A Post About Coffee That Isn't Really About Coffee
Those that know me well, or at least follow my horrendously sloppy Instagram, know that one of my passions is so-called “third wave” coffee. The term “third wave” refers to small-batch roasts, manual brew methods, single origin espressos, cold brew (sometimes with nitro!), etc. etc. The first wave was Folger’s, Maxwell House and other economy coffees of that ilk. Starbucks and Caribou ushered in the second wave. And over the past decade-plus, roasters like Stumptown and Intelligentsia helped bring us to the third wave era, focusing on presenting coffee meticulously in a way that preserves subtleties that come from the growing region, drying process, roast, brew method, and a litany of other factors.
Anyway – I love coffee because it’s something I can do habitually that A) tastes great, B) increases productivity, C) makes me feel amazing, D) has nearly 0 calories, and E) is a pretty easy ritual to do at a high level at home, provided you’re working with great beans. But there’s something else there that has me hooked, and I think it’s that a lot of elements of third wave coffee are analogous to what I like about great musicians. My favorite roaster in the world, oddly correct in Kansas City, recently posted something on Instagram that got my wheels turning on this topic:
I’ve tried roasters from all over the country, either in person at a café space or ordering beans online, and to me oddly is really unparalleled in their ability to bring out all of the interesting flavor notes in coffee. I have a handful of other favorites, too, but oddly is the king. I think musicians could learn a few lessons from why oddly is so excellent…
Substance>Branding and Image
When I try coffee in different cities, I love visiting a well-curated café space for the first time. I like it when the menu is a black and white open-faced letter board, I like refurbished wood and marble countertops, I like rustic furniture, and I like when the barista has an ironic handlebar mustache and accompanying flannel or chambray button-up. But only if the main product is excellent, as well. There’s nothing that trips my BS sensors more than spending all of that time on accoutrements instead of doing the meticulous work that it takes to make sure your chief exponent, the most important thing, is unassailably good. There is a coffee house in Eau Claire that owns a $25k espresso machine, has a sleek and clean-looking space, and the social media presence of a really serious joint… but they use terrible beans, the baristas haven’t been trained in some pretty basic stuff, and the actual coffee falls well below the standard they’re pretending to have for themselves (and charging for!). It drives me crazy. I feel the same way about musicians who geek out on the latest expensive equipment, have amazing headshots and thousands of Instagram followers, generally talk the talk, but seem to have spent all of their time with that instead of making sure that the actual music is impeccable. All of that hustle is really important – but it should just be a subsidy to your bulletproof product.
I have no doubt that if the primary goal for oddly correct was to expand personnel and menu options, and open up more locations to make their business more lucrative, they could do it pretty easily. But, as alluded to in that Instagram post, their chief objective is to be really really good, every single time. I’ve never had a bad shot of espresso or pourover at oddly, in six years of visiting. I think that's largely because they stick to what they do best and obsess about making that thing incredible. In music (as I’ve discussed before here), we often romanticize the idea of being a musical Swiss Army knife so much that we spread ourselves too thin and don’t do anything at the highest level. Only capable at a half dozen things, instead of awesome at one or two. This is true in restaurants, too. The best places, whether they’re fast casual or fine dining, keep their offerings streamlined and centered around a smaller number of ingredients and dishes. The longer the menu, the less likely it is that anything on it will be memorable. If you want to add some extras to your carte du jour, it might be best to make sure you’ve identified what you want your central skill to be and be meticulous about it first.
Be Excellent For The Sake of Being Excellent, Even If Most People Can’t Tell The Difference
I suspect that a large swath of the population that drinks coffee at oddly correct wouldn’t actually be able to perceive the subtle differences between excellent and good coffee, and probably a pretty big subset of that group couldn’t tell the difference between excellent and average coffee. But that company presses on to be excellent, anyway, because of the value and satisfaction of being intrinsically excellent. I’ll just come right out with it: in Kansas City, an alarming trend has surfaced over the past several years. A growing faction of “pretenders” who wear fedoras and other “jazz hats”, make great looking gig flyers, and essentially act like a caricature of a JAZZ CAT on stage are gaining influence as well as an undue portion of the available gigs. Unfortunately, I’m observing that the listening audience as well as the media and the (well-meaning) folks promoting the music can’t tell the difference. It’s frustrating as hell that when people visit Kansas City and go out to hear what the jazz scene is all about, they’re often hearing people who are more interested in the idea of playing jazz than in actually playing jazz at a high level. But the great musicians I know in that city and elsewhere don’t let this affect their dogged pursuit of being brilliant. They could mail in a performance and most in the audience would be none the wiser, but that’s not what happens – they’re concerned with being excellent for the sake of being excellent!
Don’t Be Snobby – The Low Brow Stuff Can Serve An Important Function, Too
I’m often accused of being a coffee “snob”, and it makes me bristle. I don’t think I’m snobby about coffee at all! Discerning, to me, doesn’t equal snobby. Not every cup of coffee I have needs to be really good – sometimes I don’t have access to the caliber that I want, or I’m running late, or I just want something to wake me up for under $2. This week I had an awesome iced coffee with cream in it at Dunkin’ Donuts at the airport. It was 5 AM and that’s what I had available to me. I needed to wake up, it was cheap and available, and I was in a hurry to get to my gate. It hit the spot. And it’s not trying to be something it’s not! I think the iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts is objectively better than its more expensive counterpart at Starbucks, only they don’t pretend to be anything other than economy coffee. Folks will assume I hate Top 40 music because of what I do, but it’s not true at all – I just want people to understand the difference between something mass-produced to be readily available and cheap and consumable by a wide range of people, and something that is pored over (or, erm, poured over?) with the kind of myopic care that a place like oddly correct has. I bet chefs still eat McDonald’s sometimes. Just don’t tell them that what they slaved over for years to be able to produce is analogous to the McRib.