The Hamilton Spectator article

Wake up to new coffee culture

Lori Fazari The Hamilton Spectator

Colin Newell won't trust just any source for coffee beans.

He brews his coffee from beans freshly roasted at several local roasting shops in his home of Victoria. He takes his coffee black, unadulterated, unmasked by the sweetness of sugar and body of milk. All the better to taste the full and complex flavour of the beans.

Newell is founder of the website, devoted to educating people about the ins and outs of espresso and coffee, from fair trade to French presses.

If there were a hierarchy of means of enjoying the beverage, Newell and the like would be pretty darn close to the top --the apex, some would argue, being found in the coffee bars of Italy.

These are a select few people who go to seemingly great lengths for a spectacular cup of coffee, who understand the potential hidden in the beans found in the cherries of a coffee tree. They can almost be compared to wine lovers and connoisseurs, with their own preferences and language of appreciation.

At the other end lies the rest of coffee-drinking society, where you can order the same specialty coffee at chains from coast to coast and grab a cappuccino at a gas station variety store.

North American coffee culture is a brew all its own. Its history is young, its presence evolving. It can credit the origins of its current incarnation to the coffee houses of Seattle that gave rise to Starbucks and the latte.

"Love or hate Starbucks and Second Cup, they have gone a long way in educating people," Newell said.

Educating, by means of marketing and advertising. "They've spent billions of dollars on that."

To see how far coffee drinkers have come, take a step back. Before the days of a coffee shop on every corner. Before the words latte and cappuccino became part of the everyday vocabulary. Before flavourings of vanilla and chocolate and caramel crossed with coffee in a concoction more dessert than drink, and much pricier than a plain drip brew.

Before all that, people drank some pretty inferior coffee, Newell said. "It's easier to use a lower grade of coffee and convince consumers they're happy with it."

Things started to change in the 1960s and '70s, first in the United States, then moving north, with the opening of small shops freshly roasting beans.

The first Starbucks opened in Seattle in 1971. Second Cup started selling coffee beans in the Toronto area in 1975, then moved to brewing drip coffee and eventually espresso-based drinks. This month, the Canadian chain is celebrating 25 years of serving lattes.

Coffee culture, of course, goes hand in hand with cafÈ culture, a place to sit and sip, where ambience and comfortable couches and armchairs are just as important as the drinks. The rise of the cafÈ matched the growth of European-style coffees here. But in uniquely North American fashion, the espresso-based drinks that the coffee chains brought to the masses were toned down, tamed, for broad appeal.

The latte, born of the cappuccino enjoyed at breakfast in Italy, is more milk and foam than bittersweet espresso.

For the official word, go to Second Cup's Marla Copeland, director of marketing and product development: "It's a smooth blend of rich espresso, steamed milk and topped with a dollop of foam," she said. "The latte is really the backbone of the specialty coffee market."

The menu boards of specialty coffee chains have gone even further in the past few years, disguising the coffee under a towering mountain of caramel syrup and chocolate shavings, whipped cream and vanilla flavourings.

"It's peculiar to North America. If you were travelling in Italy and asked for a latte, you'd get a glass of milk," Newell said. "We've not only changed the habits of consumers. We've changed the naming and the lexicon."

The latte's place in society firmly set, the next step is demanding better, said Vida Radovanovic, co-ordinator of the Canadian Coffee and Tea Expo.

The trade show, around since the mid '90s, takes place in Vancouver in June and will include the second annual Canadian barista championships.

Baristas, the people behind the counter coaxing the perfect blend of coffee and steamed milk from industrial-size espresso machines, will compete in categories such as timing and temperature, creativity and presentation and even personality.

For the first time, the public can attend the show to learn about coffee.

Radovanovic compares people's growing interest in coffee to the greater appreciation of fine wines. "I'm hoping it'll go to where wine's gone, that people won't experience a bad cup of coffee anymore," she said.

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