Anthony Bourdain’s Shade Thrown Coffee

I try to avoid getting sucked into writing hot takes, but this is the thing coffee people are handwringing about today, and it’s in my wheelhouse.

Tony Bourdain, celebrity chef, best-selling author, hero and inspiration to many current and aspiring culinary professionals, said a dismissive thing about coffee in an interview:

“There are few things I care about less than coffee. I have two big cups every morning: light and sweet, preferably in cardboard cup. Any bodega will do. I don’t want to wait for my coffee. I don’t want some man-bun, Mumford and Son motherfucker to get it for me. I like good coffee but I don’t want to wait for it, and I don’t want it with the cast of Friends. It’s a beverage; it’s not a lifestyle.”

I mostly agree with him. The contemporary consumer ritual of fancy coffee isn’t for everyone. It can be expensive, time consuming, and all too frequently disappointing. It demands you buy into its flimsy conceits about baristas as highly skilled craftspeople and coffee as an almost impenetrably special flavor experience. The implicit message is if you don’t like this fancy coffee, if you don’t think it tastes good, you can probably chalk it up to your lack of sophistication.

I’ve been an active participant and long time eager conspirator in what has become the contemporary coffeebar paradigm. I could write a book about how and why we got here*. This recent vanguard of roasters and shops has made it immeasurably easier to get a decent cup in many cities around the globe. It has been a force for good in both a culinary sense and for the coffee farmers that have found a thriving market beyond the commodity system for higher quality beans. But again, as it stands presented today, it’s not for everyone.

Where I differ with the overwhelming majority of my colleagues is that I don’t believe the coffee Anthony Bourdain drinks at the corner store needs to suck. Many, perhaps most, of the people I know (and love) inside the coffee trade subscribe to an insidious and terrible fallacy: that most daily coffee drinkers lack the good taste to appreciate good coffee. That the great masses of consumers getting ripped off to the tune of billions of dollars on overpriced nespresso capsules, or the folks lined up daily for dirty, defect-laden, stale brews at the corner bodega just aren’t our people. Good coffee belongs among the enlightened sophisticates. The pervasiveness of this central bullshit fallacy is probably the biggest single reason why craft coffee continues to lag so far behind craft beer in mass market acceptance.

High-end coffee has its head high up its own ass. Instead of making inroads to the masses of potential paying customers currently lining the coffers of Keurig and Nestle, too many coffee professionals pine for validation from celebrity chefs or anointment from famous food writers. We play dress up. We hold ridiculous barista competitions. We try to outdo each other with lofty purple prose. We elevate coffee to absurd heights where the oxygen quickly gets thin. We position our product as a rarified high-end luxury even while we struggle to charge prices that come anywhere close to the price of a typical pint of craft ale. We sneer at people who like to add cream and sugar. We frequently serve people a C+ and try and tell them it’s an A. We keep on fronting and we’re playing ourselves.

Craft beer is an acceptable blue collar beverage but blue collar coffee drinkers remain relegated to drinking crap.

There are four things that bug me about the current fancy coffeebar template:

Fancy is a terrible signifier.

Much good coffee is also fancy coffee — but most fancy coffee remains not so good. Sadly, it isn’t hard for a shop to dress the part and install the toys while failing to truly deliver in the cup. Batting averages at even the best shops remain disappointing, and many a would-be coffee connoisseur is left feeling like perhaps they just don’t like coffee enough to care. Certainly it appears hard to like coffee as much as many of our industry’s front line ambassadors loudly declare themselves to.

The implicit message of most coffeebars is that good coffee is primarily about barista craft and pricey state-of-the-art gear.

This is why we see an endless parade of new gizmos promising to solve the supposedly hard problem of mixing water and ground coffee to create the perfect cup. But good beans, roasted well, and prepared with a modicum of care, is all that’s ever been needed. If you can make Kraft macaroni and cheese, you can probably handle making coffee. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something, dazzle you, or making excuses for an inferior product.

The business model

Today’s quality coffee world hasn’t concerned itself with tackling the problem of coffee for the masses. There are giant incumbents deeply entrenched there and our little insurgencies would be hopelessly outgunned. Your local microroaster probably isn’t going to take on Starbucks or Keurig or even the corner bodegas in any battle to go big. The brands that most coffee nerds think of as our big guys, your Stumptowns, Intelligentsias, Blue Bottles… these are all mom and pop businesses that metastasized into awkward-to-scale purveyors competing in regional markets. And they are tiny businesses in comparison to the market cap of your similarly renowned craft beer companies.

It is understandable why craft coffee remains a niche. Distribution is tough. Maintaining healthy margins and product quality at scale is tough (particularly when you’re de-motivated by the belief that consumers can’t discern or don’t care). Changing consumer purchasing behavior without massive marketing spend is hard. I do know of one company that had a pretty nice run attacking this problem with a direct-to-consumer model and some really good product, but most roasters still stick to well-tread paths when it comes to their expansion. (The new explosion of new third-wave branded canned and bottled coffee offerings notwithstanding).

Diversity

Globally, coffee traverses and sometimes even transcends the boundaries of culture and class. But here at home, the most visible and vocal regiments of the coffee vanguard cluster in niches and neighborhoods that are often less welcoming to working class, blue collar, or marginalized groups of people. The typical signifiers and trappings of high end coffeebars can come off as signposts that read “this is not for you, turn back now.”

Enter LocoL Coffee.

I’m not saying my current coffee project with Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson is bent on world domination or is coming to a corner store near you or anything like that. Nor am I suggesting that any of my colleagues in the coffee industry should attempt to replicate our food and beverage pricing model in their very different business contexts… that would be insane. But, unecumbered by the usual pretenses and baggage, we are sourcing really excellent beans from really skilled producers, roasting and blending them extremely well, and brewing them correctly. The results, so far, we’re pretty proud of.

What I am hoping to demonstrate is that a great cup of coffee can happen anywhere. Even in a restaurant. Even in a fast food restaurant. Even in a paper cup. Even (gasp!) served sweet and creamy.

What I am also hoping to demonstrate is that large swaths of consumers who aren’t “foodies”, who haven’t bought into the whole culinary burlesque of gourmet pretenses, who aren’t thirsty for the comforting signifiers of the contemporary/generic/tasteful/bland/hipster/kinfolk aesthetic, will nonetheless appreciate a really great cup of coffee. Good coffee is not an acquired taste.

Say it with me now: good coffee is not an acquired taste.

I’ve seen the quality coffee movement make big inroads and dramatic strides in the 15 odd years I’ve been riding along, and I expect more big changes in the next 15. Maybe an older Anthony Bourdain will find himself sipping happily on a much better bodega brew by then.

* yes, I’m working on a book.