(originally published in Culinaire vol. 2 #8 January 2014)
“Large coffee, please.”
“You mean a grand-AY, sir?” the cashier replied with a dedicated smile.
“Just a large coffee, regular. Thanks.”
“We don’t have large, sir. We have grande or venti.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“A grande is sixteen ounces, a venti is twenty.”
“Is that the same size as a large?”
“OK. I’ll get you a grande. Did you want a blonde, medium or bold roast?”
“I want a coffee. In a large cup. With one cream and one sugar.”
“Ok. A medium. Did you say to leave room for cream?”
“I didn’t want a medium. I wanted a large. Coffee, that is. With one cream and one sugar already in it,” my growing consternation as much a function of my caffeine withdrawal as it was the ludicrous nature of this simple coffee stop.
“We have a service area just behind you. You can select your own condiments. You’ll see that there is also honey, milk, and skim milk, brown and raw sugar. And by medium, I meant medium roast.”
“Not really service if you’re fixing it yourself,” I mumbled.
“Beg your pardon, sir?”
“Never mind. How much?”
“Two thirty-five, sir. Sorry, did you say that was to stay or to go?”
“Definitely to go.”
I had $2.00 in my pocket. Figured it would’ve been enough for a large coffee.
“Do you take debit?”
“We certainly do!”
And so began the re-education of Canadian coffee consumers.
Coffee as drink
Twenty-five years ago, I could walk into a Tim Hortons, order a medium-regular, put down my eighty-five cents and be perfectly satisfied. In 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, Tim Hortons got on base in the early innings, creating consistent expectations to remove the risk of disappointment from a local diner, doughnut shop or hotel. Starbucks then advanced the runners, opening five locations in Toronto in 1996, and in so doing was the first to buck the linguistic, flavour, experiential and price expectations. They introduced a different “user experience”: the grand slam of calm, comfortable spaces, a selection of styles that offered richer brews, the mysterious and high-culture sounds of the foreign words that all led to a premium price.
And the language did not apply to cup sizes only. Words like latte, macchiato, or cappuccino, as well as customer options for dairy sources and fat levels (soy, skim, homo/whipped cream), personalization of temperature (extra hot), and flavoured sweeteners (hazelnut, vanilla, etc.), all created consumers who fell in step with the cadence of their special-order sounds. Saying “Grande, non-fat, caramel machiatto” or “tall, soy, extra hot, chai latte” made us feel good. Feel a part of something. We shared a secret.
It came into our homes
And the demand for that consistent, higher quality, more intense experience did not stay in the coffee shops. Home brewing equipment and techniques infiltrated our living spaces and altered our rituals. Water boiling presented options (electric or stove top?), as well as ideal wait times before moistening the grains. The grinder made its appearance on kitchen counters. Is that a cool burr style, hand ground, or helicopter blade? Cones, presses and eventually home espresso machines replaced percolators and coffee makers. That massive tin of frozen Folgers grounds was usurped by single pounds of fresh whole bean with fold-over flaps to remove unwanted oxygen.
More fascinating is how inexplicably quickly consumers not only adapted to, but celebrated the changes. While we staunchly resisted similar waves in wine culture, such as screw caps or partially filled glasses, the bean-town Branch Rickeys prepared their fleet of coffee-slinging Jackie Robinsons to withstand the vitriolic, inflexible, caffeine-induced impatience of gauche jerks like that guy at the top of the page.
Coffee as experience
And it has not stopped there. Since Starbucks, the move has continued towards super-premium neighbourhood coffee houses and local roasters, such as Phil &Sebastian, Gravity, Café Rosso, Fratello Analog or Java Jamboree. Each venue stands alone in style, with specially sourced beans that are roasted to customized specifications. Cappuccinos (note that I dropped the italics as these words are now part of our lingo) are one size and one flavour, while the art of milk-sharing and steaming creates the ideal microfoam.
‘Dialing in’ the shot due to temperature fluctuations and newly opened bags is a constant task, and ‘cuppings’ have become a common assessment technique. A great barrista has taken on cult-hero status for his or her skill in and knowledge of all preparation methods, bean sources and treatments, the effects of location, growing techniques, history and specific farmers.
In a way, this most recent step has revoked the customization that Starbucks created and replaced it with a new standard of knowledge: “We’re the experts. Take it from us. What you think is a cappuccino is not a cappuccino. Here. Have one of our cappuccinos and you will never want to customize yours again”. This vanguard even scoffs at terms such as ‘bold’ or ‘blonde’, for these are not options inherent to the coffee, but proprietary references that are a function of how the beans are processed. And don’t even get them started on ‘macchiato’.
The customers’ ownership comes no longer from the rhythmic utterance of their catechismic order, but from the sense that they share the next secret with the new experts. Ironic, as much of this coffee culture revolution has deep roots in European tradition.
These changes do not presuppose an entire population, and indeed likely account for a moderate percentage of total consumers. Folgers still finds shelf space at your grocery store, Tim Hortons continues to open locations, the classic coffee maker still occupies more counter space at home than Aero presses, kettles or ceramic cones. However on Monday, October 28th, 2013, cbc.news.ca reported that:
Tim Hortons announced Monday it will roll out a new dark roast coffee in two test markets, the first change to its standard coffee offering in the company’s 49-year history. It’s the Canadian chain’s latest attempt to fend off growing competition from other coffee retailers. The company faces stiff competition in the market it used to dominate, with rivals like Starbucks and McDonald’s luring customers away with darker, stronger brews.
Yes. Even McDonalds has adopted the concept of espresso in their coffee.
Coffee as craft
And the next secret? With a change in export quotas that encouraged quantity over quality, the widespread practice of blending high percentages of (lower quality) Brazilian Arabica or Robusto beans into most coffee blends is fading. Instead, modern roasters can source single origin beans that offer characteristics unique to the bean type, or cultivar, and the specific conditions of the place each is grown. Individual aroma profiles, brighter acidity and diverse final purpose suggest that, like wine, we can anticipate millions of ‘estate’ or ‘plantation’ designated coffees from thousands of growing regions around the world.
God help our guy at the start.