Coffee is huge in America. A 2011 report from the Specialty Coffee Association of America pegs the worth of the U.S. coffee market somewhere between $30-32 billion a year. Looking at these numbers, it’s safe to say that this country has moved past the point of simple consumption to full on obsession.
To those who have fully embraced this obsession, preparing a cup of joe requires more judgment than picking up a bag of ground coffee at the supermarket. Hearing some of these coffee geeks talk can make some people shake their heads, due to the apparent absurdity of their ideas, some even call them snobs. There is, to an extent, some pompous coffee people out there but for the most part this geeky segment of the coffee drinking public is simply misunderstood.
Enter the third wave. Among coffee lovers the term usually refers to the current era of coffee preparation and consumption. Whereas 15 years ago, an organic sticker and the country of origin printed on the bag could pass as hallmarks of quality, today the story is much different. Top roasters today let you know where and what farm their beans come from, how they were processed, what their flavor profiles are, when they were roasted and offer brewing suggestions that serve as guidelines to get ideal results.
Another misconception that has stigmatized the public’s perception of specialty coffee is cost. Third wave coffee does not cost significantly more than the beans sold at the most popular mega café chain in the world. In fact, considering the care taken to pick, process and roast the coffee offered by a top roaster like Intelligentsia, consumers are getting a very high quality product for their money.
There are also misconceptions of what good coffee is. People see Blue Mountain or Kona on a label and automatically assume that it is great quality coffee and will drop more than $20 for a 12oz bag without knowing anything about the freshness or origin of their purchase. Those varieties can be great provided they are, fresh, properly roasted and have not been mixed with inferior beans.
Most coffee producing countries have co-ops where multiple producers combine their harvest in order to fill multi ton orders, the result is a complete lack of quality control. On the other hand, roasters like Intelligentsia, Counter Culture and Verve work directly with farmers and are much more able to control the quality of their beans. This model also benefits the farmers because any money they receive is direct, there is no middle man who takes a cut from the their profits.
A word on brewing. The most basic set-up to make great coffee at home starts with a decent burr grinder; it can be electric or manual. Blade grinders are readily available and can cost as little as $15 brand new, but they will not provide any consistency and will produce fine powdery coffee particles that negatively affect flavor or worse choke an espresso machine. Entry level burr grinders from Capresso and Baratza can grind beans suitable for espresso and should be great for pour-overs or a coffee press.
A cheaper option is to look for a used Starbucks Barista Grinder which can be found for under $60 on Craigslist and eBay. As is, it can’t grind fine enough for espresso but it can be modified to do so. A step-by-step guide can be found on the internet. Another alternative is a hand mill from Hario, they produce a fine enough grind for espresso and come with ceramic burrs – a definite plus.
For espresso and espresso based drinks the Rancilio Silva is a good place to start, they can be bought brand new for around $650, but can also be found used on eBay for about 50% to 60% of the original price. One good thing about shopping for used Silvia’s is that many of them have a PID controller installed by the previous owner. A PID controller is an excellent mod for single boiler espresso machines; it’s a feedback loop that regulates temperature during the brewing process.
Silvia’s also have enough juice steam and stretch milk for lattes. Of course, there is a cheaper alternative. A used Starbucks Proteo Barista can be found for under a $100 it’s not as good as the Silvia but it can be it can make good espresso. To improve shots with the Proteo, switch out the stock portafilter with a naked one that can be bought new for $60 at Seattle Coffee Gear.