This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Déjà-Brew, first released on March 8, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
GRABER: So I know how important Yemen was to the history of coffee, and I feel like I’m about to taste that history. I’m really excited.
HOWELL: It’s extraordinary coffee, right? And really like… dates and nutmeg and all these other flavors that are not in any other coffee that I’ve tried.
GRABER: I visited coffee legend George Howell at his roastery outside Boston, and he put out a row of coffee samples from five different countries for me to taste. The Yemeni sample was the last one I spooned into my cup to try.
GRABER: As you listeners might remember, the first commercial coffee plantations started in Yemen, but there’s not much growing there these days due to a combination of conflict and economics. This coffee is rare. It was delicious, and totally different from the other countries’ coffee I’d tasted with George.
GRABER: Oh, yeah, the dates are much…
HOWELL: Yeah! It has that note, right?
GRABER: It is so different from the others.
HOWELL: Totally, totally. And this is the excitement about coffee, right? Is all these flavors.
TWILLEY: Weirdly, I am not actually a coffee snob. It’s one of the few things I consume that I am not a snob about to be honest. But even someone like me, who just drinks coffee in the morning to be able to form sentences — even I can tell, these single origin beautifully roasted and brewed coffees are something else. To me, they’re more like artwork than morning wake up call.
GRABER: I’d never done a coffee tasting and compared different single origins against one another, I’d always just tried whatever someone had around. And it was amazing to note all the differences. One tasted like cherries, another had nutty and caramel notes, the Yemeni one really did taste like dates. But even though the Yemeni coffee is ancient, this approach to sourcing and brewing and tasting coffee is really new.
TWILLEY: Last episode, we told you the story of how coffee got huge — first in the Muslim world, then in Europe, and then in the Americas — and how that reshaped cultures and governments and work and even intellectual life. But for most of that time, the coffee itself tasted like pants.
GRABER: In case you Americans are wondering, Nicky isn’t employing technical coffee tasting terminology, that’s a Britishism that means what you think it means, the coffee tasted really bad.
TWILLEY: Yes, indeed, and since we’ve got this far without introducing ourselves, let’s do that: I am indeed Nicola Twilley, and this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history.
GRABER: I’m Cynthia Graber, and this is the second in our two part series about our dark obsession. This episode — how coffee got bad, how it got a little better and then really bad again, and then how it got great.
TWILLEY: Plus, the science behind that: the reactions that happen during roasting, the art of the grind, the relative merits of filter and espresso, and the reason why you should never ever reheat coffee.
GRABER: All that, plus the birth of Starbucks, the secret of brewing the perfect cup at home, and bizarrely the invention of the teabag.
TWILLEY: As we said last episode, this special two-part series is sponsored by Nespresso, and, as we also said before, Nespresso did not have any input into the actual content of the series. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
GRABER: As we explored the history of coffee, Nicky and I have been imagining sitting and drinking coffee in the original coffeehouses in the Middle East, not that we would have been allowed in. But the coffee itself. It would have been made by boiling water and mixing it with ground-up roasted beans that just kind of sat in the water, which is how Turkish coffee is prepared today.
TWILLEY: The result, if you’ve ever tried it, is very dark and often quite bitter. Turkish coffee is usually flavored with spices like cardamom or mastic and then sweetened with sugar. When a British poet first tried this kind of coffee in 1610, he described it as, quote: “black as soot and tasting not much unlike it.”
GRABER: To be fair, some Europeans did find it really tasty, and obviously plenty of Turkish coffee drinkers love it that way. But it is a bitter brew. But so why is this style of coffee so much stronger and more bitter than a pour-over or a French press?
TWILLEY: To figure this out, we called Monica Fekete — she’s a coffee scientist with Breville in Australia. And she told us it’s all about the extraction.
GRABER: Extraction is what happens when a solvent takes compounds of a solid — we told you in our bottled water episodes that water is really great at doing that. And hot water is even better than cold water is at getting flavor compounds out of coffee.
TWILLEY: But it gets them out in a very particular order—and that order can transform the flavor of your final cup of coffee, depending on how long you let extraction go on.
FEKETE: And the reason why extraction progresses like this that some of the flavor compounds in coffee are more easily soluble in water, such as salts, which are small, and very soluble compounds, acids, which also dissolve very quickly because they’re small and very soluble in water.
FEKETE: These are followed by sugar, somewhat larger. And as the brew progresses, we start getting bitter and woody flavors around the end of the brew. So this is where it’s time to stop.
TWILLEY: But if you leave the grounds in the water, the way Turkish coffee is traditionally made, then the water keeps pulling more molecules out, and those harsh, bitter notes get stronger and stronger.
GRABER: This was the only way people had to make coffee at the time. There was no fancy filter paper or espresso machine or a French press. This was it.
TWILLEY: Still, at least coffee in Turkey stood a good chance of being reasonably fresh. Which was not the case by the time it got to Europe.
GRABER: Jonathan Morris is a coffee historian, you might remember him from our last episode. He told us that the coffee in British coffee houses would have tasted stale and like badly made coffee today. But people at the time loved it.
JONATHAN MORRIS: I mean, yes, it’s very exciting, it’s very exotic, it’s very, very different in that respect. Also, this is, you know, we begin to see the start of adding milk to coffee, adding clearly lots of sugar to coffee. And so there were ways of, as it were, making that coffee more palatable.
TWILLEY: In Vienna, the Brotherhood of Coffeemakers came up with a nifty color chart to allow customers to calibrate how milky they wanted their coffee by picking their desired shade of brown. Which, by the way, is where the term cappuccino comes from, from Kapuziner — a coffee the color of a Capuchin’s monk’s brown tunic.
GRABER: In the US, up through the mid 1800s, people bought green coffee beans at the local grocer and took those beans home and roasted them in a pan over a wood stove, they’d stir the beans around for about twenty minutes, and then they’d grind or really crush the beans using whatever they had at hand. And then they boiled that in a kettle, like Turkish coffee.
TWILLEY: Like we said last episode, the Civil War was a key moment in US coffee history — it was the moment when coffee really became the drink of the masses. Part of that was soldiers falling in love with it because of their rations, and part of it was due to a transformation in how coffee was roasted.
