How Long Would You Stand In Line for Coffee?

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Waiting on line at Dunkin' Donuts. [Photographs: Meister]

As hand-crafted coffee becomes increasingly prevalent, those of us with a taste for the good stuff seemingly spend more time waiting around for it. But is there a limit to how long we'll wait for quality?

The other day, I walked past a Dunkin' Donuts at 9 a.m. on the dot, and was shocked to see a long line of bleary-eyed folks snaking out the door and down the sidewalk out front. Sure, it was commuter crunch time in a busy office-driven part of downtown New York, but, I mean... really? What exactly are we waiting for?

A couple other immediate questions came to mind upon witnessing this scene: First, I've been to my share of DD counters—I was raised in New Jersey, which means I was practically nursed on a medium-light-and-sweet— and feel like the place is pretty efficiently designed to get customers in and out in a matter of moments. What in the world could be taking long enough to pour, microwave, or bag up at this particular Dunkin' freaking Donuts to cause such a back-log?

Second, if people will wait that long for fast-food-style joe, how long should we collectively expect to stick around single-file for something that's vastly superior?

It's become obvious in the past few years that a focus on quality driven hand-crafted coffee is on its way back, despite what seems like our overall cultural obsession with speed and convenience. Even Starbucks is in on the brew-by-the-cup movement, what with the Mermaid's purchase of the single-serving brew system Clover in 2008, and a company-wide transition to individual cups of decaf in '09. And, just like a comparison between a burger that's been sitting under a warming lamp and one that's cooked fresh to order, the difference is palpable: You can always taste the TLC.

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Individually brewing coffee on a siphon at Barista in Portland, OR.

But you'll have to wait for it.

However, tension between those who want to grab-and-go and those who expect something brewed especially for them, new coffee-shop owners are faced with a conundrum: Can a cafe be successful by brewing only by the cup? Will enough people be willing to stand around waiting to hear their order announced?

There are those who have managed to make it work, and have given large-batches the cold shoulder; others successfully offer a compromise, with machine-brewed coffee ready to go during rush hours, and individually poured cups available for the duration.

Naturally, both alternatives have their benefits and draw backs, and pleasing everybody is impossible. But just like having to face the fact that the perfect medium-rare burger won't flip itself, an exquisite cup of to-order coffee won't brew itself, and doing it right takes time (typically something between three to four minutes for most extraction methods, including French press, Chemex, filter cone, you name it), though it's worth it more often than not for the true coffee lover.

How long are you willing to wait for coffee, and what's the longest you've ever been in a queue for one? Are you more likely to brave the single file for something you know is higher quality?

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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