I recently watched the Netflix docu series Chef’s Table for the first time, and suddenly everything about craft coffee trends and tendencies made sense.
The main things that annoy me about smallscale artisan craft coffee and that have never really made any sense are explained not by the series per se, but by how the series is shot, edited, narrated, and produced.
To start, I’ve never quite understood how a predominately white male group of small business owners managed to transform an industry that was fairly straightforward (take green beans, apply heat using ratio of time and temperature that won’t burn them, have roasted coffee) and straddled the line between culinary and industrial and turned it into a craft production strata where those same white men—with all their beards, tats, bikes, and leather aprons—can congratulate each other on finding notes of bergamot and gently stroking the roast curve until it unlocks the optimal levels of acidity hiding in a coffee bean.
Chef’s Table is the answer. There is no Michelin star for coffee, but when one bursts into existence one day, the craft coffee people will be ready. What is happening right now in coffee is basically an ongoing episode of Chef’s Table, but with no film crew and where everyone else in the coffee industry is forced to be the audience. Coffee can’t let go of the need to tell people it’s really good, maybe at the expense of making really good products. The incessant hyperbole is part of what gets under my skin. Is every single coffee really the most complex, highest grown, ripest picked, most carefully selected, freshest coffee in the world? Building brands and customer bases is not just about using the most adverbs.
Craft coffee websites are replete with a handful of key words: artisan, meticulous, dedicated, passion, nuanced, purveyors, and, yes, bergamot. You will notice that all of these terms might belong in a Chef’s Table script. The point of the Chef’s Table series is that it chronicles chefs who have lived a life of adverbs and gone to the extremes to push cuisine to new places to conceptualize food and dining in new ways. Over-conceptualization of a foodstuff might not have been a line of pursuit that every single coffee company would want to emulate, if it didn’t look so damn sexy on camera.
Chef’s Table is not quite food porn, it doesn’t get all the way to fetishization, but it does glorify culinary accomplishments and the people who achieved them. The glorification comes in the form of pseudo-confessional monologues by the chefs, testimonials from their colleagues and people who know food, impeccably lit close ups of the finished “plates,” and romantic footage of all the places ingredients originate.
I am not suggesting that everyone involved in craft coffee has binge-watched every episode of Chef’s Table on loop. I’m saying that the Instagramable, aerially shot, drippingly saturated aesthetic ethos that is epitomized by the Table is the same phenomenon that is sweeping coffee. The desire to be gloriously captured and narrated inspires web and packaging copy that reads like a Table audition monologue and obsessive photo documentation of every single step of the process of dropping seeds into a roaster, turning it on, looking at and smelling the beans as they roast, and dropping them into a cooling tray. Coffee doesn’t not intend to wait for its Michellin star to bestow glory and it certainly hasn’t wait for its Table to document its every breath.
Glory and over-sharing are not problematic because they are annoying (although both certainly are); they are problematic because they get in the way of making the glor/share worthy thing. It’s impossible to be the Michelin star chef and the producer of the series. Either you are in the kitchen slaving over microfoam, breaking night with one thousand trials and errors until you make that sugar bubble, or you are the gorgeous-maker who rolls in to document guests munching on the sugar bubble in slow-mo after it has become a reason to fill the rezzie books for six months out. But, what looks like is happening in coffee now, is that what is keeping us up in the kitchen all night through the one thousandth trial is not nailing the latte microfoam or perfecting the bean; it’s having a site and a feed that look as good as the Table.
One of the best things about coffee is its tangibility. You can smell it a room away, a barrel of roasted beans or a jute bag of green makes you want to go all Amelie and stick your hand in just to feel the pebbliness, and it tastes like an optimistic morning. For insurance or tech or something that is idea-based, sure, go ahead and lead with the web design. But coffee? Coffee is a thing.
On the one hand craft coffee teaches us that young-ish America cannot resist the temptation of arranging our lives and businesses primarily to be well represented in some form of flat, plug-dependent rectangle. But, on the other hand, craft coffee also proves that, in spite of filter-frantic vanity, America’s forever young are also not afraid of challenge.
Compared to Michelin star cooking and Wine Spectator winemaking, coffee is comparatively simple. (See roasting recipe above.) Craft coffee has elected to challenge that simplicity by examining it under a microscope to see what it looks like when scrutinized and by taking it apart to see how it works, then reassembling it in a new way.
Sometimes, because there is just so much design-heavy websiting and social mediaing related to craft coffee, when I’m feeling cynical I’ll tell myself that the desire to push coffee to its craft limits is an indulgent pursuit that we’re only undertaking because we are using detail-obsession as a distraction from the world’s most troubling ills.
Out from under that cynicism is another option: maybe craft coffee demonstrates that, when left to their own devices, young America chooses to solve problems, tinker with puzzles, experiment, and make things that are tangible, interesting, new, and yes, pretty enough to be pictured.
The tsunami of craft-everything is decidedly bit heavy handed, but it tells us something very valuable about ourselves. We like to make things, we want to try, retry, guess, imitate, iterate, and put things together to deliver a finished product. It is a bit unfortunate that the “back to doing stuff” trend has been overshadowed by its byproduct, the “let me tell you why it is so important and so meaningful that I’ve chosen to go back to doing stuff to respect the land and the farmers and to bring you, the eater or drinker, the one-of-a-kind unique flavor-packed special thing” trend, but the first, underlying tendency is exciting.
Those of us raised in instant, pre-packaged America are saying no thank you to that legacy. We are rejecting supermarket everything and opting instead to do it the hard way, the slow way, the problem-riddled way; we are choosing to do it ourselves. Maybe in part because we want better end results and maybe in part because we want to look as glorious as a path charting chef making aroma pillows, but probably mostly because after 18-40 years of ready-made homogenized fakery we are over it.
We realized that people are good at solving problems. We realized we like to work with our hands and brains at the same time and to set goals and then marvel at the physical, final product of our work. Much of America’s national agenda for generations has been to inflate and insulate itself so that the challenges of the natural world and all its human, animal, mineral, and floral jungles are pushed back to make room for excessive comfort available at all times.
Somewhere, deep in the pre-American part of us, we remembered that difficulty is ok, doing things in small batches by hand is meditative and satisfying, and that all of this gives us new ways to interact with each other.
America and 2017 being what they are, the best platform for sharing these realizations is, perhaps ironically, impersonal digital networks with very constrained dimensions for content.
But, despair not. The same people with discerning palates sniffing out bergamot are also hauling kegs of nitro cold brew into the pre dawn dew on the way to a farmers market and rebuilding roaster motors with car parts and sticking a hundred thousand labels on coffee to pack in a hundred thousand shipping boxes biked to a freight bay in a homemade tow-wagon built from half-rotted fence slats. Coffee people could have taken 9-5’s at MetLife or Google, but instead they are sloughing it out in a new craft industry that is a delightful contradiction of repetitive labor and shameless vanity.
Craft coffee is largely ridiculous, but it is moving in the right direction.