MORRIS: Yeah, so the big sort of technological innovations really in roasting are about the ability to load and unload your roaster. Which sounds rather pedantic, but actually it’s fairly critical because you’ve got to be able to get the coffee out quickly without burning the coffee. There’s a coffee roaster called Jacob Burns, who makes a lot of innovations to coffee.
MORRIS: And in effect, the key one is this sort of, this self-emptying drum roaster.
GRABER: Once there was this self-emptying drum roaster – the beans got roasted inside it and then quickly dumped out – that meant that companies could buy these roasters, multiple roasters, and sell pre-roasted coffee. No more toasting those beans at home.
MORRIS: We see the beginnings of the first sort of coffee brands, brands like Ariosa from Arbuckles, where if you like, coffee roasting and coffee supply becomes a business in itself.
TWILLEY: A lot of these brands are still around today. Airiosa — tagline “the coffee that won the west” — that may not be a household name today but you can still buy it. Folgers, named after Jim Folger, who came from a whaling family mentioned in Moby Dick, that’s definitely still around.
ANNOUNCER: It has more enticing aroma than any other kind.
SINGER: The best part of waking up, is Folgers in your cup!
TWILLEY: And Maxwell House, named after a ritzy Nashville hotel, that’s also still on shelves even though the original hotel was demolished in the 60s.
ANNOUNCER: Always smells good. Always tastes good. Always good to the last drop.
SINGERS: Maxwell house is, good friends. Good to the last drop. Maxwell House.
GRABER: These companies started advertising right away, first in print, of course. But then once radio got to be more popular, the coffee roasters headed there, too, and they didn’t just run ads – they created entire shows. Folger’s created the Folgeria, a serial comic opera. Maxwell House sponsored the Maxwell House Hour and the Maxwell House Showboat – that one actually became the top radio show in the country in the 1930s.
MAXWELL HOUSE SHOWBOAT ANNOUNCER: No matter what your favorite entertainment is, you’ll always find it on the Maxwell House showboat. The ticket admission, as always, just your loyalty to Maxwell House coffee.
TWILLEY: Not to be outdone, Chase & Sanborn coffee had its own show, Major Bowes Amateur Hour, which was the American Idol of the 1930s. Customers were told that their purchase of Chase & Sanborn coffee would help Americans win fame and fortune. Frank Sinatra made an early appearance on the show as one member of the Hoboken Quartet. And yes, they won.
FRANK SINATRA: Everyone that’s ever heard us liked us. We think we’re pretty good, and we play real swing music, too.
MAJOR BOWES: What’s your tune?
FRANK SINATRA: The curse of an aching heart. (LAUGHTER, MUSIC STARTS)
MAJOR BOWES: (Laughing) The curse of an aching heart.
FRANK SINATRA: (singing) You made me what I am today, I hope you’re satisfied…
GRABER: Later, Frank performed a novelty song called The Coffee Song, otherwise known as they’ve got a lot of coffee in Brazil —
FRANK SINATRA: (singing) Way down among Brazilians
Coffee beans grow by the billions
So they’ve got to find those extra cups to fill
They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil
TWILLEY: All the hot stars of the jazz age had coffee songs, to be honest. Here’s Ella Fitzgerald, staying up and feeling moody thanks to black coffee and bad relationships.
ELLA FITZGERALD: (singing) I’m feeling mighty lonesome
Haven’t slept a wink
I walk the floor and watch the door
And in between I drink
Love’s a hand me down brew
GRABER: Like we said last episode, by the 1920s, coffee was a central part of American life *and* American culture. And like lots of other things in America, it became a real consumer product.
GRABER: People were no longer just getting whatever beans their local grocers had. They could choose from brands in pretty canisters with fancy labels and expensive marketing and advertising claims. Ninety percent of coffee was sold this way by the end of the 30s.
MORRIS: The growth of advertising leads to some quite effective campaigns, but also campaigns that work on the business of what is often the best advertising, which is slightly worrying people.
MORRIS: So Arbuckles used to put a thing out, saying “Are you really sure you know how to roast coffee?” Undermining the sort of the sense that people knew how to do their coffee roasting at home.
MORRIS: And these nearly always targeted the homemaker, the wife, etcetera. So they would then become sort of versions of, you know, what’s going to happen if your husband discovers you can’t make coffee?
WIFE: Your coffee, sir.
HUSBAND: Thanks, beautiful.
WIFE: You’re welcome!
HUSBAND: How can such a pretty wife… make such bad coffee?
WIFE: I heard that!
MORRIS: The solution is always, you’re going to buy our coffee and it will be great.
TWILLEY: That was the message — that this pre-roasted packaged branded coffee would taste better than roasting and grinding at home. But was it true?
GRABER: Well for one, that depended on how far the beans had to travel, how long they sat on shelves. Coffee beans, as we’ve already said, they can go stale. And stale coffee tastes bad.
TWILLEY: But these new companies had some new tools to help prevent that. Airiosa sold whole beans in a special glaze of egg and sugar, which made it shiny and supposedly protected against staling.
GRABER: And then came a really major innovation: a company in San Francisco called Hills Brothers, they’d been shipping butter to soldiers in the Spanish American war in the Philippines, and they stored it in brine, and it tasted pretty bad – they asked a company that had just perfected a vacuum packing process if they could help. The new vacuum pack worked for butter, but it also worked for Hills Brother’s coffee. The butter tasted better, so did the coffee.
TWILLEY: Fresh or at least less stale coffee guaranteed. But still, honestly, even with these breakthroughs — American coffee was not yet great.
MORRIS: A standard American cup of Joe in the 30s would be composed almost entirely of mass commodity Brazilian Coffee. It would taste a little bit nutty. It would taste very thin.
MORRIS: So if you think about the kind of diner coffee, where you’re going in and it’s, you know, the ever refillable coffee mug. That’s where we’re getting to. And that coffee is, as you know, is fairly weak. You’re brewing a lot of water into it.
GRABER: There are a lot of reasons the coffee at the time was weak and not particularly tasty. The Brazilian beans weren’t great. Coffee at the time was called Rio-y if it tasted harsh, and that adjective is still used by experts to denigrate bad coffee today.
