Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Gods in Cups

In March, I stumbled across God in a Cup by Michaele Weissman at my local Barnes & Noble. If I hadn't been in the food writing isle looking for another book on coffee (Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast), I never would have found it, and today I wouldn't know of its existence -- much less have had the pleasure of reading it.

What makes this book about the specialty coffee industry so enjoyable and so insightful are the people. Instead of focusing solely on the bean or the complex global industry that exists around it, Weissman focuses on the people in specialty coffee -- specifically Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia, Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee, and Duane Sorenson of Stumptown Coffee. And as she travels with Geoff and Peter to origin in Africa and Central America, she meets an impressive cast of key players within the industry including farmers, buyers and exporters. When she visits Geoff, Peter and Duane on their home turf in LA, Northe Carolina and Portland, she also brings in importers, roasters and baristas.

This book is an examination of the specialty coffee industry as it stands today. It's a snapshot in time of the guys at the forefront of the self-proclaimed "third wave" of coffee with a glimpse at some of the giants that came before them. It digs deeper than other treatments of the industry such as Black Gold (see my previous post on this documentary). Weissman is not afraid to explore the complexity of the industry -- the drawbacks of co-ops for farmers, the controversies over the value of fair trade and the potential risks of direct trade -- revealing the struggles that exist from origin to retail.

It is clear throughout her book that Weissman obviously developed a deep respect for her subjects and their passion for coffee, which often crosses the border into obsession. In her Authors@Google appearance, she compares the subjects of her book to the wave of independent film makers of the 70's -- a band of irreverent, talented and passionate guys who fundamentally changed an industry. And the farmers at the other end of the chain? They are artists, she says. All farmers are not alike.

And as such, all great coffee is not alike -- a theme that runs throughout her book and is illustrated by the search for the next Hacienda La Esmeralda Special, a Panamanian coffee produced by a specific coffee varietal called geisha that has become the obsession of many within the specialty coffee world and inspired the title of Weissman's book. (There are many different varietals of coffee plants that produce different types of coffee, similar to different varietals of grapes producing different wines.) While this book has so much to offer, if I were to pick one aspect that resonated with me the most, it would be this sentiment that not all great coffee is alike -- the complexities of growing and finding great coffee and the stories of those pursuing fine coffees like geisha. I would pick this because it helps to explain my own obsession with coffee.

An old friend of mine recently commented to one of my countless Facebook status updates about coffee by saying: "You spend more time thinking about coffee then I spend thinking." I think many of my friends and family members (including my 15 month old) have probably thought the same thing at one point in time. Why do I spend so much time thinking and talking about a beverage?

At a recent holiday dinner, one of my wife's family friends asked me: "What's the best coffee in the world?" I didn't know quite how to answer this question. I've spent so many years drinking so many great coffees (and finding new ones every month) that the thought of pointing to one cup and saying "that's it, there are no others" seemed completely foreign to me.

But this is a question I often face from non-coffee geeks. The dilemma reminds me of an article that Malcolm Gladwell wrote a few years back called The Ketchup Conundrum. In it, Gladwell talks people's expectations and perceptions of taste and a man named Howard Moskowitz. Moskowitz was the first person to realize that what people often want (even though they don't often know it) are varieties in taste. There was no such thing as the best universal taste for Pepsi or pasta sauces or mustard. But at the same time, some tastes are so embedded in a culture that it is almost impossible to stray from them. Ketchup is one such taste. Heinz dominates the ketchup market because people expect ketchup to taste like Heinz. Any great deviation from the Heinz recipe doesn't stand a chance.

Coffee, I think often suffers from similar cultural baggage. People expect to find one great coffee that they can stick with forever. Yet most coffee drinkers I know who are also wine drinkers would never dream of sticking to only one label of wine forever. Unfortunately, most people don't think of coffee like wine. They think of coffee like ketchup. They find a label and stick with it.

Weissman manages to argue in a couple hundred pages why you should change your thinking and open your mind on this subject for coffee. Don't try to find the best cup of coffee. Try to find the best cups of coffees. Instead of trying to find God in a cup, look for gods in cups.

I've feebly tried to explain this in many of my posts on this blog. If you want to save time, pick up Weissman's book.

(Note: this post was written under the influence of Kuta, Waghi Valley, Papua New Guinea by Counter Culture and Wondo Worka Co-op, Ethiopian Yrgacheffe by Ritual Roasters.)

1 comment:

  1. If you haven't already, Coffee Geek Podcast #62: