course, that just showed effete types like myself just how primordial they were; no coffee snob I know would be caught dead drinking a latte, especially the Starbucks latte they implied.)

(MORE: Have Superchefs Gotten Too Clubby?)

When I watch the Blue Bottle video, I see whole urban-mandarin world in which I live in broad burlesque. There is the insufferably pretentious soundtrack, which moves seamlessly (or so it thinks) from Bach to some indie band that is never identified but which, no doubt, works as a cultural dog whistle for those in the know about such matters. Who is this coffee cognoscenti?  How they act, and what they look like, can be inferred from the video; Freeman is a mellow weenie in architect glasses, the very image of a coffee snob. A montage cuts from a hand spelling out “Blue Bottle Coffee” in twee, faux-naive block letters to shots of the artisanal production methods and delicate dripping of the antique machines the company sues, while Freeman and his wife rhapsodize about it all in a voiceover.

If it sounds like I am picking on Blue Bottle Coffee, it’s because I am. But much of the coffee culture they so entertainingly represent has the same self-congratulatory, sanctimonious nature. Artificial sweetener is usually banned, and if you ask for it (as for example I frequently do at Ninth Street Espresso in New York) they take out a small jar from behind the counter, as you might some kind of marital aid. (One of my coffee geek friends still talks about the day I put Sweet & Low in a $20 cup of Esmerelda from Panama.) There is the rhetoric of fair trade, the blocks of text explaining how small plantations in Rwanda and Indonesia are being supported by you and your willingness to pay $16 for a small bag of beans.

(MORE: How to Drink Coffee Well: Advice from an Expert)

Yes, the single-origin coffees, each one roasted to the exact degree that best serves it, are a vast improvement over the general practice of the big coffee companies, which buy all the beans in a wide swath of territory at rock-bottom prices, and then roast the hell of it and serve it to a public with a huge markup. I get all that. But the more you know about coffee, and the more you care about it, the more contempt you have to have for Big Coffee, and by extension, the whole consumer world of which it is such an integral part. Much as the food nannies of both coasts speak of “food deserts” and seek to ban Happy Meals or sweet sodas, there is an unmistakable sense of insular superiority no less obnoxious for being in the right.

Of course, as I write this, sitting at my right hand is a cup of ethereally clear, acidic, Kenyan coffee, awash with notes of chocolate and huckleberry and citrus. Of course, it’s also mixed up with Carnation evaporated milk and two pink packets of Sweet & Low. If only our culture could be as united (or as corrupted) as my cup.

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34 comments
coffeeworldbest
coffeeworldbest

Blue Mountain Coffee Beans are grade one export quality certified by The Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica. 10% off selected items. Great coffee is a joy to drink, and it is not really that complicated.

Theworldbestcoffee

http://www.theworldbestcoffee.com/

 

amadeo7
amadeo7

the funny thing is that he rants about hipster posturing, and then adopts the ultimate hipster posture of "ironically" celebrating a "corrupt" or uncool feature of americana, in this case Sweet'N'Low. not really any different from ironically wearing a trucker-hat, or flannel.

NoiaLee
NoiaLee

Dude. This is so true. I worked in the third wave coffee industry, was trained with the best of 'em... and this is completely accurate. 

    Now I can appreciate a very good cup of coffee, however caffeine is caffeine... and you will still catch me drinking speedway coffee and starbucks frappuccinos (because quite honestly that shiz is like sucking trendy icecream through a straw of tasty, and who doesn't like that?). Also being "3rd wave" is very presumptuous. Who cares? Not people with cancer or endangered species. Which is what every third wave barista ever seems to think they are helping. *cough* intelligentsia *cough* wormhole. Please go take a course on congeniality(after checking your yelp revues).

     P.S. your pour-overs taste nice though... but you should probably work on your people skills, as when the world ends I doubt steaming milk and wearing plaid aero button downs is going to be very helpful. Just a thought.

Benjamin Bernanke
Benjamin Bernanke

 I think the best possible response to this came in the form of this brilliant article at Chow.com:

http://www.chow.com/food-news/...

Which opens with: "Going after Josh Ozersky’s trashing of Blue Bottle Coffee is like thwacking a low-hanging piñata filled with shit: Easy to hit, but the payoff isn’t terribly rewarding."

It's much more worth your reading time than the nonsense above.

jasondominy
jasondominy

You're right! Next thing you know, we'll be talking of dry-aging of beef, of fine-aged cheeses, eating fungus like truffles, and other, you know, "insular and superior" culinary things. You call this "journalism?"

Logan Potts
Logan Potts

This is outright bullying. Fortunately in the real world taste is subjective amp; Josh Ozersky is equal to everyone else. What a load of garbage. "Journalism" lolololololololozzzzz

Brooks Firth Bard
Brooks Firth Bard

So you're upset about a small business owner wisely playing to their demograhic market and trying to survive among some of the largest food and agricultural giants in the world?  Very irresponsible article from someone who should be advancing better consumption.  You would rather see Nestle, J.M. Smuckers, and Kraft in every cup and every home?  Who exactly is drinking the Kool-Aid (Kraft)?