TWILLEY: Also, it’s the 30s. People were trying to economize; they didn’t use a lot of coffee compared to the amount of water they added, so there just wasn’t enough actual coffee grounds to get a good flavor.
TWILLEY: And that brings us right back to the problem of over-extraction. First, there was too much water and then it was also too hot, because Americans at the time mostly made their coffee in a percolator. This was a contraption that used steam to push boiling water up and over coffee grounds, and round and round again and again until you took the percolator off the stovetop.
GRABER: This is bad for a bunch of reasons. First, as Nicky said, the water itself is boiling. I mentioned earlier that hotter water gets more flavor molecules out of coffee beans more quickly, and boiling water gets everything out fast, even the bitter molecules. That’s why coffee experts say to use water a little under the boiling point, between 195 and 210 Fahrenheit.
TWILLEY: Plus because the percolator circulates the water through the grounds again and again, if it didn’t strip out all those bitter astringent molecules the first time, it certainly would by the third.
GRABER: While Americans were drinking harsh, bitter, percolated, weak, over-extracted coffee, Europeans had perfected some other techniques. Like the filter, which was invented by a German inventor and housewife named Melitta Bentz in 1908.
MORRIS: The woman who’s, who’s first name becomes the name of the company, Melitta.
MORRIS: And so the story goes that she did lots of experiments with her son’s blotting paper when her son was doing his homework and that she came up with this system. She and her husband then established a company, you know, building on her filter ideas.
TWILLEY: This is a major leap forward for coffee, as anyone who enjoys a pourover cup today knows. The filter helps strip out some molecules for a cleaner taste, and then the process of pouring steadily through a filter helps prevent over-extraction.
GRABER: So Germans were just drinking better coffee than Americans were. And they developed a rich national coffee culture, which was not all about the work-based coffee break — women had their kaffeeklatsches in the afternoon, these were gatherings for a chat with coffee and cake.
TWILLEY: And Germans were not the only Europeans drinking better coffee than Americans. A couple decades later, an Italian patented something I grew up calling a cafetiere but Americans know as a French Press — it’s a metal filter on a plunger.
GRABER: And that’s not the only groundbreaking and world-changing coffee invention that came out of Italy.
GRABER: This was also a big improvement for coffee lovers — the resulting coffee is a little more full-bodied and oilier than the pour over Melitta style, but it’s definitely still a good cup.
TWILLEY: And that’s not the only groundbreaking and world-changing coffee invention that came out of Italy.
NEWSCASTER: For Italians, an espresso is more than just a quick caffeine hit. It’s an integral part of their national identity.
MAN: (Speaking Italian) You have a relationship with the barista, what coffee you’re having, what sugar, brown or white, the cup hot or cold. It’s a whole world.
MORRIS: So espresso is Italy’s gift to the world of coffee, I think we have to say. Espresso is, is the technique of brewing coffee under pressure essentially.
MORRIS: The sort of the first espresso machines come into being really around 1905. The first one that’s commercial is the La Pavoni Ideale, it’s called.
GRABER: An espresso machine was meant to make an express drink, just what it sounds like. The machines to make espresso are giant water boilers, and the steam pushes hot water through coffee with quite a bit of pressure. Monika, the coffee scientist, she says it’s kind of like an intense slightly more extracted filter coffee because you’re applying so much pressure to the finely ground coffee beans.
FEKETE: In this process we get up to 10% dissolved solids in the cup, which makes this concentrated, viscous brew with a good caffeine hit.
TWILLEY: Those very first espresso machines were room-sized, so they didn’t catch on super widely. But after the second world war, an Italian called Achille Gaggia figured out how to shrink them using a piston system for even higher pressures, and the espresso finally caught on.
RABER: And this entirely transformed coffee culture in Italy. Buying an espresso became a bit of quick theater, with baristas whipping up a fresh cup expressly for you, any time you wanted to lean on the counter and get your dark, intense hit of caffeine.
NEWSCASTER: It’s a quick ritual. You order at the counter and you down it in just a few seconds.
MAN: (Speaking Italian) It gives me an adrenaline rush, it pushes me to go to work. It makes me feel younger.
GRABER: Italians loved their espressos, and they did basically from the very start. The technique and technology spread out from Italy around southern Europe, and then with immigrants from those countries it spread around the world.
TWILLEY: But not all technological breakthroughs have been such a boon to coffee. The arc of human progress is more of a rollercoaster and there were some definite downs.
MORRIS: The current sort of first iterations of what we now think of as instant coffee really come in the late 30s and they come from a very specific point, which is that Brazil has developed so much coffee that during the Great Depression, essentially it was left with a lot of coffee that it couldn’t shift and it was trying to find any ways of making this either very cheap or finding alternative uses for it.
TWILLEY: I give you exhibit A: Frank Sinatra’s surprisingly catchy coffee song
SINATRA: (singing) You can’t get cherry soda ‘cause they’ve got to fill that quota,
And the way things are I bet they never will
They’ve got a zillion tons of coffee in Brazil…
GRABER: People had looked into the idea of instant before, but this was the real turning point for instant coffee. Brazilian authorities approached the Swiss company Nestle to ask them if they could make basically a coffee stock cube — remember by this point there were already bouillon cubes, we talked about this in our episode The Magic Cube. Coffee growers wanted to make the same thing but for coffee, not soup.
TWILLEY: It took Nestle a while to figure it out, but eventually they came up with a process that involved making a super concentrated espresso style coffee extract, and then spraying into a tower of air heated to nearly 500 degrees Fahrenheit. All the water evaporates as it falls and you’re left with a dehydrated brown powder.
GRABER: Nowadays to get that dehydrated brown powder, companies use a freezing technique instead of a heating technique, but the end result is the same — and it caught on really quickly. Nestle introduced it as Nescafe right before world war II, and American soldiers took it with them into Europe, particularly to Britain.
TWILLEY: As we said last episode, even though England was the first European country to develop a real coffeehouse culture, by the mid 1700s, Britain had mostly ditched coffee in favor of tea. So for hundreds of years, Britain had no real coffee culture, and this instant stuff that GIs brought seemed pretty good.
