Emerging from our acquired tastes
When travelling I first take a tiny taste of the black coffee offered to me and ninety-nine times out of a hundred decide to add milk and sometimes even sugar. Not even all that could “save” the coffee I had in Istanbul a few years ago, where Rio and Riado coffee from Brazil are the norm. Rio coffee has a harsh medicinal iodine-like flavor, while “riado” is milder; the term originates from the area near Rio de Janeiro, where coffee was once grown. Its low-altitude, high-humidity environment led to coffees developing a medicinal flavor due to an as yet unidentified microorganism. This taint persists in some of Brazil’s more humid environments. Back in 1995 a major Brazilian farmer lamented to me that the highest priced “specialty” coffee being exported at that time was “Rio,” all going to the Middle East. Such coffee is an acquired taste if there ever was one, and it may not be very healthy, since it has been associated with ochratoxin.
Coffee in the US has never reached such a low. We specialized more in high-tech spun mediocrity. After World War II dominant coffee companies lowered quality by minute increments, called “salami-slicing,” figuring few would notice. The master machine of illusion, the percolator, arose, spewing magical coffee aromas in the kitchen and serving up bitter over-extracted brew. And then there was instant coffee, first served to World War II vets. I attach an announcement from the thirties showing what Folgers sold, once upon a time. Remind you of another company making the news these days? Two decades later American coffee companies were selling bitter dishwater. Consumption per capita plunged from over 70% in the early 1950’s to just above 50% by the mid 1970s when Specialty was just starting to appear on the horizon (Peet’s 1967, Starbucks 1971, The Coffee Connection 1975). This brings me back to adding milk and sugar. How else drink that stuff?
The rise of specialty coffee in the 1980s and early ’90s did not stem the sea of milk. On the contrary, the emphasis on extreme dark roasts, with espresso coffee being even darker (a deep misunderstanding of Italian espresso!), seems to me to have lent a hand to the near disappearance of the classic elegant cappuccino in favor of the massive, bitterness-smothering latte. Many specialty cafes transformed into milk-churning enterprises. The Coffee Connection contributed its bit with the introduction of the Frappuccino in the early ’90s, appropriated by Starbucks with the purchase of the company in 1994.
Since the birth of Cup of Excellence (1999), a new generation of coffee entrepreneurs with a revitalizing spirit of idealism and enquiry is taking root, focusing on single-estate coffees, be they farms or cooperatives, served individually. It is time to try tasting the coffee straight again! I have often had the pleasure of suggesting a customer try the coffee black before proceeding to the additives and having him or her exclaim that for the first time the coffee was great just as it was!
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