When the Starbucks steamroller passed over the land, coffee was enjoying a renaissance sparked by Alfred Peet, who opened his first coffee roaster and shop in the Berkeley hills in 1966 and showed Americans a world of flavors beyond the bland blends they were used to. Peet’s Coffee & Tea gave rise to the Gourmet Ghetto, whose most famous occupant was and is Chez Panisse. Peet died in August at 87, his legacy already assured by those who trained with him—including the three founders of Starbucks, one of whom, Jerry Baldwin, eventually bought Peet’s. And now a new generation is picking up where they left off.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Video: "A Magical Cup"
Corby Kummer tours the cutting edge of the coffee world, where baristas use mesmerizing high-end brewing techniques and light roasts are making a comeback.
"Do It Yourself"
A highly recommended home brewing machine and how to get it.
Peet had a passion for dark roasts—beans heated over a flame, turned constantly, for longer than was traditional in the United States or the northern Europe of his upbringing. He taught his students to roast beans with a subtlety and patient care that few can master. It’s all too easy to char beans in the name of sophistication. The fixation with espresso and milk drinks came only with the Starbucks rollout.
The revolution Peet began was in full flower in the early 1990s, when I researched and wrote The Joy of Coffee (published in 1995 and revised in 2003), with mom-and-pop coffee shops springing up in most cities and many small towns. They largely disappeared once Starbucks started expanding in earnest. Now young roasters and baristas are filling Web sites with notes on their latest visits to small, fair-trade coffee farms and on the sleekest new equipment.
Less noted, but no less important, is a revived appreciation for lighter roasts. This is the gospel of George Howell, whose Coffee Connection became to the Northeast in the 1970s and ’80s what Peet’s was to the Northwest, but with far lighter roasts and an emphasis on brewed coffee rather than espresso and on single-origin coffees rather than the blends of beans from around the world that Peet made his signature. Like so many others, Howell bowed to Starbucks, selling them his name and shops in 1994 and agreeing not to market his own brand of coffee for seven years. He spent his noncompete years working in Brazil and several other coffee-growing countries, pointing producers toward methods for achieving high quality that had long been eroding. To give them incentive, he helped create the “Cup of Excellence,” a contest held in seven Latin American countries each year followed by an online auction in which roasters around the world pay high premiums for the winning beans, which are usually in short supply.
Now Howell is back, buying and roasting his own beans near Concord, the proud Colonial-era town near Boston, and baristas across the country are branching out from espresso to the kind of single-origin, lighter-roast coffees he has long championed. Howell has spent three decades honing his taste for clean, pure flavors in the cup and the fruity, singing “acidity” that in coffee terminology is a prized sign of beans raised at high altitudes and carefully picked and processed. His quest is ever for the “blackberry” intensity of beans from his favorite coffee-growing country, Kenya, and his analogy is ever to the subtle distinctions in wine. (Because he can’t use the Coffee Connection name, many of the fans waiting for a Howell return don’t know they can get his beans again—and the name he chose, Terroir Coffee, to evoke the specificity of wine, is hard to say. The name to bookmark is terroircoffee.com.)
A recent wave of excited blog entries about a professional brewing machine designed to showcase just these kinds of flavors had a jazzed charge usually reserved for the latest espresso maker. I knew I had to find one. It didn’t look easy.
The Clover hit the coffee world with the force of a sexy stranger new in town. The stir was understandable. No coffee machine looks quite like it. The action is not in the front but on top, where customers can see it. And it is hypnotic. The barista grinds coffee for each cup and strews the measured grounds into a well with shiny silver walls and a fine-mesh screen at the bottom. A fixed faucet pours hot water over the grounds, and the server stirs the mixture using a flat plastic whisk (baristas swap secret Clover stirring techniques on Web sites). The coffee steeps, gurgling slightly, for 40 to 70 seconds. Without warning, the screen rises to the top of the machine. The brewed liquid is magically sucked beneath, leaving just the grounds at the top, which the barista rakes off with a silver-handled squeegee.
Sightings of the Clover—introduced two years ago by a Stanford-trained, Seattle-based product designer, Zander Nosler, and promoted by Anastasia Chovan (the coffee world abounds with great names)—have been rare. On the East Coast, the Brooklyn-based Café Grumpy (see what I mean about names?) has installed two at its Manhattan location, in Chelsea. Other shops on the coffee vanguard, like Intelligentsia, in Chicago, and Stumptown, in Portland, Oregon, a city that is to coffee today what Seattle was in the first flush of the Starbucks craze, feature them. But outside these coffee hubs the Clover, at an average of $11,000 apiece, is a snow leopard. I clicked on a map at cloverequipment.com and found one machine in service in the Northeast: at a coffee shop less than a mile from where I live.