GRABER: And then the thing that sealed the deal for coffee in England: in 1955, the BBC started airing advertisements.
MORRIS: It’s always said that in the UK, instant coffee’s big advantage came with the advent of commercial TV. Because you could go out and easily make yourself a coffee during the commercial break, whereas you had to brew your tea. And this is supposedly also one of the reasons why tea makers came back with the tea bag as a sort of competitor against it.
GRABER: I would just like to take a second to be kind of shocked that the story of coffee leads to the invention of the tea bag! Amazing.
TWILLEY: Instant coffee was a fixture in our house in England when I was growing up, and honestly in our cultural lives too. One of the most exciting stories in the late 80s and early 90s — really, second only to Princess Di — was the story of the Nescafe Gold Blend couple, Tony and Sharon.
(Doorbell, fancy music)
SHARON: Hello. I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m having a dinner party and I’ve run out of coffee.
TONY: Come in.
SHARON: Thank you.
TWILLEY: It was an ad campaign, where they met over a cup of instant coffee.
TONY: Will Gold Blend be too good for your guests?
SHARON: Oh, I think they could get used to it.
TONY: It’s a very sophisticated coffee.
SHARON: They have very sophisticated taste.
MORRIS: And this became a kind of a national fixation. You know, would they, wouldn’t they, would they, et cetera?
SHARON: If this were a restaurant, they’d be putting chairs on tables about now.
TONY: And I’d be asking you back to my place for coffee.
SHARON: Of course I wouldn’t accept.
MORRIS: And that absolutely was the biggest story in coffee for really through to the, to the 1990s in Britain.
TWILLEY: Basically until the coffee chains — first Costa and then Starbucks, showed up —
MORRIS: Before then, you know, Gold Blend was probably seen as the epitome of good quality coffee.
ANNOUNCER: Golden roasted, richer, smoother, Nescafe gold blend.
TWILLEY: But hold up a second — the arrival of Starbucks is a whole different story, and that’s where we’re going after the break.
GRABER: I know we promised you the story of Starbucks, and we are definitely about to get there, but something else happened in the 20th century that really affected how our coffee tastes, and why it got so incredibly bad after world war ii, in the decades before Starbucks came on the scene. The change was…a new-fangled species and bean called Robusta.
MORRIS: So in the late 19th century a lot of coffee producing plantations, particularly in Asia, were wiped out by what was called a coffee leaf rust.
TWILLEY: We actually told you this story in our last episode too — it’s the reason why coffee production really moved from Asia to the Americas. But it had another really important impact: the introduction of an entirely new coffee species. The coffee shrubs that were wiped out — they were all Arabica.
MORRIS: And, in order to replace them, ultimately they were replanted with a new coffee species whose Latin name is, Coffeea canephora, which came to be known as Robusta.
GRABER: Robusta was a different species in the same coffee family as Arabica, it was discovered growing wild at the turn of the century in what was then called the Belgian Congo.
TWILLEY: Botanists quickly realized that Robusta was, well, more robust than arabica. It grew happily in drier and hotter conditions than finicky Arabica. And even more importantly, it was resistant to the dreaded coffee leaf rust. But it didn’t taste exactly the same.
MORRIS: It tends to have a more potent taste, let’s put it that way. It is more peppery, more, I would say, inclined to sort of more rubbery, and it has twice the caffeine that Arabica does.
GRABER: Twice the caffeine — caffeine is a great insect repellant, so the fact that robusta was more robust and had twice the caffeine, those two things might be related. And this is also part of why it tastes more bitter.
FEKETE: It also has a lot more chlorogenic acids, which also tastes bitter. These all help protect the plants against pests and the environment which makes Robusta more robust, but also a lot harsher and less delicate in taste.
TWILLEY: But because it grows in the sunshine at lower elevations and it is so hardy, Robusta is as cheap as chips. Way cheaper than Arabica.
GRABER: Robusta really caught on in the 50s, which is also when instant coffee hit the market.
FEKETE: Robusta is typically used in instant coffee, where it is processed so much that, you can’t appreciate the original flavor.
TWILLEY: But it did also make its way into regular coffee, in Europe and in the States.
MORRIS: One of the things that it does very well is it works well in espresso. It gives it that punch.
MORRIS: Similarly, when we talked about the taste of the American cup of joe, when you dropped some Robusta into that again, that’s where it acquires a bit more of the punch that we might expect. You might call it the guts of the coffee.
GRABER: Robusta doesn’t have particularly complex flavors, but that didn’t really matter too much, because coffee roasters just gave the beans a really dark roast. A dark roast can make even a lower quality bean more drinkable.
TWILLEY: This ended up changing the taste of coffee everywhere. When you see French Roast or Vienna Roast or Italian Roast on coffee labels — those are super dark roasts that were developed post World War II, when Europeans started consuming lots of cheap Robusta beans, and needed to mask the taste.
GRABER: But what actually happens when coffee beans are roasted? Why does a dark roast or a light roast matter? What’s going on?
TWILLEY: I got to see the whole process, from green beans onward, when I visited FRINJ in Santa Barbara.
TWILlEY: So these are green.
PAIGE GESUALDO: So you’ll actually be tasting this one today so it’s nice for you to see it in you know at its green form.
TWILlEY: It looks like pulses right now like kind of a big dahl or lentil or something.
Paige: Oh it definitely does.
TWILLEY: That’s Paige Gesualdo, she’s the head roaster at FRINJ, and she was roasting up a fresh batch of the new summer 2021 harvest when I visited.
SOUND OF BEANS DROPPING, MACHINE STIRRING BEANS
GESUALDO: This is the beginning of our drying method. It’s pulling all the water content out of the green bean so that now we can start cooking it. So here we are close to a minute, I’ll start adding the gas.
GRABER: The beans are in a drum that rolls around and around, it looks like a front-loading washing machine, and the beans spin around inside to get evenly heated. And slowly they start to go from green to light brown.
GESUALDO: You’ll see here. So see how that color is just starting to change?
