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.

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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.)

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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.

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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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