New Highbrow Brew | Philadelphia Inquirer

New Highbrow Brew | Philadelphia Inquirer

by Jason Haeger

I know that I owe you the second part of the series on Espresso, but this was too good not to share.  Originally found via Nick Cho on Facebook, I wish daily for a serious food critic to take an honest look at the coffee retail culture in a major market in Texas.  There is not a single one where the scene is dominantly “good”, let alone “great” or “fantastic”, in my view, and it’s high time that someone take a consumer’s approach to the matter.

A few memorable snippets:

After 99 cups (and counting) over the last few weeks, I know. I’ve scrutinized each shot, foamy cappuccino, and handmade brew along the way of a cafe quest that led me through 33 stops from South Philly to Northern Liberties and Bala Cynwyd.

I’ve got the fast-typing jitters to prove it.


But so much of what we tasted elsewhere was mediocre. Some would give a cup of campfire mud a bad name.

There were bandwagon pretenders, like Nana Petrillo’s, which jumped on the pour-over trend with jerry-rigged equipment and diner-grade beans. There was a surly French counterman at Cafe L’Aube whose extreme disinterest produced a wimpy, cocoa-dusted excuse for cappuccino. There were great beans from PT’s in Kansas at Jersey Java in Haddonfield, but its retail shelf had bags from before Halloween going stale in March (ideal is one to two weeks after roast).

Even Starbucks has tried to step up to the realm of hand-brewing with high-tech Clover immersion machines installed in two local stores – only to fall short with lackluster beans.

It’s honestly one of the best articles I’ve seen written by a food critic on specialty coffee.  What is severely lacking is the factor of accountability to consumers.  It is mostly our own fault to boot!  A lot of customers are intimidated by the sheer amount of overwhelming information we provide on our coffees to the point of making them feel ignorant.

An ignorant customer will not know what to say if they get a cup of coffee that doesn’t seem to live up to the hype for them.  Maybe it was over-extracted.  Maybe it was stale.  Maybe it was under-extracted.  Most people don’t have the experience to be able to discern just what exactly is wrong with their mediocre cup of coffee, and so they don’t complain, lest it be found out that they really don’t know that much about their coffee.

Coffee Industry friend Chris Deferio has made other comments on similar lines:

“I look forward to the day when we can be honest amongst each other in regards to the quality of our cafes. It seems that coffee shops have more accolades based on reputation, star power, or design than on solid critical analysis and experience of that shops product quality, service and atmosphere.” - Chris Deferio (via March13, 2011)


“Customers should first taste the difference in a great coffee and then we can talk about it…otherwise we are just coming off as snake oil sales men..convincing people against their will…or guilting them into paying more for a product they don’t value the taste of.  In our education we must first walk…then talk. First deliver a taste difference then you have a platform to explain it.” – Chris Deferio (via March 15, 2011)

Do coffee entrepreneurs not realize that we are but stewards of the work that touched our coffee before it arrives in our hands?  Is our responsibility not to both ends of the chain more than to ourselves?

 Blog, Brewing, Business, Coffee Retail, Ethics

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 1 Comment

One Response to New Highbrow Brew | Philadelphia Inquirer

  1. Chrisdeferio

    Nice post, Jason. Thanks for the shout out.
    I think we can safely say that the underlying attitude in many cafes is “Good enough for who it’s for”
    In other words…the average undiscerning customer does not deserve our very best because we would just be wasting it on an individual incapable of the kind of appreciation that we want them to have. Don’t believe me? Just watch the Barista on bar change their tune when a “barista champion” walks into the line. The degree to which that barista has to adjust their bar manner is the degree to which they were previously compromising prior to that Barista Champions entry.
    When was the last time a competition barista came in off hours to practice hours on end, of their own volition, solely to create better drinks for their daily customers?
    I wager that the quality culture we experience at competitions is almost never experienced by those competitors customers. A. Because the competitor is an anomaly in their shop. B. Because there is a passive aggressive resentment towards customers thus justifying the delivery of a horribly sub standard drink.
    We get together and we think,”wow…coffee quality is just exploding” but then we are looking ata false representation. Of course it looks good all these driven individuals in one place…but the thing that prevents that drive from being as contagious as it could be is that it is an “individual” achievement. We do not have a forum to judge shops.
    We should.
    So lets hope that we can shore up these disparities and start to see the cafe be celebrated equally or more so than the barista. Then maybe we can start to see, and taste the change that we claim is happening all over.

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