GRABER: Monika told us that when the beans start to turn color at about 150 degrees Celsius, or around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, this is when the magic starts to happen. The Maillard reaction kicks in, it’s what makes toasted bread taste toasty and roasted meat taste roasty.
FEKETE: During this reaction, hundreds of, of new compounds are created, which give coffee its characteristic aroma and, and color as well.
FEKETE: So we get caramel type molecules, we get small aromatic compounds, some of them might smell like popcorn, some of them can smell fruity and sweet. And we also get compounds called melanoidins. And these are the brown-colored molecules that give coffee its brown color.
TWILLEY: That’s like toasty and nutty right now.
GESUALDO: So it starts out, you know, with almost like grassy, wet, and then you can, by the smells — by the different smells, you can you can figure out what stage you’re on to.
TWILLEY: Oh, it’s changed already
GESUALDO: It’s changed already isn’t that — and so do you smell almost like a little sugar is coming in?
FEKETE: So if so once, we get to about 170 degrees, that’s where caramelization, the other important roasting reaction, starts to happen. And caramelization happens between sugars.
FEKETE: So smaller sugar molecules condense into larger ones. And very interestingly, this makes, makes them less sweet, but more aromatic.
FEKETE: And once we get to about 200 degrees, this is when the first crack happens.
TWILLEY: Again, That’s 200 degrees celsius, which Monika, like the rest of the world uses. In Fahrenheit, that’s nearly 400 degrees.
GRABER: The first crack happens when steam and carbon dioxide build up enough pressure that they literally blow up the plant cells and create little cracks through the walls where gasses — and delicious smells – can escape.
FEKETE: And coffee starts becoming drinkable, after this first crack.
GESUALDO: You know, with California coffee, we have some that crack really, it’s almost like Rice Krispie treats or popcorn.
GESUALDO: And then we have some that you don’t hear but you know you’re at first crack, which is it — it’s kind of a beautiful thing in roasting because when you hear that sound and you start to smell those smells, it’s exciting.
TWILLEY: I heard a crack.
GESUALDO: Yep, it’s starting to crack. You smell this now?
TWILLEY: Ooooh yeah.
GESUALDO: You’re gonna hear like Rice Krispie crackle so we’ll let you listen to it for a little bit.
TWILLEY: Honestly, if you could bottle that smell, you’d be a billionaire. It was sweet but not too sweet and nutty and toasty but also a little floral and just delicious.
GRABER: Monika told us this stage, after the first crack and from there to the end of the roast, this is where the coffee roasters’ skills really come in. They have to decide just how dark they want the roast to be to get just the right flavors they want out of their beans.
FEKETE: Roasts can take anywhere between eight to 15 minutes. A really light roast could be around eight minutes, whereas your Vienna roast or really dark, traditional roast could take all the way up to 15 minutes.
FEKETE: If you stop your roast a little bit earlier the color is obviously a bit lighter and also it retains more of the characteristics of the origin and processing.
FEKETE: If you take the roast much further, we lose a bit of acidity, but develop more chocolatey, nutty, caramel-y flavors. But this also acts as a bit of an equalizer between different quality beans.
GRABER: In a dark roast, you just kind of get the taste of the roast, not of the individual beans.
TWILLEY: At FRINJ, Paige stopped the roast after just three minutes — they do a really light roast in order to retain all those qualities of the bean’s origin and how it was processed. They’re not trying to cover up any flaws.
GRABER: Once the roast is done, the beans all drop out onto a cooling tray where air is blown out onto them and they immediately cool down.
GESUALDO: We’re going to put on the air and we are going to drop —
(RATTLE OF BEANS DROPPING ON COOLING TRAY)
TWILLEY: Paige is obviously working with the very best beans, so it makes sense to give them a really light roast. But back in the 50s and 60s, where we left off, the roasts were super dark, a lot of the beans were Robusta, and also a lot of people were drinking instant coffee.
GRABER: There were Arabica beans being grown still, but most of them were grown full sun in Brazil, so they didn’t taste quite as good as specialty shade grown coffee today. Shade-grown coffee ripens more slowly, and so there’s more time to develop sugars and all the great flavors we love in coffee beans.
TWILLEY: The same thing happens at elevation. But back in the 50s and 60s, even the good stuff, Arabica beans that were shade-grown, high on the mountain side in El Salvador and other nearby countries, it was mostly just sold at the same commodity price and ground up with all the bad stuff on the general market, for cheap.
GRABER: Plus in the US, we hadn’t really yet taken advantage of all the breakthroughs in brewing technology: the Melitta filter and the French press and the espresso machine.
TWILLEY: People were still using their home percolators, which over-extracted the coffee. In short, coffee had hit a new low.
GRABER: In 1972, Mr Coffee made his debut on the American countertop.
ANNOUNCER: Mr. Coffee thinks it’s about time you tasted coffee the way it was meant to be.
ANNOUNCER: Mr. Coffee. America’s perfect coffee maker. With a patent to prove it.
GRABER: It was expensive at the time, and it was a huge innovation, it was drip coffee through a filter. BUT if you didn’t drink it right away, that coffee just sat on a hot plate. And so it ended up tasting bad — bad like reheated coffee bad.
FEKETE: So basically, when you reheat coffee, you’re evaporating away a lot of those volatile compounds that give coffee its nice freshly-brewed aroma.
TWILLEY: And of course, there will be some tiny coffee grounds left in your brewed coffee and yep, that leads to over-extraction, and then the bitter molecules get the chance to break down even further into really bitter compounds, the same ones that make tonic water so bitter.
GRABER: So this means that reheated coffee tastes even worse than just over-extracted coffee. It’s lost its nice flavors all together, and it’s got not just the original bitter notes but even worse ones.
TWILLEY: This is not just a Mr Coffee problem — this is the problem with any reheated coffee. It’s scientific fact that it will just taste nasty. Make a fresh cup instead.
GRABER: Anyway, in the 70s, America was ripe for something tastier. And that’s when a pioneering woman named Erna Knutsen came along.
HOWELL: Erna… She was a secretary working for a company called BC Ireland. And over time she took it over, right, and just developed it into a whole new direction. She’s the one who coined the phrase “specialty coffee” back in the seventies. And she was this incredibly exuberant woman. You know, real personality, it was extraordinary.