Nathaniel Howell
Nathaniel Howell

 This rant sounds more like an angry blogger who just had a bad experience with a snobby barista ....When you buy an $80 steak do they usually serve A1 sauce with it or ketchup for the hand cut potatoes..or mix a great whiskey with a coke?.... didn't think so. I bet if you asked those servers/bartenders serving you for a $30 shot of whiskey served as a whiskey and coke or ginger ale you would get the same look as a barista gives you when you ask for artificial sweetener or in your case evaporated milk in a coffee.  

My question is, why even bother buying these fine foods or beverages only to dilute them with additives that cover up the nuances of that coffee and its terroir? It does not even make sense why you would buy great coffee when its obvious that you:

A) do not understand what great coffee is and should actually spend some time going to a roastery to understand why people would want you to try it black before ruining it with, yes again your evaporated milk.  

B)Do not like the actual taste of coffee therefore cover its taste up with additives (really evaporated milk guy??).

 

C) have a profound lack of respect for specialty coffee, which goes far beyond baristas and whatever you think their political statements are.  Is it their extremely tight jeans or or odd hair styles or something because I usually find them amusing... 

D) you feel as entitled as those snobs serving you and in turn, have decided to make arrogant/ignorant comments just like they do when you are making your Vietnamese coffee aka evaporated milk shake.  I suggest you stick to buying the bottled Starbucks frappuccino out of your local 711 store and save some money.  

P.S. coffee is bought based on its quality in the specialty coffee market and should be looked at the same way wine is... sure I can get a $3 bottle but the fact is I am buying that bottle mostly to enjoy the affects of the alcohol just as most people who buy $1 coffees are buying it to feel the caffeine.    

signed,

some dumb kid from Boston

Brooks Firth Bard
Brooks Firth Bard

So you are upset about small business owners wisely playing to their demographic market and doing the best they can to survive up against some of the largest food and agriculture giants in the world?  

Very irresponsible article from someone who is supposed to be advancing better consumption.  You would rather see Nestle, J.M. Smuckers, and Kraft in every cup and every home.  Who exactly is drinking the Kool-Aid (Kraft) my friend?

 

Brooks Firth Bard
Brooks Firth Bard

So you are upset about small business owners wisely playing to their demographic market and doing the best they can to survive up against some of the largest food and agriculture giants in the world?  

Very irresponsible article from someone who is supposed to be advancing better consumption.  You would rather see Nestle, J.M. Smuckers, and Kraft in every cup and every home.  Who exactly is drinking the Kool-Aid (Kraft) my friend?  

Paul Allen
Paul Allen

Yes, how dare a local business challenge the big national brand mediocrity. Don't you want the guy selling you coffee to take great price in his or her craft? To even obsess about it a little? I think that's a good thing.

PS - Sweet-n-low is gross! At least use Splenda if you must have an artificial sweetner.

Nathaniel M. Campbell
Nathaniel M. Campbell

$20 for a cup of coffee?  That's 2 days worth of food right there!  I have trouble thinking these folks really care about social justice when they charge that much money for a cup of friggin' coffee.  What this really suggests is the human tendency to idolize material things ... a decade ago, it was Hummers ... now it's coffee.  What will come next? (Besides the 5 million new iPhones sold in their first week?)

Niko Kovacevic
Niko Kovacevic

This whole article feels like the insecure bully on the playground shoving over the dork because the bully doesn't understand what the dork is talking about.

swagv
swagv

A lot of people are still struggling with getting food on the table. For them, coffee is a utility. Suggesting that there are finer elements to a good cup of coffee is like telling someone they can't tell their good electricity from bad.

How dare they tell me my electricity supply isn't good enough? Who are they to get all uppity in the pedigree of their power supply?

But that doesn't mean they have to watch nor participate. There's a lot of people out there who think In-N-Out is God's gift to the hamburger, despite the fact that it's still fast food and only a hair's breadth from Burger King. Why be a killjoy to their delusions? Maybe it's fun for a while, but it doesn't improve the flavor of the buffalo cut burgers I get from the 1950s butcher down the block.

Lesli
Lesli

One Latté I.V. Drip with vehicle passenger hand-hold attachment, please.

David Yoon
David Yoon

Wait, so using evaporated milk and synthetic sweeteners somehow make you more "real"?

You're not saying you wish we would all just shut the fuck up and eat whatever big agra shoves down our throats, are you?

b3ngra
b3ngra

my word, what uninformed and self serving trollop, straight from the mouth of a pseudo professional trying to keep a grasp on a fast moving industry.  At least some of us are trying to  push the envelope and innovate. Sorry, I didnt think you could identify a coffee snob merely from the cut of their glasses? Rhetoric trundled out with tired turn of phrase.

