I have realized that quantity does not, in the end, trump quality. Producers know that, and consumers know that, but we had a few hiccups along the way to that discovery.
Much of the food industry in the twentieth century in the US revolved around making more out of less, mass producing and pre-packaging for your convenience, to make life, and dinner, easier. Of course this all sounds great on paper, right? We get more food, that’s easier to make at a fraction of a cost – awesome!
But wait, what about the taste? What about my health?
Over the last few decades, more and more Americans are realizing that the bread we eat, the corn we cook, the beef, pork and chicken we grill is not the way it should be. It often makes us sick, it contributes to our obesity and our poor immune systems. It also simply doesn’t usually taste as good as it could. We needed to take back pride and care in the crops and livestock we raised, go back to grandma’s kitchen and learn how to make things from scratch.
Soon, not only is our food beginning to be more healthy and wholesome again, but a new energy is being poured into everything we consume. Small batch, house made, locally sourced – all these things now carry a value that shows that the product being offered to you wasn’t churned out to make a quick buck, somebody took care and interest to give you something fantastic and delicious. This has since begun gaining more popularity in things other than just groceries and restaurants. There was this obvious but overlooked quality that existed in just about everything we used or consumed every day, all we had to do was take some more time to uncover it and show it to everyone.
Food, clothing, electronics, automotives, beer, and even coffee – there were things that made certain examples better than previous creations, innovations that made the experience more fun and imaginative. Americans began to recapture that “can do” attitude and start up little business with big potential because they had this tenacity and stubbornness to offer the absolute best that they could with no shortcuts and no substitutions.
When craft comes to coffee, like many things, it is fueled by striving to do things better. By purchasing higher quality coffee that comes from small farms in Kenya and Panama and Ecuador with fewer middlemen, we can help farmers and villagers to create more stable economies. With this superior product, roasters and cafes can now strive to do their job as best as possible to offer the most that these precious beans have to offer, and they can show consumers how thinking a bit differently about some things can pay off not only to small farmers and business owners, but also to your body and mind. You learn different tastes, you learn the barista’s name, maybe take a picture of your latte before the milk and crema leaves fade away, and now your local culture seems a bit more valuable to you as well.
Craft means caring and it means quality. Go looking for it and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. You can find it in your coffee cup, you pint glass, and definitely on your plate. It’s a lovely Saturday for a walk, go discover the craft hidden in your town today.
One of the countless things I love about my job is that I often get to witness or otherwise the cause of an individual’s “a-ha” moment. You know, that moment when you discover something that had been hidden from you for such a long time that when it finally reveals itself the whole world turns upside-down for a moment? Eyes go wide, maybe a gasp or sigh escapes your lips, and a wave of confusion and realization sweeps over your brain matter.
I’m lucky enough to see this a lot in coffee because it’s a product that is so widely understood on one level, which is mostly mediocre, that when really good coffee is introduced it can be alarming that such a definitive and comforting thing could turn out to be so drastically different from what you expected it to be.
“There’s no way this is just espresso and milk,” my buddy Tom said as he shook his head in the car. I had just shown him the wonders of a cortado from a local joint, Little Amps, near where we went to school.
“No way dude, it’s like, sweet. There’s so much flavor, I don’t believe you that there’s nothing else in there,” he continued in an increasingly caffeinated rant as he took sip after sip from his paper cup, jerking the wheel of his car onto the highway as we rumbled back to campus.
I had converted him.
Tom wasn’t the first “a-ha” moment I was a part of and he definitely wasn’t my last, but it was one of the most violent, in a sense. He promptly purchased a few hundred dollars’ worth of coffee equipment in the coming weeks, now and forever in search of the perfect cup.
My own ‘a-ha’ was found in a night class my freshman year at school. I was sipping on Kenyan coffee I had brewed on a moka pot as I lazily swiveled in my chair, vaguely listening to my professor ramble on about business management principles. I had been attempting for a few weeks to make good coffee in the fidgety stovetop brewer, and I finally splurged on a bag of “fancy” coffee beans I found online and tried it out before class.
It tasted like lemons.
That was crazy to me, and quickly became much more interesting to me than my textbook. As I sipped my lemon Kenyan and swayed back and forth in my chair, I forgot everything else around me and melted into my cup, sleepy and happy that I had finally figured out the crazy secrets coffee can hide.
Nowadays I get to show his same idea to customers as I offer them Ethiopian coffee that tastes like blueberry pie or cold brew that drinks like a Guinness, and every time when I see those eyes widen I get a stupid grin on my face as I think of my lemon coffee or Tom’s cortado. The idea that myself and all the others at Boxwood can help show how much fun and intrigue can come about chasing that black rabbit down the hole is exhilarating. We love showing all of you things you’ve never seen or tasted before, and we love it when you come back for more.
I often wonder how many of you I’ve ushered into the rabbit hole myself, and I often wonder what new and exciting things the journey will show to us in time.
We all have them. Sometimes it’s the bad (but oh so good) TV shows we watch about fake reality love, the movies we sneak off to see in theaters during weekday matinees so nobody will see you, trashy pop music you have buried in deep on your phone under a playlist titled “Workout Jams 2007” in the desperate hopes that none of your friends will pick that collection to blast through your car stereo on your road-trip to that fast food joint you know is terrible for your but it’s just so tasty that you and your buddies will gladly take a small punch to your pride (and your arteries) to live a little dangerously.