HOWELL: And the coffee she got from Asia, from, from Kenya, from all over was really just head and shoulders superior to anyone else.
TWILLEY: Erna’s story isn’t well known — but George and Jonathan both told us she was the key to American coffee getting good again
MORRIS: She worked in a coffee buying company and she became a coffee trader in the teeth of much opposition from the men in the company.
MORRIS: And she made as her sort of point of difference, that instead of just buying huge quantities of commodity coffee, she would buy much smaller quantities of coffee from particular origins and sell them to small roasters as what she called specialty coffee.
MORRIS: She was supplying famous names like Alfred Peet, like George Howell, and indeed like the early people in Starbucks.
HOWELL: There’s nobody more important than, than her in terms of the birth and development of specialty coffee.
GRABER: Jonathan mentioned George Howell, and George himself is a coffee legend. Although he didn’t start out as a coffee obsessive.
HOWELL: But it wasn’t until, it wasn’t until really 1968, ’67 that I moved to the West Coast, into the Berkeley Oakland area. And that’s where Peet’s was born. 1967, if I remember correctly. And I discovered them pretty quickly because they were so popular right away.
TWILLEY: Peet’s was actually too dark of a roast for George’s taste, but he really liked what some of the other little specialty coffee roasters that were beginning to pop up in the Bay Area were doing.
GRABER: And then George decided to move with his wife and kids back to Boston, he thought he’d open some art galleries to showcase the indigenous art from Mexico he’d been getting into. And he took his favorite coffee and a small hand grinder with him on their cross country road trip.
HOWELL: I’d stop at the Howard Johnson’s along the freeway and I would order hot water for tea, grind the coffee in the men’s room, always making it smell better than when I walked in. And uh then brew the coffee in those restaurants.
TWILLEY: The coffee HoJos was serving, like 99.9 percent of coffee in America at the time, was just not up to scratch.
HOWELL: I didn’t bother to try. It just wasn’t worth it. It’s, it was commonly everywhere, it was dishwater. Brown water, right, with barely any flavor at all and very stale.
GRABER: George had already become a bit of a coffee evangelist as he traveled — I mean, obviously what he was grinding in the mens’ rooms smelled way better than whatever else was happening in there, or what you could buy at the counter. And George quickly realized he could make a business out of this.
HOWELL: I mean, we saw the opportunity in Boston because the coffee here was dreadful.
HOWELL: You could go to these little cheese shops and that kind of thing. And they just had stale coffee. I mean, it’s just right from the start it was stale. So forget about anything else. You couldn’t couldn’t taste a thing. No sweetness to it at all.
TWILLEY: To be fair to Boston and its favorite native son, George did have a soft spot for Dunkin
(ALARM CLOCK RINGING)
FRED THE BAKER: Time to make the donuts…
HOWELL: Dunkin Donuts was the only place that could even suggest the possibility of quality. I mean, back in the sixties and seventies, if there was a beacon of light, it really was Dunkin Donuts in the sense that they at least were grinding beans in their establishment and brewing it.
TWILLEY: Did we mention American coffee was bad at the time? It was really bad. So George turned to Erna. She hooked him up with carefully sourced green beans, and he started his first roastery and coffee shop right in Harvard Square. He called it the Coffee Connection and it opened in 1975.
HOWELL: It was a 600 square foot space. And we set up a bar. Maybe five or six people could sit at the bar.
HOWELL: And we had a retail section too, of course, right? All coffees in barrels. Loose, right? That we scooped. So the barrels all were labeled, and they had the day of the roast on it.
HOWELL: But we also served French Press, day one.
HOWELL: So if I had 15 coffees in the beginning, I could serve any one of the 15 coffees on the spot, made for you there, right? That’s what made the difference.
HOWELL: So we became incredibly popular. We were overwhelmed with business almost from day one.
GRABER: Meanwhile, back on the West Coast, there were of course a bunch of small coffee roasters that were doing somewhat similar things to George. And one of those specialty coffee shops was called – you guessed it – Starbucks.
MORRIS: It’s started by three sort of friends by and large, who’d been at university in California. They’d been influenced by Peets, but they went up to Seattle and they started out, and again, they were selling specialty coffee for consumption, essentially in the home.
MORRIS: They were not doing what we now associate with Starbucks at all.
MORRIS: The transformation for Starbucks came when Howard Schultz, who was at that time a salesman in New York who began supplying equipment to Starbucks basically took a position in the company. And then at a certain point, according to the short story, he went to Italy. He saw Italian coffee culture, and he thought he would bring back elements of that culture to the U.S.
MORRIS: And turn Starbucks from, in a sense, a purveyor of coffee beans to much more a purveyor of what he would call coffee theater. So brewing in the store, preparing beverages in the store and selling them to people in the store already, already brewed. And using espresso to create that theater.
GRABER: Back in Boston, George heard about this new Starbucks and he even traveled to Seattle to check out what they were doing and pick up some tips.
HOWELL: I really studied what they did. I went to the West Coast multiple times to see how they laid it out and so on. I picked up a lot of real good information. The whole idea of the espresso machine being turned not against the back wall where, the barista had his back to the consumer, but facing the consumer.
TWILLEY: But coffee theater aside, George didn’t love the Starbucks coffee — it was a super dark roast.
HOWELL: Yes, I was calling them Charbucks at the time.
HOWELL: It’s a very aggressive flavor. That’s why they use the words bold. Bold and rich, especially bold. They love the word bold, you’ll see it all over the place for decades. They use that word.
TWILLEY: Italians were known for their dark roasts, but the Howard Schulz American version of Italian coffee culture wasn’t exactly a carbon copy. The Starbucks version of Italian espresso drinks were much milkier, because that made them sweeter, and then for even more sugar, Starbucks went big on flavored syrups. And of course, everything was twice the size it would be in Europe and those sizes had their own weird made-up names.
WAITRESS: Good morning. Can I take your order:
ELIZABETH: Can I get a tall chai?
DAN: And a large black cofee.
WAITRESS: A what?
DAN: A large black coffee.
