I don’t need you to tell me how fucking good my coffee is, okay? I’m the one who buys it. I know how good it is. When Bonnie goes shopping she buys SHIT. I buy the gourmet expensive stuff because when I drink it I want to taste it. —Jimmie Dimmick, Pulp Fiction (1994)
No doubt Jimmie meant every word he told those two blood-soaked gangsters standing in his living room at daybreak, sipping their mugs of tasty java, but Jimmy’s idea of quality coffee wouldn’t satisfy even the least-dogmatic coffeehound these days. Did the beans come from a single farm, preferably in the sweatiest part of Honduras or Ethiopia? Did he use a burr grinder to whiz the beans into perfect particles no more than 60 seconds before brewing? Did he weigh the coffee and the water and make sure the proportions were just right? Did he brew individual cups for Jules and Vincent in an AeroPress? Or at least a Chemex? Well, then by today’s standards, Jimmie don’t know shit about the gourmet expensive stuff.
A bit of (grossly oversimplified) background on how this all got so serious. The coffee origin myth is a particularly romantic one. As it has been told, a 9th century Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his flock displayed a certain special vitality after rustling through a patch of red berries. Intrigued, he picked a few berries, gave them a chew, and soon found himself overwhelmed with energy. He took the magical berries to the local monastery, where the head monk, angered by the suggestion that this fruit was somehow special, tossed them into the fire. Soon, the room filled with a warm, toasted aroma. Intrigued, the monk scraped the roasted beans from the ashes, ground them up, infused them into hot water and… magic! Coffee.
For the first thousand or so years, a cup of coffee was, for the most part, a cup of coffee, ground whenever convenient, brewed however possible, consumed more for the energy it imbued than the subtle flavors it gave off. Sufi monks, some of the earliest coffee drinkers, used the magic brew to stay alert during long religious ceremonies.
By the 17th century, coffee had begun to make its way from northern Africa and the Middle East to the western world, first through trade to Venetian merchants, and later to the Americas, where a little brouhaha in the Boston harbor helped turned coffee into the drink of choice for the colonists. Despite some light resistance (opponents called this strange brew “the bitter invention of Satan”), coffee flourished in Europe and the New World as coffeehouses soon became centers of social interaction and political discourse. In the three hundred years since, it’s the West that has been responsible for most of its important innovations, the good (precision grinders), the bad (freeze-dried industrial grounds), and the debatable (Starbucks, pod coffee).
Among the earliest western innovations was espresso, a dense distillation of extracted coffee particles that would go on to change the way much of the world gets their caffeine fix. It wasn’t just the intensity of the beverage itself, but the café culture it spawned. Suddenly a brave new world of caffeinated options appeared on menus, and brewed coffee took a backseat to all the grinding, tamping, and steaming required by the mechanized extraction and its many milky iterations. In this new era, the man behind the bar wasn’t just a faceless peddler of muddy water, but a craftsman, one whose skill was both highly visible and immediately discernible. Thus began the age of the barista.
But espresso had its limits, the coffee nerds eventually discovered, not the least of which was the legion of soccer moms and dilettante dads ordering skinny mocha pumpkin soy lattes covered in cinnamon snow. By the time the 21st century arrived, the purity of the craft had been drowned out by seventeen-syllable drink orders. The response was as prosaic as it was potent: black coffee.
[Trigger warning: if you are angered by people who are deadly serious about their coffee, if hearing them talk unironically about how to make the best single cup of coffee on the planet would send you into a rage, stop reading now. Take a look instead at our less-geeked coffee stories—our mini-documentary on the delightful Department of Coffee in Cape Town, perhaps? However, if you care deeply about coffee, or even are curious about what combination of beans and roasting and water would make others care as deeply as they do, then please, by all means, keep reading.]