what’s so bad about the l.a. times coffee article?

May 3, 2010 – 9:53 pm

it stings to be told how to properly drink a macchiato.

it also stings to be told your espresso tastes like “bitter … burned citrus peel.”

sprodown!

alas, the offense on both sides was avoidable — and, to this reader’s eye, the fault of intelligentsia’s “good guys.” which isn’t to say they could have done anything about this rankled customer. but maybe they could’ve! safe to say this blog does not agree with tweeting coffee persons who think that l.a. times piece on emerging coffee snobbery was “bad” journalism.

the piece wasn’t postured as even-handed, facts-only reporting … it was first-person, opinionated viewpoint. which means only this: a person who takes the trouble to go to a high-end coffee bar on the way home was put off by the way she was treated, didn’t like how her coffee tasted — and was so frustrated by the overall experience she was spurred to ask (in writing) What It All Means.

what’s wrong with that? this person may or may not be “informed.” she may have been emotional after being told such-and-such about macchiatos. her pontifications may not be especially revelatory to specialty coffee persons. but if a thinking customer has such a reaction to one of l.a.’s acclaimed coffee joints, then i for one want to know. and if this person can write it fluently, and explain it lucidly, then i would like to read it. and what it seems like is that an intelly barista didn’t have to use an “icy tone” while refusing to make a macchiato to go. nor did he have to serve “bitter” coffee. and if neither of these things really happened — then i still want to know if that’s what it seemed like to the customer. to ignore that viewpoint is to seal one’s self in an insider’s doom machine.

my father had a similarly icy and totally rude experience at san francisco’s blue bottle (after searching out the place on my recommendation), and, at the time, i wrote that the shop appeared to have gone so endo on its coffee that it forgot how to effectively introduce people to it. a lot of customers are jerks, sure. but if a shop serves its coffee so much that it forgets to effectively serve the people who buy it, then this strikes me as a sign that the movement is ultimately self limiting. we risk liking coffee too much and people not enough.

this blog, obviously, appreciates the intelly stuff. it would be almost too fun to point out to the l.a. times writer that an intelly barista has won two straight national championships as scored primarily by, you know, taste. and yet, weirdly, i’ve had more than one friend come back from chicago or l.a. and describe an intelly beverage as “ashy” or “acrid.” this is always a bit stunning, but these are always fairly experienced consumers, people who drink regularly off my home bar and sample coffee and crema‘s stuff and know counter culture coffees fairly well — but who can’t suffer some random cup from one of the best-known bars in the country.

there’s no accounting for taste, or the occasional bad cup. but it’s certainly worthwhile to think about it. to demand that mainstream journalism always “get it” on specialty coffee — to assume it should reflect an insider’s values — is to use the same logic the tea partiers or the salon bloggers use when insisting that only their view of a political story should be covered.

now, snitty quote-fests about a $25 cup of n.y.c. coffee, or whiny jibes about coffee “culture wars” — those are “bad” journalism.