The First Gentle Step
Despite my ambivalence, I had committed to finding out what I had been missing. And I was determined that my first time be with someone who knew what he was doing.
According to readers in our 2011 City Weekly Best of Utah voting, Alan Hebertson certainly qualified. The owner of the Coffee Garden was far more experienced than I; he described his first coffee memory as coming when he was still a toddler, sipping from the spoon of his Mormon grandmother who “wouldn’t put it on the table before the meal had been blessed and prayed over, but then the coffee could come to the table.” He knew I wanted to be comfortable, so he set out to do more than just shepherd me through my first cup. He showed me a coffee cherry—the fruit of an Arabica bush growing right in the store’s front window—to give me a sense of the beverage’s origins. He cut it to show me the two green beans typically found in each cherry, just like those that would have been roasted and ground to become the drink that would be set before me.
But there’s a difference between talking about it and doing it. For my first time, it seemed prudent to opt for a somewhat vanilla option—something that wouldn’t scare me away. Hebertson tried to make it clear that he wouldn’t be offended no matter my reaction. “Let me reassure you,” he said, “that if this doesn’t convert you, it’s OK. It’s OK not to be in love with coffee.” But he did suggest going with more milk than coffee, something sweet and caramelly.
Hebertson headed behind the counter to prepare a 12-oz. caramel vanilla latte. I sat anxiously, listening to the thumping and hissing sounds that were bringing me closer and closer to the moment of truth.
Then, there it was: a steaming cup, the white foam floating on top decoratively etched into a leaf design. The familiar aroma wafted up towards me. And with a deep breath, I partook.
At first, there was only milky sweetness, as though I were sipping a bowl of melted ice cream. Then came a strange, bitter sensation that felt as though it were coating the back of my tongue. I nodded politely and tried to describe my experience to Hebertson in the most neutral language possible. “I thought it would be sweeter,” I said, “that it would have more of a cola quality.” I sipped again, certain that my expression must be betraying my lack of enthusiasm. I was … faking it.
Hebertson hadn’t done anything wrong; our photographer Erik Daenitz, a coffee enthusiast there to document the moment, assured me my beverage was of high quality. So I said all the right things to Hebertson, despite an experience that was still lingering in my mouth unpleasantly a half an hour later. “You want the bitterness to balance out the sugars and the nuttiness,” Hebertson said. “But bitterness is what you remember the first time.”
How true those words are for so many of us.
The New Coffee Culture
I knew, of course, that I had been far from alone in my coffee chastity. Indeed, for a while, America seemed to be turning more in my direction.
The middle of the 20th century was a boom period in American coffee consumption. By 1923, writes Pendergrast, per capita U.S. coffee consumption had risen to an average of 500 cups of coffee per year. The small, regional roasters and distributors that had dominated the market gave way to national companies like Standard Brands and General Foods that began marketing and advertising more aggressively on radio. Even the Great Depression couldn’t slake American’s thirst for coffee, and the U.S. military’s huge requisition of coffee created a generation of GIs who returned home with the habit.
But World War II-era home-front rationing led to diluted brews that Americans grew accustomed to. In the 1950s, the robusta coffee bean—cheaper, quicker to mature and of lower quality than its Arabica cousin—began to grow as a percentage of the coffee market, a particular favorite of companies making the newly popular instant coffees. Soft drinks surged in popularity during the same period, serving to the caffeine thirst of Baby Boomers who developed a different habit than their parents. And for the first time, in the late 1960s, the media began carrying stories about scientific studies and medical concerns about possible negative health effects of coffee consumption. The combination of low-quality product, changing demographics and health scares led to a plunge in coffee consumption—from a high of 3.1 cups per capita per day in 1962 to 2.2 cups in 1974.
Just around that time, change was brewing. In 1966, a Dutch-born coffee importer named Alfred Peet opened a retail coffee shop in Berkeley, Calif., that sold high-quality beans for home use, and became a beacon for all those seeking more than watered-down grounds. In 1970, a trio of Seattle college pals decided to open their own quality coffee shop in their home town, turning to Peet as the supplier for their beans and a model for their store design; a year later, they opened the first Starbucks. By the time marketing expert Howard Schultz took over Starbucks in the mid-1980s, he’d figured out that coffee didn’t just have to be a habit—it could be a ritual, something that could be filled with unique vocabulary and a sense of communal partaking.
The coffee marketplace had undergone a radical shift. The traditional cuppa joe—black, or with cream and sugar—was being overtaken by espresso-based drinks and gourmet beans. And new coffee drinkers were far more likely than their aging counterparts to consume the fancy stuff. According to statistics published in March by the National Coffee Association of U.S.A., the industry’s trade organization, 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds drank coffee daily in 2010, up 6 percent in four years. And while those over 60 were still more likely to be daily coffee drinkers (69 percent in 2010), only 4 percent of those older coffee drinkers opted for espresso-based specialty coffee as their drink of choice, compared to 14 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds.
Quality was triumphing. Clearly if one were going to start becoming a coffee drinker, now was the time.