A few days back I read an account of a brief interview (I remember now, it was in The New Yorker) with Peter Giuliano from coffee’s (a la team U.S.A.) annual super prom, held this year in Boston. I forgot the main thread of the interview, but one question and answer section got my brain machinating.
For anyone reading this and saying to yourself “who is Peter Giuliano?”, he was, until fairly recently, the director of coffee at Counter Culture. Who is Counter Culture you ask? Legitimate question if you’re beyond a 300 mile radius of one of their half dozen or so training centers -and gentle St. Louis reader -you are. In brief, Counter Culture, along with Intelligentsia, and Stumptown is one of the big three of third wave coffee roasters -post second wave Starbucks and Peet’s. A somewhat dramatized story of the major players of these third wave shops can be found in the book God in a Cup. All this is a long way of saying Mr. Giuliano was and is, somewhat of a big deal in coffee.
So what did he say? He was asked to reflect on a regular coffee happening, the annual release/auction, and coffee’s equivalent of the running of the bulls, of Panama’s Hacienda la Esmeralda’s Esmeralda Special, which in 2010 sold for $170 a pound green. Peter asked himself whether specialty coffee was rewarding this coffee because it’s excellent or because its wierd? In the end he concluded that it’s justly celebrated. (How Zen.)
The question of whether it’s ‘weird’ implies or assumes coffee has or has had, pre-Esmeralda Special, a fixed set of flavor and aromatic characteristics, and as such those fixed ‘notes’ can only be valued at a certain amount, say under $170 a pound green. This line of thinking caused me to recall something an economics professor said about growth. He said that in order, in part, to have economic growth you have to have the creation of new property rights -tangible or intangible. For example, the westward expansion, and thus the growth of the America that exists today, was made possible in part due to real property government land patent grants; as was the dot com/internet boom facilitated in part due to government granted intangible intellectual property patent rights. So by analogy, specialty coffee grows and in a sense becomes fourth wave or whatever the subsequent waves become (i.e., Folger’s supplanted by Starbucks supplanted by -well maybe no one, but say Intelligentsia supplanted by etc and etc -or do they all co-exist with the pie only getting bigger?) is also facilitated by the creation, discovery and perspective shifting of what coffee is, of what it can cost, of how it can be roasted, of how it can be brewed -of essentially the ‘weird’.