Tim Roth
Tim Roth

I think it's important to remember what a tiny percentage of the industry is occupied by "third wave" companies. While the specialty roasters tend to dominate the regional news stories, the big boys are still taking care of the vast majority of the coffee needs in the states. The specialty industry doesn't seek so much to disparage the old ways as it does to offer a new and arguably more systemically sustainable way to enjoy what began as and should continue to be considered a commodity. I would like to present the analogy of buying wine at Trader Joe's or any other discount grocery store versus buying wine at a specialty wine store. At the former, you're likely to walk out incredibly elated at how little money you spent on your libation. At the latter, you'll likely wince a little at how much you spent on your libations, but somewhere deep down inside you're convinced that there was some value in purchasing a better product. It's everyday coffee versus once in a while, amazing coffee. We can't have it all.

Audrey
Audrey

Oh, Josh, for the love of  Pete! As your friend I'm asking you to please stop with the Sweet -n- Low! It's not saving you calories, I promise.

I agree with the person who says one douchey barista can make enjoying a great coffee an unpleasant experience, but that doesn't make me scorn quality coffee, just some of the pretentious dopes who peddle it.

YupYupYupYup
YupYupYupYup

What this article lacks in content it sure makes up for in rhetoric. A funny read, but woefully deficient in any substance or knowledge of the subject.

John Maliga
John Maliga

I suspect it's unlikely that you taste the chocolate, huckleberry, and citrus in your cup of Kenyan without experiencing the over-sweet and chemical taste of the Sweet and Low, blended with the sour milk overtone of the Carnation evaporated. There are three (or more) genetic tendencies to taste and, perhaps, you are among those who, while having an intellectual understanding of why there might be differences in taste, you're among those with a limited capacity for taste. Try http://www.tastescience.com/re... among others for an explanation.

Heather HAL
Heather HAL

This author is a complete ass.  Who wants to kill people for wanting to consume a superior product? Making death threats against the owners of Blue Bottle is irresponsible and reprehensible. 

bzelbub
bzelbub

Not the pink stuff, its a sugar cube (or washed sugar, mmm molasses) and half and half, you should be having although I'm sure many sheeplepeople would tell me it isn't pure that way. I buy my bulk coffee from Amazon, but truth be told I don't fire up a pot unless someone else is drinking with me, coffee is a purely social activity with me.

And never never go to Starbucks, or any other trendy spot, coffee should never come with attitude, otherwise why bother?

KJUU
KJUU

I don't care for soccer. *shrugs* So, I don't watch it or play it.

"It's okay to not like things... it's okay, but don't...."

Etc.

wolfram42
wolfram42

Adding sweetener just ruins a good coffee. I takes away the balance that should be present and changes the overall drink. Some shops decide to value the process, from seed to cup, by not providing additives. I totally support this, if you don't, just went to another place. There is nothing snobbery in the video, just a bunch of people that are passionate about a product they truly like.

Fabio Juliano
Fabio Juliano

The biggest coffee snobs eat ѕhіt. I’m serious. That’s what “kopi

luwak”, the most expensive type of coffee, is.

ChrisMorell
ChrisMorell

Josh - I definitely understand where you're coming from. But I can tell you that being from San Francisco and watching/experiencing Blue Bottle develop over the years, they've always been extremely accepting of their customers' specific preferences. I'd consider them the least snobby of the SF micro-roasters, and James is an extremely humble guy. I've even become good friends with some employees just by hanging out at their Hayes kiosk.

I'm not sure why specialty coffee gets such a bad wrap. The hipster connection, perhaps? Wine and gourmet food don't really get hit with the same comparison, but it can take years to perfect espresso craft. Ask a chef for some ketchup to slather on his meticulously prepared filet and see how they react.

But yeah, get one douche-y barista and it all goes to hell. That does happen from time to time.

valente347
valente347

Most of the people I served who drank our coffee "pure" were the grisly men at my shop at 5:30 a.m. asking me to fit as much of our darkest roast into their huge green Stanley thermos ("and don't forget to preheat it - this has got to last me till lunch!") on their way to their construction site. 

However, I think the work of the coffee snobs benefited even the least discerning of our customers. Six hours later, the bottom of their thermos probably tasted better as our French Roast than it would have as Maxwell House Master Blend.

Martinez Fine Coffee
Martinez Fine Coffee

A little harsh on James Freeman, but there is a trend to snobbery that is making specialty coffee as mysterious as wine, which would be an interesting thing to do to what has been a commodity beverage. One of the first people to bring single estate and single origin coffees to America was John Martinez of Atlanta, in 1988, pre-Starbucks. His approach, and our current approach, is not cultish. Great coffee is a joy to drink, and it is not really that complicated.

Kevin O'Gara

J. Martinez amp; Company

www.martinezfinecoffees.com

RobertGemerek
RobertGemerek

@Nathaniel Howell i agree with everything you said, i've truly been blown away by 3rd wave coffee....its redefined what i believed coffee to be. are you related to george howell? i just noticed the name and says your from boston....i just happened to stumble accross george howell as a roaster so i thought itd be an incredible coincidence if you are.