People can get very snobbish about coffees. Like I get about scotch whiskey. Or book reading. I suppose son, Everybody has something that they care about. So we have an interesting phenomena. For me, people going nuts about coffee or wine are just strange. But then I'm sure people think I'm nuts about books.
Still, you need to read this. Know what people are being snobbish about. At some point this information may come in use, when you are trying to impress a girl, or tell some snobs that they are talking out of their backsides.
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in Venice, California, Dan Kougan spreads out three shot glasses in front of a curious audience. The champagne-colored liquid bubbling on the left is a homemade hops soda. The creamy, tan shot in the middle is a barley-chocolate malt topped with a tuft of steamed milk. And the chestnut-hued beverage on the right, the raison d’être of this whole ordeal, gives off the unmistakable scent of fresh espresso, extracted from the highest-quality coffee beans the developing world has to offer.
“Thanks, Dan, I’m really excited!” says Elaine Levia. She smiles as she eyes the Flight of Three—the name given to the triptych of shot glasses on the glass-top bar before her. “Do you have drinking instructions?” she asks.
Of course he does. For a month, Kougan has been planning the details of each beverage for his hops-themed menu. It’s his week to curate the Slow Bar, the backspace of the coffee shop Intelligentsia, where baristas take turns designing and executing a custom menu. The venue is part laboratory, part classroom, and part theater. Coffee groupies sit on bleacherlike benches in a precaffeinated state of awe, waiting for a barstool to open up.
Sip from lightest to darkest, instructs Kougan. “The hops will kind of ramp up in bitterness and effervescence. And then the chocolate malt will curb that flavor, and the espresso will take it back up.”
Levia complies. The coffee alchemy works its magic. “Absolutely phenomenal,” she says. As a fellow barista at the shop, she’s no stranger to the Slow Bar’s signature blend of high-quality espresso—from a refurbished 1972 La Marotta machine— and baroque flourishes. During her week as curator, Levia opted for a “vintage coffee experience,” pairing each brew with a different bite-sized pastry. “It turned into a focus on the drinkware, actually,” she admits. “I served Turkish coffee in Moka pots and tried to make it really, like, ’50s housewife style.” She laughs. “With Fiesta ware.” Another barista highlighted alternative milks—from macadamias, cashews, and Brazil nuts.
The idea of the Slow Bar is to “give the customer an experience that expands their idea of what coffee is,” says Charles Babinski, who trains the staff in different brewing techniques and hosts educational events for customers. It’s a place where customers can sit down and ask questions about coffee, but it’s “not meant to be beating people over the heads with education as much as just creating different coffee experiences.”
“Customer education” and “coffee experiences” are terms you hear a lot when talking to the roasters and baristas who make up the ultra-high-end coffee movement, a trend that’s been percolating for the past decade. If you visit a shop like Intelligentsia—or Blue Bottle in San Francisco or Stumptown in Portland or Third Rail Coffee in New York City—you’ll encounter a staff eager to discuss the distinct regional characteristics (or terroir) and flavor profile of each coffee on the menu, sourced from a handful of elite farms known as “microlots” in places like El Salvador, Kenya, and Indonesia. You’ll be encouraged to try a cup of lightly roasted, brewed coffee, which had become all but passé with the Starbucks-backed ascendancy of dark roasts, espressos, and lattes in the late 1990s. You’ll look on as a brewer takes several minutes to unleash a stream of boiling water from a silver kettle into a cone full of coffee grounds—the meticulous process behind every mug of individually brewed “pour over” coffee—to unlock the beverage’s most subtle flavors.
But perhaps the most memorable part of the experience comes at the register: a cool $5 for an unadorned cup of brewed coffee. And that’s if the bean is more common. This fall, a cup of Intelligentsia’s Kenya Tegu was selling for $6.50. “Ethereal and luminous,” a description on the company’s website reads. “Lychee, persimmon and botanical notes bring a weightlessness to the muscular and expansive Tegu. Marmalade and sweet herbs float in the background while the finish hangs onto a hint of spice.”