On any given day, I can probably give you an arm's-length list of reasons to be excited about coffee, the most obvious ones being, "It's delicious," and, "You can make it at home for pennies a day." Coffee, after all, is the thing I spend most of my time totally psyched about.
But there are a few particularly good excuses to get pumped about coffee right now. Let's get to them while the steam is still hot and the crema is still intact.
New Microroasters Are Popping Up Everywhere
Coffee is one of the most complex things we consume: The beans themselves contain thousands—thousands!—of volatile aromatic compounds (many more than red wine, in fact), and things like botanical variety, terroir, processing, harvesting, roasting, and brewing all play an instrumental role in how the end product tastes once it reaches you.
Roasting is a huge part of that, and makes for a dynamic field of options indeed: The same coffee imported and roasted by two different companies can be like night and day, or apples and oranges, or coffee and...coffee.
The more startup roasters there are to keep us in beans, then, the better able we are to explore what the science and art of roasting can do to a coffee. Regional and taste differences abound, thankfully and deliciously: San Francisco's little guys continue to rock the area's Scandinavian-style light-roast obsession; Portland, ME is getting into the game in a bootstrappy DIY way with Tandem Coffee Roasters; and our own intrepid Liz Clayton just keyed us in on a host of small-batch roasters who are bringing naturally processed coffees and a huge array of varieties to the Windy City.
A rising tide of great new roasters floats all our coffee-loving boats: The more the merrier, and don't fear the e-commerce from some of the newbies. Buying freshly roasted coffee online is like getting yourself a present and taking a mini vacation in your kitchen at the same time.
Competitions Are in Full Swing
Barista competitions are righteous and awesome, and now is the time to tune in to the regional rounds taking place all over the U.S.A., almost all of which are available to watch via live streaming.
The format is fun without being, you know, too over the top: Each barista has to prepare, serve, and explain three flights of drinks (single espresso, single cappuccino, and a signature drink of his or her own design) to a panel of four sensory, two technical, and one head judge, who rate the beverages on taste, balance, appearance, and synergy.
The baristas themselves come under scrutiny as well: Does she describe where the coffee comes from? Does he give clear instructions on how to drink this fancy-looking coffee mocktail? Is that a smudge on that glass? Why didn't the judges get water glasses or napkins from the competitor? And, they have to do it all in 15 minutes without losing points or being disqualified. It's tougher than it might sound!
Besides the coffee drama, one of the very best things about barista competitions is that at any given moment, in your local café, you might have your espresso or latte prepared for you by a champ: Unlike the famous chefs splattered all over TV, these folks are actually on the line and on the regular. They may train like Rocky after hours—tasting shot after shot, tweaking recipes, perfecting their presentations, buying and polishing dishware, doing run-throughs for anyone who will listen—but by daytime they're the same friendly face you see every morning across the espresso machine.
Regional barista champions worldwide then meet in a springtime global competition: The World Barista Championship. Last year my colleague Katie Carguilo took the United States crown and went on to represent us in Vienna. Who will do the honors in Melbourne this year??
(Laugh if you must, while you catch up on the relentless stream of Chopped and Top Chef live-blogging and Tweeting and recaps that are splashed all over the darned Internet, but I'm telling you: Barista competitions are just as fun, creative, professional, exciting, and stressful as any of 'em.)
South American Coffees Are Coming Back in Season
Every year 'round this time, we start to get palate fatigue from the big, bold, cirtus-bomb Kenyan and Ethiopian coffees that dominate everybody's menus everywhere. While I might love a delicate, floral brew as much as the next guy, once the weather starts to get despair-worthy I like to return to the warm, cherry-cola sweetness and buttery, melted-chocolate body of a nice washed Colombian or Peruvian.
Check out brand-new South American offerings from Intelligentsia Coffee (try their certified organic Bolivian coffee, Anjilanaka), MadCap Coffee Roasters (a lovely lot produced by Colombian coffee farmer Didier Reinoso, or something fresh from my folks at Counter Culture Coffee. (It's kind of a secret, but Valle del Santuario from Peru is one of my favorites of ours.)
What reasons do you have to be excited about coffee right now? And how are you doing on those resolutions so far?
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.