Everybody has opinions about the best cafés and the best coffee roasters, and coffee lovers everywhere insist that their city or their local bean slinger does it best. Thankfully, writer and reformed barista Hanna Neuschwander puts her macchiato where her mouth is with a new book extolling the prides and prejudices of America's westernmost bean scene: Left Coast Roast: A Guide to the Best Coffee and Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle.
The book is many things: Though it's mostly a guidebook to California, Oregon, and Washington roasters and shops, it's also one part dictionary/encyclopedia of the styles, slang, and sensory details that make up your daily cup, in addition to being a how-to manual to roasting and brewing deliciousness at home, and a love-letter to coffee in general. Left Coast Roast is a breezy, easy-reading first step to cultivating some serious know-how.
With slick-but-simple graphics, a conversational (and not in the least pedantic) tone, and an on-the-level appraisal of some of the West Coast's best and most storied coffee purveyors, reading Neuschwander's book is just like going out for an espresso with your best coffee-obsessed friend: Her enthusiasm and knowledge shines on every page, but there's a distinct lack of the snobbishness and proselytizing that typically infests the coffee guides that likely inspired this one. Even if you're not headed out toward the Pacific, this is a worthy addition to any latte lover's reading list.
We recently caught up with Neuschwander on the phone to ask her about the benefits of Left Coast caffeine over all others, the future of specialty coffee, and how she drinks her research.
How does the West Coast differ and stack up to the rest of the country, or even the rest of the world, now that you've looked at it analytically?
It's a little hard to generalize, because, you know, L.A. is so different from Portland, is different from Seattle. I think one thing the West Coast has in spades is just a ton of people who are excited about coffee and have worked in it for x amount of years. Not that those people aren't also on the East Coast and in the middle of the country, but there are so many of them [here] it's kind of astounding.
What do you think is the most significant contribution the West Coast coffee scene has made to American specialty coffee in general?
I don't think the West Coast can claim to have some territorial rights to a lighter roasting style or friendly service; I think everybody's experimenting, and I think we got to this experimental stage a little earlier than other folks. It's already changing, too. Obviously I love Portland, and I love Portland's coffee scene: The way the city is structured is around these neighborhood pockets, which means each of these neighborhoods has its own core. They have their own cafe, and a T-shirt shop and a record store, so you have all these little independent coffee shops. And so many of them are roasting their own coffee! Portland's coffee scene is varied, depending on the neighborhood's personalities, but on the whole I think it's less stuck-up and more friendly. We don't have the trademark on that in Portland, though; it's just the business model of having a neighborhood cafe, and it can exist in Seattle and Milwaukee and Houston. One of the things to claim—and I'm not saying anything new here—is that Starbucks changed everything for everyone. If they hadn't gotten people used to paying $3 or $4 for a drink, the people in the book wouldn't be doing anything.
What do you think is the future of specialty coffee: Espresso or drip, hand-crafted or high-tech
I kind of feel like we're in the future! On the West Coast we've all watched the rise of brewed coffee and pour over, and I don't see that going anywhere any time soon. It fits so well with the sort of ethos we have about doing little things well, and doing them for yourself. I think pods are still super popular, and I don't think that's going anywhere soon, but I'm talking about specialty coffee [in the book]. In some ways, the pod thing is similar to the make-yourself-a-cup-of-coffee-at-home: It's looking at coffee on a different scale, it's making yourself a cup at a time rather than a pot at a time. I think the scale is narrowing a little bit.
When you're gauging the quality of a café or a roaster, what are the go-to drinks you order?
It depends on the context. If I'm on vacation and it's Sunday and I'm with my husband, I'm probably getting a cappuccino and a pastry. Because who doesn't want a cappuccino and a pastry, right? But if I'm, like, testing out what it is that I'm experiencing, I usually get a shot of espresso and a black coffee. I'm more apt to go for a house espresso or a blend, because that is usually a better representation of the sum total of their efforts. I have so much sympathy for a more old-school approach, that does emphasize blending in espresso in particular. To some degree, I think the knee-jerk kind of criticism or thought that blends aren't cool is a little bit damaging for coffee roasters, especially if they're not extremely committed to the single-origin thing. It's interesting to watch from the outside, this idea that we just want the coffee to be naked. I find it ridiculous. Transparent is a word I heard a lot in coffee: "Our job is to take this beautiful thing and not [screw] it up." But the idea that you're not impacting this thing that you're roasting is absurd. That is the value that you're adding!
I get asked these two questions all the time, and I secretly hate them, so I wonder: Which is worse, "What's your favorite coffee?" or "Who's your favorite roaster?"
I probably get asked the latter more, as a function of having written this book. I have an easy cop-out answer: "I don't have a favorite. My favorite thing is that there is all this variety, and now you can buy my book and find out which one you like." I don't hate when people ask me that question because I think all it really means is that they are engaged and want to be even more engaged. For me, it's just a fun excuse to have an interaction about something that I love, or information I like to share. I have my favorites, but I don't tell people what they are usually. They change over time. What doesn't change is that I get to wake up in the morning and my husband makes my coffee, and it's this perfect moment, and you can do it, too.
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.