Saturday, November 8, 2008

The United States is a country that demands efficiency, progress and profit margins. The free market/capitalism thing we have is a machine for innovation; a la airplanes, telephones, and microchips. We want technology to “improve” all aspects of our life and in the fifties, food in the United States got an overhaul. We got the ease, convenience, and (gulp) flavors that us Americans really wanted (hey focus groups don’t lie). Not only did we get a whole world of chemically derived artificial flavors, TV dinners and hydrogenated oils, but we also got flavor crystals in our ready to scoop coffee grounds. The days of roasting and grinding beans were a thing of the past. Why go through all that hassle when you can brew an unknown pulp matter enhanced with “flavor” and “caffeine” with such ease? The Europeans for whatever reasons never went for this approach. Perhaps a 30-hour workweek perpetuated the old antiquated methods of preparing their morning brew, or more likely they didn’t find artificial foods an acceptable substitute for the real thing.

Fast forward fifty years or so and you see that the same crazed American ingenuity that invented and promoted such unfoodlike foods, are now in the forefront of a culinary revolution. Starting in northern California in the early nineties and fanning out to cities from coast to coast, we are seeing a return to well crafted and genuinely artisanal foods. Maybe because food and beverage in Europe has always been decent, you do not see the drive and excitement of a burgeoning foodie culture like we have in the states. Those Americans who are driving this gastronomic push were raised on fast food and gummy rats. Maybe you can say we’ve hit rock bottom.

European beers have always been regarded as premium and American beers as flavorless, but now we are now seeing craft breweries pop up all over the states that are the most sought after beers in the world. The same thing can be said of coffee. All of the world’s coffees are grown on or near the equator and small independent American roasters have helped to radically change the way in which beans are sourced. Instead of going through co-ops and buying the best grade (like the Europeans have historically done), these small roasters are establishing relationships directly with farmers so they can monitor the quality of the coffee from the dirt to the cup.

Now some of the most sought after coffees are auctioned off at “Cup of Excellence” programs and through roasters like Portland’s Stumptown, Chicago’s Intelligentsia or Boston’s Terroir. Some of these uber-elite beans will sell for hundreds of dollars a pound on auction. That in and of itself is not doing much for the average joe coffee drinker in America, but these moneys are going almost directly to the farms of coffee producers allowing them the capitol to invest in their operations, and the direct feedback from demanding American coffee geeks. This system also inspires other farmers to compete in this private and directly traded market, which empowers the growers by avoiding co-ops all together. If a cup is only as good as the worst bean that goes into it, then commodity coffee will always be inferior to the micro-lots from persnickety producers. And these producers will be rewarded with the highest prices for their efforts.

World class coffee is certainly available in our country, but if you were to compare the coffee at a truck stop in Spartanburg county to a truck stop in Sardo, yea it’s gonna suck. However, the truck stop in Seattle is pretty damn impressive and I think the good stuff is creeping this way. Starbucks may have effectively put Sanka out of business, but if I’m reading this trend correctly, the best is yet to come.