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A passion for quality gathered steam

From beatnik dive to microroaster, the road to better coffee.

October 25, 2006|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

Due to political unrest in Indonesia, only a few sacks of Celebes (Sulawesi) made it to the U.S. that year, and Peet -- who had worked in Indonesia -- boldly snagged a large share of them. The beans were wonderfully rich and sold out quickly, proving there was a market for specialty coffee. In the beginning, Peet sold only coffee beans, but eventually he started selling drip coffee by the cup.

Five years later, three twenty-something fans of Peet's, English teacher Jerry Baldwin, writer Gordon Bowker and history teacher Zev Siegl, started a little coffee import place of their own in Seattle, Starbucks, which ended up as the espresso house chain that conquered the world.

As we know, you can now find an espresso house just about anywhere -- in some places more than one on a block. There also are big, gleaming espresso machines at bars, restaurants, supermarkets and even bookstores. These days, you're not surprised to see an imposing espresso machine in a neighbor's kitchen.

But as espresso has spread, it has changed.

The fact is, strong black coffee served in tiny cups is typical of a belt extending from Spain to Hungary by way of Italy and Austria. Elsewhere in Europe, people prefer weaker drip coffee served in big cups with sugar and cream. Coffee historian Ian Bersten suggests this reflects the division between wine-drinking and beer-drinking Europe -- wine being strongly flavored and served in glasses while beer is mild and served in mugs.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Coffee companies: In Wednesday's Food section, a coffee timeline said Starbucks acquired Peet's Coffee in 1987. The purchaser was a group of partners led by Jerry Baldwin, a former co-owner of Starbucks.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 01, 2006 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Coffee companies: In last week's Food section, a coffee timeline stated that Starbucks acquired Peet's Coffee in 1987. The purchaser was a group of partners led by Jerry Baldwin, a former co-owner of Starbucks.


A fusion of styles

THE American tradition is decidedly big mugs with sugar and cream. As high-quality coffee and coffee-making have become common, we've been seeing a convergence of the two traditions. These days, people who order a straight espresso at a coffee shop are a minority. Most customers are getting something with a dairy product in it.

This fusion started with cappuccino, a traditional combination of equal amounts of espresso and milk, served in a medium-sized cup with a thick topping of steamed milk. (The reason it's so thick is that when a barista foams milk by powering steam through it, some of the milk protein coagulates.) When Starbucks went national in the late 1980s, the country went crazy for cappuccino. The gurgling roar of milk being steamed became the soundtrack of a coffeehouse.

More recently, cappuccino has been dethroned by caffe latte, which uses more milk and less foam. As hordes of people have been ordering mild, milky lattes, coffee shops have been obliging them by boosting the proportion of milk. These days you can find latte recipes that call for up to six times as much milk as coffee.

In 1995, Starbucks introduced a sort of coffee-flavored slush made with milk and sugar, the Frappuccino. Ever since, coffee shops have been concentrating more and more on ice-blended drinks, many without the least fig leaf of coffee. The coffee house has become a place for milkshake-like drinks with coffee as a motif.

But throughout all this, home coffee making has improved vastly. Drip makers drove out percolators in the '80s, and then French presses became common. Now people insist on owning burr grinders to make the perfect grind for their home espresso machines.

And for the first time since canned coffee was invented, independent local coffee roasters have established themselves around town. Good coffee is making itself at home, 50 years on.




Important dates in modern coffee connoisseurship


American coffee roasters start blending cheap Robusta beans, high in caffeine but low in flavor, with their traditional Arabica coffee. The vast majority of Americans are brewing canned ground coffee in percolators.


Giovanni Achille Gaggia patents the modern espresso machine.

Early 1950s

Gaggia's machines start showing up in Greenwich Village Italian cafes. New York bohemians take up espresso.


Ambrose Pasquini opens Moka d'Oro, L.A.'s first cafe using a Gaggia espresso machine, at 1712 N. Vermont Ave. Robinson's department store advertises a more primitive home espresso maker, the Nova Caffe.


Coffee House Positano opens in Malibu, initiating Southern California's beatnik coffee house era. Thirty more espresso joints open in the following year.


Peak use of Robusta beans by coffee companies, followed by a 25-year decline in American coffee consumption.


The 1962 International Trade Agreement is signed, the first of a series of five-year agreements that cartelize coffee production. They stifle the market for specialty coffees until the agreement breaks down in 1989.


In "The Ipcress File," Michael Caine's hip spy character Harry Palmer uses a Chemex filter coffee maker, reflecting the growing dissatisfaction with ordinary coffee.


Peet's Coffee, Tea and Spices opens in Berkeley selling specialty coffees; popularizes a relatively dark roast. In New York, Zabar's revives interest in specialty coffees; uses a light roast.


Introduction of Mr. Coffee drip coffee maker, which helps wean Americans away from the percolator.


Hills Bros. introduces European Style Coffees flavored with cocoa, cinnamon and coconut, spawning the flavored coffee trend.


Starbucks, a Seattle coffee merchant which had recently acquired Peet's, becomes a chain of coffee houses.

Late 1980s

Caffe latte becomes popular; in a Far Side cartoon, one cowboy offers another a mug, saying, "Latte, Jed?" Proportion of latte to caffe rises year by year.


Starbucks promotes the Frappuccino, a slushy drink of coffee, milk and ice. The ice-blended era begins; coffee shops more and more resemble 1940s soda fountains.

Late 1990s

A sizable wave of serious local coffee roasters.


Fifteen percent of adult Americans have a cup of specialty coffee every day.

-- Charles Perry

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