Guilty pleasures are fun, they keep you grounded.
Everyone who operates in some field of taste or has any interest in one, be it food, beverage, television, music, writing or what have you, should be able to take a step back and not take themselves too seriously every now and then. Not being able to do so can very quickly lead one to become a true snob – and by that I do not mean just being intelligent about a topic. A real snob is, well, snobby. They sneer at those they believe to be beneath them, chortle at your attempts to create conversation about the thing they know soooo much more about than you do. They try to impress, to flash, and to use really arcane words to describe very simple concepts about things that most people have actually figured out.
Enter stage left: Coffee
I used to be a snob. Actually, I probably still am a lot of the time, but it’s something I am working on. When I first started getting into specialty coffee I was a college freshman, very susceptible to judgment and surrounded by new people I was eager to impress. Nobody else had ever seen a moka pot or had ever heard of a pour over or cold brew. All the new ideas and techniques I had just read about 10 minutes ago off the r/coffee subreddit online I proudly demonstrated to my impressionable floormates the magical wonders of good coffee and the ritual in technique of pouring hot water of fresh coffee grinds and all the different flavors that could be evoked from this humble bean
(pro tip: just say “marzipan” if you taste something vaguely almond-y, nobody really knows what it is and you’ll sound smart).
I became the Coffee Guy, and it went to my head. It wasn’t until a close friend straight up walked out of my room because I described a citrus scent as “you’re downwind of an orange grove a few miles away”. I really wish I was joking. That was when I realized I wasn’t just the Coffee Guy, I was that Coffee Guy. The Snob Coffee Guy. You know something? Nobody likes the Snob ____ Guy, whatever fills up that blank, and so I began to rethink my reputation and my approach to the beverage, both my own self and for others.
Since this time I have had a lot of time to actually understand much of what there is to know about coffee, both good and bad, and not just kid my way through talking with a lot of cool bingo words. I hope that I can think of myself as more humble in that regards, and I’ve also learned to embrace some naughty habits and guilty pleasures that I don’t intend to get rid of anytime soon.
Diner coffee. I work with incredible specialty coffee every day, but that rusty black bitter stuff that’s been sitting on a warmer for 3 hours? I want that. It reminds me of grabbing a burger with my dad after a long day of fishing in the sun when I was 13 or 14. I love it, it’s comforting to me, there’s some sort of old-school-cool about sitting at a diner bar with a cup of bad coffee and a slice of pie or a greasy burger.
Espresso and half-&-half. On the days when I’m called to leave the comforts of my bed at 4:30am to open up shop for all you glorious early-risers (God bless you for getting up that early every day) I go through the motions of dialing in our espresso to make sure it’s delicious and ready to serve. That final shot I pull before opening the doors goes into a demitasse and is promptly met with a tablespoon of cold half-&-half. Dopey-eyed and barely awake, I’ll happily sip the not warm but not cold disgrace to espresso as my breakfast, and I love it.
Like I said, guilty pleasures can be grounding. They take away from the seriousness of things, they let you be a little innocent in some way, they give off a sense of vulnerability. Embrace your guilty pleasures, even if you feel you might be judged by the snooty purist sitting next to you. You know what? You’re probably happier than a snob, because you know what you want and you’ve taken it.
You do you, and don’t ever change, cool people.
Last week I talked about the evolution of coffee culture and where it has gotten us today. As we experience the third wave of coffee, those working in the industry and those who are purely enthusiastic about coffee have almost no real limitations when it comes to the question "what else?"
What else can we do differently, what else can we improve, change, or revolutionize? Is it how we source and process the bean? How we roast it, brew it, present it? What happens when we introduce different ingredients of flavous to beverages?
In any one of a million ways, we can begin to compare third wave specialty coffee to fine wine, craft beer or modern cuisine. Here we are starting with a pure ingredient as simple as it is complex, and we strive to achieve the greatest things possible with it. Whether that is the beautiful simplicity of showing off all that a single origin bean has to offer, or twisting parameters and making cold brew pour like a foamy beer.
As long as it is done well.
First and foremost, the third wave is about excellence in coffee, about doing it right and not taking any shortcuts to take less time or squeeze more out of margins. We do it for the love of coffee.
This new culture, like many that are being invaded by Gen Xers and Millenials, is getting back to preferring quality over quantity. Our goal is to make the greatest possible product with as little as possible, with a fierce tenacity and stubbornness.
At Boxwood this is no exception, and we invite any and all to come and taste what we have to offer and encourage every one of our customers to start thinking about coffee differently. We encourage education and love to welcome newcomers into our shop, our goal is to send you out with happy taste buds and an intrigued mind.
Coffee culture is about the people as much as it is about the beverage, and I’ve been lucky to realize how many cool and amazing people I’ve met through the business. Whether it’s those I work with, the people I serve from behind a counter to the people that supply us with an incredible green product - people with incredible dreams, fantastic stories and minds that feed a modern day beverage renaissance. We’re all in it together, and we all love it.
Stay cool third wavers!