When I lived in San Francisco, the Bay Area’s best microroaster was a block away from my house. I was an avid fan, but SF has been so far behind Seattle when it comes to coffee geekery that when I moved here two years ago, I’d just learned the term “Third Wave” and had never heard of Cup of Excellence or Clover machines. I had a lot of catching up to do.
I just found the Clif's Notes. Michaele Weissman, a DC-based freelance writer, converted to the mystery and magic in Third Wave coffees a few years ago, and has parlayed articles on coffee for the Washington Post and the New York Times into the just-published God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee. It’s a grand point of entry into both the promise and the overheated attitudes of today’s coffee culture.
Weissman follows legendary coffee scouts like Intelligentsia’s Geoff Watts and Counter Culture Coffee’s Peter Giuliano to Ethiopia, Burundi, Nicaragua, and Panama. She attends Cup of Excellence judgings. She chronicles the brouhaha around Hacienda La Esmerelda, which has sold for $130 a pound -- unroasted. She spends time in Los Angeles and Portland with Intelligentsia and Stumptown baristas to get a sense of coffee hipsterdom and profiles competitive baristas.Yes, Seattle gets snubbed in favor of Portland, though she does profile former Victrola barista Glanville Kyle (now in LA) and talks about Vivace owner David Schomer’s espresso mastery. And the book unfortunately made it to the printers before Starbucks bought out Clover, screwed over Stumptown, and ignited a huge controversy in coffee geekdom.
The author enrobes a lot of technical information in a chatty, travelogue tone that makes the book read smoothly -- it wasn’t hard to finish the book in a couple long sessions on the couch -- but the alt-weekly journo in me also felt like she missed the chance to flush out her central portraits of what appear to be some deeply conflicted, fascinating people because she was too content to befriend them (though despite her best efforts, Stumptown’s Duane Sorenson emerges looking like a bit of a prick).
I also would have appreciated more detail on how the Third Wave differs from the Second. While differences in the way Stumptown and Starbucks roast, brew, and market their coffees are obvious, Weissman doesn’t give readers a good sense of how Third Wave coffee buying and importing practices might improve upon the improvements that the Second Wavers introduced to the field decades ago -- other than driving up the prices of the beans that win coffee competitions.
What does come through most clearly from God in a Cup is how fragile a product high-quality coffee is. So much can spoil a crop -- politically, agriculturally, technologically, economically -- and ruin a farmer. Most of the best beans, just like the worst ones, are grown by subsistence farmers and make their way to consumers through labyrinthine supply channels that recall the Spice Route. I finished the book not determined to sniff out blueberry and tobacco leaves (aromas, Weissman admits, that may only appear to experts conducting formal cuppings of perfectly roasted, ground, and brewed beans) but to support the businesses that put shoes on children's feet and schoolrooms in communities.
Side note to Wiley Publishers: Whoever your proofreader is, he or she should consider a new career.