Jules Winnifield is not a coffee connoisseur. While hiding a dead body in his friend Jimmie Dimmick’s garage in the groundbreaking 1994 Tarantino movie “Pulp Fiction”, Jules was offered a cup of coffee and was astonished at how good the quality was. “Mmmm! Goddamn, Jimmie! This is some serious gourmet s***! Usually, me and Vince would be happy with some freeze-dried Taster’s Choice right, but he springs this serious GOURMET s*** on us! What flavor is this?” Jimmie, being concerned about the contents of his garage, was not amused. “I don’t need you to tell me how good my coffee is, okay? I’m the one who buys it. I know how good it is. When Bonnie goes shopping she buys S***. I buy the gourmet expensive stuff because when I drink it I want to taste it. But you know what’s on my mind right now? It AIN’T the coffee in my kitchen.” His pressing concerns are not our pressing concerns, but one thing may have stuck out: how did he get gourmet coffee in a non-Starbucks cup? We celebrate National Gourmet Coffee Day on January 18 by exploring the evolution of the gourmet coffee scene.
Gourmet coffee in the United States is still relatively young. The first gourmet coffee store was Peet’s Coffee and Tea, started in 1966 by Alfred Peet in Berkely, Ca. He was an immigrant from the Netherlands, and was used to having good coffee available to him. European coffee was rich and crafted, with depth and flavor that Peet did not get out of American coffee. Peet’s set the table for other gourmet coffee shops in the United States. Coffee in America had been in a state of decline since the end of World War II. People had become used to an inferior brand of coffee through rationing. It carried on for a few decades until the 1970’s and the growth of Peet’s and the birth of another giant in the industry, Starbucks. These two companies began their growth as gourmet coffee roasters; it was not until the late 80’s when Howard Schultz bought the company and began to expand from Vancouver to New York.
It was the national growth of Starbucks that created a demand for espresso and other European-style coffees across the country. Gourmet coffee went from something only immigrants enjoyed in their own homes, and possibly some shops in local ethnic neighborhoods, to something everyone wanted. It became a very affordable luxury, and the demand was huge. The espresso machine was originally created to take the gallons of coffee that had to be brewed and reheated for each patron and turn them into individual cups of freshly made coffee. The coffee was delicately roasted and finely ground to make a delicious, dark coffee that would fit in a small cup. The espresso machine had an added benefit; not only did it make water piping hot in a rapid manner; it could also be used to make milk hot. Espresso became the base for a core group of coffee drinks: the café latte (hot milk is added to the espresso in a taller glass), café au lait (foamed or steamed milk poured over a shot of espresso in a shorter glass), the cappuccino (espresso, hot milk, and steamed foam layered on top), and the macchiato (espresso is added to warm milk, the coffee leaving a mark on the milk). The Americano was also created, which is a shot of espresso with hot water, for American soldiers that could not handle the richness of the espresso. These drinks became the base for the First Gourmet Coffee Movement. Looking closely at the menu of most gourmet coffees shops, those drinks are the base for all of the other drinks they created.
Like any good movement, people kept moving forward and discovered something else. Coffee could stand on its own in terms of flavor. It did not need to be something fancy, including multiple flavors and a long list of instructions to make. Coffee could be simple, just water and beans, possibly some cream and sugar. The information age has allowed us to really dig into where the coffee you drink comes from, down to the farmer. People have become fully invested in the whole process, from growing to roasting to brewing to tasting. Experts choose and roast the beans according to where they are from and what flavors they are looking to bring out. They are focusing more on the underlying tastes of coffee, from the berry and citrus flavors that emerge from Ethiopian coffee to chocolaty and sweet coffees from Central America. Classic brewing techniques have become more familiar, with French presses and vacuum pots coming back into vogue for their brewing qualities. Special coffees are selected to be prepared with certain dishes, similar to what you would expect from a wine tasting. Coffee shops and private individuals are conscious of the full range of flavor they can get out of the dark beverage, and the focus is now on the basics, enticing the natural essences of the beans out.
We are very lucky to have so many great coffee shops in Dayton to help us with this process. Winans Fine Chocolates and Coffees has been open since the 1961, serving chocolates with their coffees (which they have been brewing for about fifteen years). Boston Stoker was soon to follow, roasting beans and offering gourmet coffee since the early 70’s. The Ohio Coffee Co. has been doing a brisk trade in the coffee business as well, keeping downtown awake since 2009. The great places to get coffee downtown continue to open and offer incredibly well crafted coffees and foods. Ghostlight Coffee, Press, and Eclipse have all opened within the last two years, adding some great environments as well as some interesting coffee options.
From its beginning in the mid sixties, gourmet coffee has explored a wide range of meaning to a wide range of people. Some people look at it from a classic standpoint, embracing the espresso and its kin as what is gourmet. Almost as a reaction to the complexity Starbucks injected into upscale coffee, there has been a movement towards just embracing coffee as it is, enjoying the roast, the bean, and the process of enjoying a fine cup. If you have a favorite coffee shop we have not mentioned, feel free to add it in the comments. And if you need anything else, just chill out, enjoy a nice cup of coffee on National Gourmet Coffee Day, and The Wolf will be coming directly. Cheers!