Coffee as Theater: A Caffeinated Renaissance

by Anthony DeNicola and Ali Sundermier

A new, more sophisticated breed of coffee drinker has emerged on a large scale. While mass produced coffee from the likes of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, or just about anything fit for a Keurig, may appeal to many, the new breed are not content with wholesale java in small plastic cups brewed with the mechanical efficiency of a German car factory. They seek the kind of patient, subtle, yet undeniable quality reminiscent of Italian Renaissance painters. Ask yourself; do you think Michelangelo would have used a Keurig?

“Things have changed dramatically,” said Kevin Sinnott, creator of CoffeeCon, a consumer specialty-coffee event in Chicago, San Francisco, LA, and NYC. “I think the biggest change has been that consumers now are beginning to see coffee as a cooking art. “

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), as of December 2014, the retail value of the U.S. coffee market is estimated at $46 billion, with specialty coffees making up about 55% of that. This is reflective of statistics on national coffee drinking trends. According to the National Coffee Association (NCA), who has kept statistics on coffee habits since the 1950s, 34% of Americans consume gourmet coffee beverages daily, a 3% rise from 2013, with high- end espresso drinks seeing the biggest rise in daily use, going from 13% – to – 18%.

“Our customers are so educated in coffee, it’s scary,” said Georgio Testani, owner and operator of Georgio’s Coffee Roasters on Long Island. “They have their own little labs at home.”

Georgio’s is one of several coffee roasters on Long Island catering to these ‘coffeephiles’ by finding the highest quality coffee beans on the planet and providing a plethora of unconventional brewing options such as a siphon, batch brewer, pour-over and trifecta.

The customers who frequent such places seem to want an experience, rather than just a caffeine fix. Brandon King, a former barista at Starbucks before he moved to Roast, another coffee roaster on Long Island, appreciates the differences in the two java dispensaries.

“People are very laid back and nice, they know what they want and they will wait for it,” King said. “We are not rushed all the time like a huge chain, like I was at Starbucks.”

Roast regular customer, Erik Fuhrer, personifies this sentiment. ”Sometimes I go to Starbucks when I don’t have much time but when I want to have an experience and sit down, I come here,” he said while sipping a dark Brazilian roast.

Not to be left behind, the biggest coffee chain on the planet, Starbucks, realized it had to get with the times. Several years ago, they implemented the coffee master program, to train select baristas to have a much deeper understanding of coffee, where it comes from and how it’s made.

According to Christina Koryluk, a Starbucks assistant manager and coffee master, the program requires that they learn about the variables involved in coffee production: the effects of geography and altitude, the different species of coffee trees, how it’s grown and how it’s processed. Coffee masters are able to identify where the coffee came from and the different notes it possesses based on taste and aroma.

Koryluk says that Starbucks has been putting more emphasis on this program as coffee drinkers become more sophisticated.

“They want to put more emphasis on it and have more coffee masters readily available,” Koryluk said. “People care more and are more selective in their process. They don’t mind spending the extra dollars on higher quality coffee.”

In response to the growing interest in gourmet coffee, Sinnott started CoffeeCon four years ago. Since then, it has attracted upwards of 1,000 attendees per event.

“I think it’s a trend,” said Sinnott. “People are moving away from coffee as caffeine and looking for flavor first.“

The great thing about CoffeeCon, Sitton says, is that not only do they do coffee tastings but they have classes on site that teach anything a budding coffee enthusiast might want to learn.

Coffee as fuel fits the mass- produced, mechanized model that has dominated the market. But coffee as theater, the kind that makes taste buds leap and nostrils flare, requires an artist’s touch and attention to detail.

“You’ll see at least one person today who will take a sip of coffee, who’s never had coffee brewed how we brew it,” said Sinnot. “Never had coffee roasted or as fresh as ours. They’ll take one taste of it and a great big smile will break out on their face. They’ll nudge the person next to them and say wow.“

Coffee as Theater: Georgio’s Journey from Alison Sundermier on Vimeo.

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