Coffee appears to be a recession-proof commodity, with nearly half the U.S. workforce spending about $1,000 a year on coffee at work in 2012, according to a survey by Accounting Principals.
Locally, The Pony Expresso in Dolores is thriving despite research that showed the business should need a population of 30,000 people to support it, said co-owner Mark Looper.
“We’re succeeding where we’re not supposed to,” he said.
But when caffeine hounds lay down $4 or more for a latte, cappuccino or mocha, what are they buying?
Coffee beans quality can be split into four categories: commodity, quality, organic and fair trade. Commodity coffee beans are the least expensive and are carried by major companies like Folgers.
Locally, popular shops use quality light-roasted beans, a far cry from the Starbucks standard.
Starbucks created a demand for speciality coffees across the U.S., but it also created the expectation that coffee should be over-roasted, said Matt Lauer a co-owner of Fahrenheit Coffee Roasters in Mancos.
“People get so used to the burnt-bean flavor they think that’s what it’s supposed to taste like,” Looper said.
But if you are turning to coffee for that morning caffeine boost, a lighter roast carries a higher caffeine content.
Espresso is also misunderstood. A properly brewed shot of espresso isn’t packed with caffeine because that will make it overly bitter.
Many people love the smell of coffee, but don’t like the taste. The goal of good espresso is to close that gap, Lauer said.
“Refinement of the espresso process is the holy grail,” he said.
For Looper this has meant coming up with his own six-bean blend to create a smooth flavor.
Before local shops and roasters can start bringing out subtleties in coffee, they have to start with a quality beans, and they all have different strategies.
Let it Grow buys directly from farm producers. They pay extra for the highest quality coffee from a village in Ethiopia.
“Coffee and wine and peaches all have this tremendous ability to draw flavors from their environment,” said Jude Schuenemeyer, a co-owner.
The Pony Expresso and Fahrenheit are buy-organic and fair trade coffees. This is important to Looper because he believes pesticides come through in the flavor of the coffee.
“We put enough poisons in our body as it is,” he said
As a result, all these coffee shops pay a higher price point for the beans than the commodity beans that are harvested mechanically. Coffee beans are actually seeds. When they are harvested by hand, they are more likely to be ripe, Schuenemeyer said.
To test the quality of a new shop of the first time, these connoisseurs and coffee shop owners recommend different strategies.
For Looper, the proof is in a shop’s mocha, one of the most common drinks. If they can’t get it right, there’s no use trying anything else, he said. For Lauer, an Americana is a test of a shop’s espresso.