WAITRESS: Do you mean a venti?
DAN: No, I mean a large.
ELIZABETH: He means a venti, yeah. The biggest one you’ve got.
WAITRESS: Venti is large.
DAN: Mmm, no. Venti is twenty.
DAN: Yeah. Large is large. In fact, tall is large. And grande is Spanish for large. Venti is the only one that doesn’t mean large.
GRABER: Paul Rudd’s grumpy energy drink salesman character in the movie Role Models aside, most Americans love Starbucks and have fully embraced the infinite variety of the Starbucks order. But it is pretty easy to poke fun at. Tiktok even has its own category of ridiculous-sounding Starbucks orders.
STARBUCKS EMPLOYEE: So I’m just going to read it back to make sure I got everything. A tall ice caramel cloud macchiato with extra caramel drizzle, a grande pink drink, a grande dragon drink, a grande cotton candy Frappuccino, a grande Green Tea Frappuccino with six pumps of raspberry, a venti iced coffee with no classic, two pumps of sugar free cinnamon dolce, Five pumps of sugar free vanilla with heavy cream.
CUSTOMER: Yes, that’s it.
GRABER Caramel cloud macchiato? I don’t even know what that means. But aside from the coffee, even the ridiculous sounding orders, people also loved Starbucks itself, the place. There were tables to hang out, it was clean, there were clean bathrooms and baby changing spaces, there were newspapers to read…
MORRIS: A whole kind of model was developed in which the coffee served really as the currency for everything else. So by buying your coffee, you both got a premium coffee and you also bought these additional services, if you like, the store was giving you for free.
TWILLEY: Under Howard Schulz, Starbucks had its eye on global domination, and when they were expanding to Boston in 1993, 94, they came to George, and offered to buy his chain of Coffee Connection coffee shops. And he sold — he didn’t want to take them on.
GRABER: Plus frankly, George had more than 20 storefronts at the time, and he was a little tired of the business side of running all those cafes. Selling to Starbucks let him get back to his greatest passion, which is obsessing over just the coffee beans themselves, like a famous and rare variety of Arabica called Geisha from Panama that George had me try.
HOWELL: Our roasters did a fabulous job on this. This is not subtle. So try it out.
GRABER: Wow, it’s very smooth. And it has these, like the fruit and the caramel are kind of blended together.
HOWELL: Yes, there’s kind of peach apricot notes that are really running through this, almost a ginger-like note as well, right? Really bright and yet really smooth.
GRABER: Wow. It’s really, it’s really lovely.
TWILLEY: This focus on the beans themselves — the different flavors that you can get from different coffees grown in different soils — that’s the next phase in coffee’s evolution. You’ve maybe heard of third wave coffee without understanding exactly what it is — or at least I had.
TWILLEY: According to George, first wave is the bad coffee before specialty coffee. Second wave is Erna and Peets and early Starbucks and George, and the rise of specialty coffee. And then third wave?
HOWELL: We all have our different interpretations of what it is.
HOWELL: To me, it’s very simple. Light roast, in order to, in order to convey the real flavor within the bean itself.
HOWELL: The craft and the art of the farmer, right? And the processor, that’s sometimes one and the same, or the processors are next door working with the farmer. But they’re right there and doing that without trying to transform it into something else with a darker roast.
GRABER: There’s so much that can affect the flavor of the coffee in your cup, far beyond whether it’s Arabica or Robusta and whether it’s fresh or not. How the coffee is grown, where it’s grown, how it’s dried, how it’s processed, of course how it’s roasted.
SARADA KRISHNAN: What is interesting about coffee is they’re very similar to wine, where you call terroir from the region that they’re grown, they get a specific taste based on where they’re grown. And coffee is very similar.
TWILLEY: This is Sarada Krishnan, who you also heard in our last episode. She’s the director of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, she’s director of horticulture at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and she owns a coffee plantation in Jamaica. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffees are some of the rarest and most expensive in the world thanks to their sweet, kind of floral taste and super bright acidity.
KRISHNAN: So the same variety that you grow in Jamaica or in Costa Rica will taste very different because it is impacted by the sunshine and the shade and the soil, the rainfall. All of those impact the taste of the coffee.
GRABER: George and the third wave coffee roasters in general are super obsessive about the beans and the people who grow them and making sure those beans are roasted in a way that brings out the peak deliciousness.
GRABER: But that also has led to an obsession about how to treat those beans once you get them home.
TWILLEY: First you have to grind them correctly. Which Jay Ruskey at FRINJ in California is unsurprisingly very particular about.
RUSKEY: So this is this called a burr grinder.
TWILLEY: Oh, I could just smell that all day.
RUSKEY: Yeah, it’s a great aromatic moment, fresh ground coffee.
GRABER: People who love coffee tend to grind their beans right before brewing to make sure they don’t lose any of the aromatic flavors. But it’s not just a fresh grind that matters, it’s also the size of your grind.
FEKETE: So I’d say for home, it’s really important that you stay away from blade grinders, you know, the spice grinders that have a two prong blade,
FEKETE: Because these chop up the coffee into very uneven bits, you will get a fine powder in the bottom, the larger bits on top, and these will extract very unevenly.
TWILLEY: This is kind of common sense — if you imagine just chopping coffee beans in half and putting them in hot water, that will take forever to extract all the flavor. And if you grind them up to a superfine powder, then obviously, the water will extract flavors much more quickly. There’s so much more surface area.
FEKETE :When you have a combination of these very small and very large particles, you can imagine that the extraction will be very uneven.
GRABER: And even once you have the right tool to grind your beans evenly, you have to decide what size you want the grind to be. Monika plays with the size of her grind depending on the type of bean and coffee she’s making.
TWILLEY: The next thing that these third wavers who want to savor every little flavor note in their specialty beans worry about is the temperature of their water and exactly how long it’s in contact with the grounds. Then there’s the temperature that you drink your cup of coffee at.
HOWELL: Hot coffee hides a lot of flavors. And as it cools you’re starting to get all these flavors that develop more and more. So it’s like a rose that’s closed and it’s opening. And the whole thing about enjoying a cup of light roast coffee, is how it opens up and flowers
RUSKEY: When it’s hot, your taste buds are actually trying to tell you don’t drink it.
