Whether you prefer an automatic drip coffee maker or the meditation of a perfect...
1. Instant Coffee
Once upon a time, not so very long ago as far as time goes, making coffee was a fine art. Coffee beans were sold green and everyone roasted their own, usually over an open fire in a flat-bottomed pan. Once the coffee was roasted, it had to be cooled and then ground. If you go back long enough, the grinding was done between a pair of flat rocks — and most coffee connoisseurs will tell you that burr and cone grinders, which most closely approximate that process, produce the best grinds of coffee. Eventually, though, someone came up with a basic design for the coffee grinders that found a home in most kitchens. They were hand-turned, so they still took muscle power, but they definitely reduced the amount of physical labor that went into making a cup of coffee. That wasn’t good enough, though. Throughout the late 1800s, scientists around the world tried to come up with ways to make coffee more convenient and finally, just after the turn of the century, one of them succeeded. The result — crystals of dried coffee mixed with starch binders could be reconstituted by the addition of hot water. Dubbed instant coffee in the U.S. and soluble coffee in other parts of the world, it was hailed as a great step forward for coffee lovers who could now sip their favorite java anywhere they had access to fire and water. The taste left a lot to be desired, but the convenience made it one of the hottest-selling types of coffee on the market.
2. Coffee warmers
Fast forward about 70 years to the point where the age of convenience coincides with the desire for better coffee flavor. The television ads of the 1970s make it clear that people wanted instant coffee that tasted as good as restaurant coffee — in fact, many restaurants were famous for their excellent coffee. Those made their way into a series of commercials for Folgers Instant Coffee Crystals with the tagline “Tonight, we’re replacing the coffee served at…” Most of the restaurants shared a common feature — they made their coffee in pour-over coffee makers. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that America was thirsty for a way to make restaurant style coffee at home. In the early 1970s, Mr. Coffee answered the call when they introduced the first drip coffee maker for the home kitchen. Among its features, a warmer plate to keep the coffee warm after it was brewed. Unfortunately, the warming plate also had a tendency to cook the coffee, making it thick, bitter and nasty. Thrifty housewives, appalled at the thought of pouring coffee they’d paid for down the drain, got used to drinking burnt coffee. It would be almost twenty years before Mr. Coffee got around to selling a coffee maker that came with a thermos carafe. Office and convenience store coffee makers, however, hung onto old fashioned drip and pour-over coffee makers, complete with the evil coffee warming plate.
3. Flavored coffee creamers and syrups
Until the 1970s, flavored coffees usually were flavored with liqueur or liquor and served after dinner. Irish coffee with Jameson’s, Italian coffee with anisette, Galleano or sambuca, Greek coffee with ouzo, Mexican coffee with tequila — if there was a liquor associated with the country, you just added it to a cup of strong black coffee and voila! International coffees. Then General Mills, in an effort to expand coffee drinking beyond the breakfast table — and not coincidentally do something with the byproducts of its instant coffee process — introduced International Delights coffee drinks. They came — and still come — in colorful little tin cans and were reminiscent of instant cocoa. The blends of powdered dairy creamer, powdered instant coffee grains and flavorings became the suburban housewife’s indulgence and paved the way for a flood of ghastly flavored coffee products. The flood culminated with syrupy non-dairy coffee creamers flavored with chemicals that approximated the flavor of Irish cream liqueur, Amaretto, french vanilla, chocolate raspberry, pumpkin spice and even eggnog. Not to be outdone, chi chi coffee houses invested in Italian syrups meant to flavor soda water and turned them into coffee drinks. The flavored coffees made this way were sweet enough to make your teeth ache and lacked any coffee flavor at all — but they found a following among people who don’t actually like coffee, but want to be hip with the crowd.
4. Coffee cupping parties
It had to happen eventually. The appreciation of coffee eventually came full circle with true coffee lovers demanding real coffee beans, single origin coffees and even, wonder of wonders, green coffee beans so that home roasters can roast their own blends. Along with the newfound appreciation for real coffee, though, came the genesis of coffee snobbery, populated by people who look down their noses at anyone who doesn’t have the same level of appreciation for the noble bean that they do. Like the snobbiest of oenophiles, coffee snobs count coup by the number of flavors they can identify in a cup of coffee and sniff with disdain at anyone who expresses a liking for a plain old cup of joe. Coffee snobbery reaches its zenith in the social exercise known as a coffee cupping party, where coffee snobs gather with their own kind to slurp samples of various single origin coffees and blends, then try to one-up each other by guessing what kind of coffee they’ve just sampled.
5. Climate change
On a more serious note, the worst thing to ever happen to coffee may just be the changing climate. Coffee has the high-toned sensibilities of a sheltered princess. It knows what it likes and it won’t be happy without those very particular conditions. In order to produce good coffee, coffee plants demand the right temperatures and the right amount of rain at the right time. If it’s too cold or too warm, or if the rain comes too early or too late, the finicky bushes produce substandard crops of coffee beans. That’s why there’s a band around the Earth just on either side of the equator where coffee grows remarkably well, and why the best coffee is produced at a very specific elevation. The problem is that over the past several years, coffee growers have noticed the conditions in the coffee belt changing significantly. Catastrophic weather events — the code word for hurricanes, monsoons, heat waves and droughts — can wipe out an entire year’s crop. If they do worse — killing or damaging the shrubs themselves — it can take three to five years before there are new coffee shrubs to take their place. At the same time, they’re noticing that the lower end of coffee’s favorite elevation is becoming less and less productive and the high end keeps creeping up the mountain slopes.