When Chase & Sanborn introduced sealed tins of coffee to the U.S. in 1880, consumers didn't care where the contents came from-just that they would keep longer. Likewise, exotic origins weren't the hook for Nescafé's instant coffee launch in 1937; convenience was.
That started changing with a Dutch immigrant named Alfred Peet, who opened a tiny coffeehouse in Berkeley, California, in 1966. His small batches of dark roasts caught on; customers started caring about beans, not containers. Seeing what was percolating, two of his employees quit to open a small Seattle shop called Starbucks in 1971.
More than four decades later, with Starbucks having flooded the market, a backlash against chain brews has begun. Serious coffee drinkers are clamoring for singular flavors. Independent roasters are selling "microlots" of relatively rare coffees from miniscule farms around the world. And coffee shops are offering beans with backstories. Mass-produced varietals like Sumatra or Yirgacheffe are so 10 years ago; savants now seek out coffees from Finca Nueva Armenia farm in Guatemala or Kenya's Gatina Cooperative.
"We're mirroring the transition the wine industry went through in the '60s and '70s when people went from drinking glorified jug wines to appreciating 'taste of place' of particular vineyards," says Mark Inman, president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and founder of Sebastopol, California-based organic roaster Tailor Maid Farms. Though microlot producers account for just $20 million of the $13 billion specialty-coffee pie, "they're the ones pushing the boundaries of price and quality."
It's no longer enough to know the difference between tall, grande, and venti. Here's what you need to know to keep the mud off your face.
Go Back to Basics
Who ordered the double half-caf low-fat soy mochaccino? Not a coffee geek. Purist drinkers and coffeehouses, like New York's Ninth Street Espresso, are shunning novelty formulations and add-ons that distract from coffee's inherent flavors. So get reacquainted with the standards, all of which use the same beans, but different preparations: Espresso is a thicker coffee made by pressurizing hot water through fine grounds; it's characterized by rich crema, or foam. Cappuccino is equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk. Feeling lightweight? Change the equation to two-thirds steamed milk, one-third espresso for a latte.
Avoid a Coffee Con
Arabica beans account for 75 percent of the world's coffee production. Grown at high altitudes, delicate Arabicas yield smoother, less acidy, more complex coffees than hardier, cheaper Robusta beans. But unscrupulous packagers have been known to dilute Arabica blends with Robusta-a good reason to stick with whole-bean coffee from trusted roasters. Chicago-based Intelligentsia and Portland-based Stumptown are two of the bigger ones.
Bean Around the World
At least corporate coffee made for simple shopping. Today, when faced with a choice between, say, Guatemalan Huehuetenango and Tanzanian Peaberry, what's a caffeine addict to do? Use rules of thumb from Peter Giuliano, director of coffee at Durham, North Carolina-based supplier Counter Culture Coffee. African coffees tend to taste "intense and fruity." Latin American brews are more balanced and clean, "with a character Americans think of as coffeelike." Asian versions-Aceh, in Northern Sumatra, is a big source-are earthier, with low acidity and a big body.
Coffee's just another dried bean until roasting releases flavors and aromas. If you're like most people, you've probably been drinking a lot of dark-roasted coffee-the stuff Starbucks and Peet's made their mark with. But coffee connoisseurs prefer a lighter treatment that allows the bean's unique characteristics to shine through. There are four basic roasts: Light, for a softer color and taste; medium, which is darker and slightly stronger, and the most popular in the U.S.; medium-dark, which yields some oil on the surface and a slightly bittersweet aftertaste; and dark, where beans look oily and taste bitter. Ken Davids, editor of CoffeeReview.com and author of three books on coffee, advises against dark and extreme-dark roasts like French and Italian. "Extreme dark roasting destroys sugars in the bean," he says.
Handle the Grind
Since flavor compounds break down fast in ground coffee, coffee snobs prefer to grind at home just before brewing. If you choose to follow suit, blade grinders are popular and relatively cheap. But they can chip the bean into different-size pieces, leading to bitter or weak brew, maintains Kyle Glanville, who won the 2008 United States Barista Championship. Coffee connoisseurs insist on burr grinders, which create more uniform particles.
Know the Rich Joe
The white truffle of the coffee world? Expect to pay about $34 for a 12-ounce bag of Esmeralda Estate beans from Panama-if you can find it; the beans sell out almost instantly at retail. You can always try booking a table at the French Laundry, which serves Esmeralda Estate exclusively.
A Java Date
Coffee seems like one of those products that has an infinite shelf life. But Glanville cautions that roasted coffee will go stale after about 14 days, so buy only what you need. "If there's no roast date [on the bag], the retailer might have something to hide, like coffee that's not so fresh," he says. Store beans in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot-and that doesn't mean the fridge, which is full of moisture.
Take the Plunge
Sure, drip machines take care of business fast. But aficionados opt for slower French press plungers, which work by infusion. "It's the purest form of brewing," says Felice Aiello, barista at New York's Cafe Grumpy, which uses revered $11,000 Clover coffee machines to brew individual cups (Starbucks bought Clover's maker in March). Snobs also swear by vacuum brewing, which forces boiling water through a funnel of grounds, then back into a carafe for more intense flavor. Using a special stove-top kettle or an electric espresso machine, you can also brew creamy, foamy drinks. For most methods, Aiello advises 7.25 grams of coffee per five ounces of water. (Two level tablespoons will do fine.)
Choose Cool Beans
"Shade-grown" might sound like marketing-speak-think "handcrafted" beer or "steel-cut" oats-but Giuliano says shade-grown beans are worth seeking out. Lack of sunlight slows some of the biological processes in the plant and makes trees produce fewer cherries, which ultimately means sweeter, more-flavorful coffee. Trees grown on large-scale, industrialized coffee farms tolerate full sun but produce less-distinctive coffees.