Déjà-Brew: How Coffee Got Bad, Then Worse, and, Finally, Good Again

If you hopped in a time machine for a cup of coffee from a 17th-century London coffeehouse, you would probably be a bit disappointed by their stale, bitter brews. We told you the story of how coffee jumped from its native soil in Africa to achieve near-world domination in Grounds for Revolution, the first episode in our two-part series. This episode, tune in for the story behind how new technologies, over-the-top advertising, and a forgotten female coffee visionary helped coffee go from bad, to a little better, to downright terrible, before reaching today’s Nirvana of coffee choice and quality. After all, why is a recipe with just two ingredients so hard to get just right? For the answer, we explore the science of coffee brewing, roasting, and flavor, and meet the people who shaped humanity’s pursuit of the perfect cup. All that plus Frank Sinatra, unicorn Frappuccinos, and a whole latte more in our fresh-brewed episode.

A line of light brown beans on a metallic screen
Freshly roasted coffee beans cool on an air table at FRINJ coffee in California. Photo by Geoff Manaugh.

Episode Notes

George Howell

George Howell founded The Coffee Connection in Harvard Square in 1974, and he's been bringing high-quality coffee to people's cups ever since. The Specialty Coffee Association of America awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and in 1999, he co-founded the Cup of Excellence program to help increase the value of high-quality coffee and uplift growers. You can buy some of the delicious single-estate coffees he's sourcing from around the world at George Howell Coffee.

Monika Fekete

Coffee scientist Monika Fekete is the senior chemist at Breville Australia and founder of the Coffee Science Lab, Australia’s first independent scientific coffee consultancy.

A feathery black microphone held out to a clear pitcher of coffee being poured into three clear glass mugs
Pouring coffee—on tape. Photo by Geoff Manaugh.

Jonathan Morris

Jonathan Morris is the author of Coffee: A Global History, and the host of the fascinating podcast series A History of Coffee. He is a historian of consumption, specializing in coffee, and a research professor at the University of Hertfordshire.

Paige Gesualdo and Jay Ruskey at FRINJ Coffee

Paige Gesualdo is the head roaster at FRINJ Coffee in California.

Jay Ruskey co-founded FRINJ Coffee with Mark Gaskell, who started wondering about growing coffee in California after working on introducing crops for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Panama. In 2002, Ruskey planted 40 coffee plants amongst his avocado, cherimoya, and dragon fruit trees at the farm he runs, Good Land Organics, in Santa Barbara, California. FRINJ's co-founders now use their scientific backgrounds to grow coffee in California differently from anywhere else in the world, and they produce some pretty delicious cups as a result. You can taste it for yourself by ordering from the FRINJ online store.

A woman in a gray hat and black puffy vest stands with Nicola in front of a large roasting machine
Paige Gesualdo roasts a fresh batch of coffee. Photo by Geoff Manaugh.
Nicola holds her fuzzy black microphone out to a man in blue polo and sweatshirt, who is talking before pouring coffee
Jay Ruskey pours Nicky a cup of California-grown, freshly-roasted coffee to try. Photo by Geoff Manaugh.

Sarada Krishnan

Sarada Krishnan is the director of horticulture at the Denver Botanic Gardens as well as the director of the International Women's Coffee Alliance, which recognizes women's role in coffee cultivation around the world and seeks to empower meaningful, sustainable participation by women growers. Her research has explored the genetics of the coffee plant, its vulnerability to climate change, and coffee conservation strategies, among other topics. She owns a coffee plantation in Jamaica.

Augustine Sedgwick

Augustine Sedgwick is the author of Coffeeland: One Man's Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, and an award-winning researcher on the global history of food, work, and capitalism. He teaches at the City University of New York.

Grounds for Revolution: The Stimulating Story of How Coffee Shaped the World

You can find the first episode in our two-part series, sponsored by Nespresso, online here.

Nicola and Jay Ruskey walk down a dirt path, led by a light brown dog, with rolling hills in the background; to the left, young coffee trees dot the hills surrounded by white netting.
Jay Ruskey at FRINJ shows Nicky his baby coffee trees growing in Santa Barbara, California. Photo by Geoff Manaugh.


Click here for a transcript of the show. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.