Why Coffee Is Getting Better

A new book explains how the average cup of joe went from good to bad to good again.

Cover of 'God in a Cup' by Michaele Weissman.

In God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, journalist Michaele Weissman goes behind the scenes of the specialty coffee industry—a booming business that brings high-quality beans grown near the equator to popular coffee shops around the world. Weissman also explains why so much of the coffee we drink is, well, bad. (So bad, in fact, that many of us might not even realize what we're missing.) Weissman spoke with U.S. News about why consumers settle for low-quality beans, how the growing popularity of high-end coffee is affecting growers around the world, and when coffee snobbery crosses the line. Excerpts:

Is it elitist to focus on the specialty coffee business? Does good coffee really matter?

When a human story comes together with a culinary story comes together with a business story, to me that's extremely compelling. I fell in love with these people, and I wanted to know more about them because they are not typical business guys. The story that I tell is really about a model of the global marketplace and the connection between consumers and producers. Coffee farmers who sell specialty coffee are doing better in a number of places in the world. They are learning what the consuming world considers quality to be. This specialty revolution has provided cupping training [for growers] and partnership with USAID and other nonprofits.

Can you give us a brief history of the coffee business?

From around the 1700s to the beginning of the 20th century, the farmer grew it the way he grew corn. Coffee was traditionally grown in the poor countries that span the globe around the equator, and then it was sold through middlemen to get to local roasteries. Most little towns had either local roasteries or grocery stores that roasted coffee. It was all pretty good. Then, around the 1950s, we had the whole phenomenon of the industrialization of the food chain. We had increasingly national coffee brands, which weren't fresh because they were produced farther and farther away from the point of consumption. Coffee quality slid precipitously.

Then, in the 1960s, a lot of Europeans came here and started to roast coffee, and it started to swing back to quality. Starbucks launched in the late 1970s, early 1980s, and grew out of a swing towards quality. Then Starbucks became such a megalith that it started driving public awareness about coffee.

What do you think will be the future of the business? Will specialty coffee ever become mainstream?

I think it can be mainstream the way an interest in wine is mainstream. I think you can move the whole continuum upward so that even the most ordinary coffee is a little better and what's considered better is much better. Can coffee snobbery go too far? You probably heard about the recent kerfuffle at Murky Coffee in Arlington, Va., after a customer tried to order an espresso over ice.

I think it has to do with age and gender. The most passionate coffee people are young, geeky guys, and young, geeky guys sometimes don't have the world's best social skills. What amazes me is the animus right underneath the surface. I think it has to do with hipster culture and a reaction against perceived economic elitism. The hipsters want to keep coffee separate and their own thing, they want to define it, and when they perceive that it's turning into something "shi shi froufrou", there's a certain kind of public rage. What are your own coffee drinking habits?

I order coffee from the companies that I wrote about in my book. I see coffee as seasonal. I don't expect to drink Ethiopian all year round. I watch their websites and order what's just come in. And I make coffee at home in a one-cup ceramic filter drip system, so I do it one cup at a time. I have a large coffee in the morning and a smaller one in the afternoon. So no lattes for you?

I have a passion for a really good cappuccino. The way when I was younger, I craved ice cream, I will crave cappuccino now. I can sit and think about the foam. If it were next door, I'd have one every day.

food and drink

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