RUSKEY: But as it gets down to like 130 degrees 140 degrees, your taste buds are more receptive to the flavors, the sweetness, the florals, the acidity.
GRABER: All of this focus on flavor has led to people being willing to pay a pretty penny for a delicious cup of coffee. But at the same time, roasters and consumers started to wonder whether the farmers were benefitting from the higher prices.
TWILLEY: And that concern led directly to the invention of fair trade.
MORRIS: So what gave fair trade the boost was this very weird disconnect whereby we had the big growth of the coffee shop ,of the Starbucks and so forth, of people becoming used to paying, you know, several dollars for a coffee.
MORRIS: And yet the evident poverty that was happening in the coffee growing areas. Fair trade attempts to address that by putting in a base price.
GRABER: Fair trade has now certainly spread out from just coffee to chocolate and bananas and more. At the same time, now coffee has moved beyond fair trade to something folks like George call direct trade. George works directly with the farmers and then he also knows how farmers treat workers on their farms, and he can pay them more when he works with them directly, too. But this approach is pretty new.
HOWELL: To change the industry is very difficult (laughs), very hard to do.
HOWELL: That whole thing, getting farmers to participate in the, in the bounty of what specialty offers people in the business has only just started. That’s got a long ways to go.
TWILLEY: This is something you can help with and Jonathan had some good advice for how to do that.
MORRIS: The more specific a coffee is about its origin and about who grew it, the more likely it is that those people have been paid fairly for their coffee.
MORRIS: So don’t look at something that just says, you know, African coffee or roaster’s choice coffee. Look for something that says, you know, “this coffee came from this region of Peru,” say or whatever, or “this farm…”. Because the more that they put that there, the more there tends to be an underpinning agreement as to some sort of more ethical way of pricing.
TWILLEY: Basically at this point in human history, after centuries of bad coffee grown by workers who were treated badly, it’s actually possible and not even that hard, as long as you have the cash, to get very delicious coffee that is also ethical. Hurray!
GRABER: But you all might not be shocked to hear that the specialty market is still only a small slice of the huge global coffee commodity market.Tthere’s still a lot of room to grow. Also because the demand for coffee is still growing.
KRISHNAN: Yes, the trend is going up. I think they are expecting demand to go up almost double by 2030. Which would be about 300 million bags of coffee.
KRISHNAN: So it is a huge industry.
TWILLEY: So the future of coffee is more coffee. But maybe it’s also better coffee.
GRABER: Coffee trees haven’t had the same type of scientific investment and study that other crops have had in the recent past, and so there’s a lot of research going on now to to help figure out how to breed plants that are better resistant to disease, and that also can cope with a changing climate.
KRISHNAN: So climate change is going to, it already has had a huge impact on coffee production. And I personally, I can tell you too, because my coffee farm in Jamaica, I mean the past few years, every summer the drought has become more and more severe.
KRISHNAN: I mean, every year we lose probably a lot of crop, and it’s ripening earlier, and then if it ripens early, and then your quality is not as good either. It impacts the taste of your coffee.
TWILLEY: A few years ago, Jay at FRINJ partnered with a scientist at UC Davis to sequence the Arabica genome, which hadn’t been done before. Together they’ve launched a coffee breeding program. Jay showed me a hillside full of little baby coffee shrubs swaddled in individual white blankets.
RUSKEY: So today, what you’re seeing is some of those plants that we started breeding three years ago, they’re now in the ground with their control.
RUSKEY: So we have trials of our hybrids, the goal is to breed more vigorous and better tasting coffees.
RUSKEY: There’s not a lot of genetic improvement that’s happened.
GRABER: And Jay says we haven’t just been ignoring the science that’s necessary to advance coffee in the future, we’ve also been ignoring all the potential tasty parts of the plant, maybe even the very tastiest…
RUSKEY: I think if you could talk to a coffee plant, they’re like: “What are you doing? Why don’t you eat my fruit? Why are you eating my seed? The fruit’s the best part.”
RUSKEY: And so I bring that up because there’s still a lot more the coffee plant can offer us.
GRABER: The story of the coffee fruit — what it tastes like, what you can do with it — that’s just one of the millions of coffee stories that we can’t fit into these already in-depth episodes, and we’re saving some of them for our special supporters newsletter. Find out more at gastropod.com/support!
TWILLEY: But meanwhile, with all this science, and with all this optimism, what’s a Gastropod listener who wants a perfect cup of coffee to do?
GRABER: We’ve told you so many things that matter — where and how it’s grown, how fresh it is, how it’s roasted and ground and brewed. But it’s also really just about what you like!
TWILLEY: I kind of love a dark roast, and I’m not ashamed. Even George says there’s a time and place for that.
HOWELL: To my mind, as I drink a dark roast, as long as it’s not too dark, it can be very pleasant, especially after a meal, where you’ve had dessert, wine and all the rest of it.
MORRIS: I know that you are both gourmets and people who, I would hazard therefore enjoy multiple ways of whatever you consume. If I said to you, what’s your favorite wine? You would say, “Oh, it depends on the season, depends on the time of day, depends on my feeling, etcetera.”
MORRIS: And that’s for me the truth about coffee as well. I drink different forms of coffee at different times of the day. I drink different origins of coffee depending on what’s available, depending on what’s in season, depending on what I can see that attracts me.
MORRIS: I love diversity, and that’s what’s made the coffee and specialty coffee, that’s its great gift, in a way, is to enable us to have that diversity.
GRABER: So, basically, explore and enjoy!
HOWELL: We’re, we’re only at the beginning of really discovering what great coffee can be.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to George Howell, Jonathan Morris, Jay Ruskey, Paige Gesualdo, and all the folks at FRINJ, Sarada Krishnan, Monica Fekete, and Augustine Sedgewick. You can find out more about all of them at our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: And a special thanks to our new and awesome part-time producer, Claudia Geib, who is already hard at work making Gastropod episodes 100% more awesome and our lives a lot easier too.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with a very sticky story — something you can really sink your teeth into. ‘Til then!