The True Story of Good Coffee


There was a time not so long ago when all of the coffee in the entire United States of America was bad. It only came in giant cans and it was roasted and ground until it tasted like dirt and no one who drank it knew where any of it came from or even cared because it was very cheap and all of the coffee farmers were very sad. But then in 1966 there was a man, because of course it was a man, and he realized that if he made the coffee a little bit better by roasting it darker he could charge more for it, and his name was Alfred Peet. And then in 1971 there were some other men, and they talked to Alfred, and one of those men went by the name of Howard Schultz, and he made sure that everybody in America was awakened by the ancient Italian coffee known as the Frappuccino. A couple of decades later, in 1995, there was another a man but also a woman, and their names were Doug Zell and Emily Mange, and they decided that they would buy coffee directly from coffee farmers and not blend it with coffee from other farmers and that also they wouldn’t roast it all that dark, so you could taste the flavors of the actual farm where this “single-origin” coffee came from, sort of like wine, which costs a lot of money, and maybe coffee could cost that much too, and they called their coffee Intelligentsia. Other men, like a man in Portland named Duane Sorenson, thought that Good Coffee was a Good Idea, but he could make it Better, so in 1999, he went to the countries where they farm the coffee and took a lot of pictures and posted them online and said things like, “I don’t want to sell my coffee to everyone… It’s not for everyone. I don’t have the fucking time for it, man.” It was like a whole Wave of coffee, and I guess that is when the coffee became Good and many people in many cool cities drank it, or at least that is how the story goes.

Over the next few years, a lot of other foods, meat and vegetables and alcoholic beverages alike, became Good too — sustainably raised, ethically uprooted, hand-slaughtered, locally bartered — and a whole lot of people with a lot of money decided that they really liked Good Food, especially as a way to show how they were better than other people with a lot of money. This made the people who were making the Good Coffee think, “Wow, a lot more people could be drinking our Good Coffee, which is currently only a mediocre capitalist venture with marginal profits,” even though they had three or six or ten stores and were selling a good amount of coffee to cafes and restaurants who wanted to serve their Good Coffee. Some people with money, mostly but not entirely men, called venture capitalists, or investors for short, agreed with them, and started giving some of the coffee men money to expand. In 2011, a company called TSG, which had previously given the world VitaminWater, bought most of Stumptown, which had realized that while it would be cool to open roasteries and cafes all over the country, it would be even cooler to sell its Good Coffee to a LOT more people, so they put it in retro-style glass bottles and in cute cartons with milk and sugar and, more recently, in nitro cans and giant kegs, which could be marketed as “cold brew on tap” and sold all over the place, so customers didn’t have to bother with any of the things that make brewing Good Coffee so annoying. And things were Pretty Good.

At the same time, in San Francisco, another coffee man, named James Freeman, had started a Good Coffee company called Blue Bottle. One of things that made his coffee company different is that in addition to selling his Good Coffee out of beautiful shops, it was based in San Francisco at a time when there were a lot of men with a lot of money and a lot of taste — because they made apps, or gave money to other men to make apps, in order to change the entire world (which requires a lot of discernment). These tasteful app men loved Blue Bottle so much they gave it twenty million dollars, and then twenty-five million dollars, and finally seventy million dollars (that’s over a hundred million dollars), so that their favorite coffee company could grow — “scale” — just like their favorite app companies, and acquire millions of users and change the world with Good Coffee. Blue Bottle took that money and acquired some other, smaller Good Coffee companies and a famous San Francisco bakery and it opened some more coffee shops and it sold lots and lots of cute Good Coffee cartons and it even acquired a company that will let it sell Good Coffee in every grocery store in every city in America. Wow. Every other Good Coffee company suddenly looked very small next to Blue Bottle’s big pile of money. This made some of them decide to raise money too, and because venture capitalists do not want to miss a good opportunity to venture their capital in order to acquire more of it, they gave millions of dollars to other companies that they thought might have Good Coffee, like La Colombe Torrefaction, and even obviously not-so-good coffee companies like Philz Coffee .

Meanwhile, in a land far away, called Europe, there is a company called JAB Holding Company. It owns a lot of other companies, like Jimmy Choo, and many of its companies own companies of their own. A lot of these companies that its companies own are coffee companies with Fine Brands, like Caribou Coffee, Espresso House, Baresso Coffee, Tassimo, Senseo, Gevalia, and many others. In 2012, the year that the app men started giving money to Blue Bottle, one of JAB’s companies bought Alfred Peet’s Fine Coffee company, Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

A few months ago, for reasons that are still not clear, but perhaps because Stumptown was not “scaling” fast enough to become the next VitaminWater (maybe because Duane Sorensen became a restaurant man, and not so much of a coffee man anymore, or at least that is what many other coffee men and women say, but who knows) TSG decided to sell its stake in Stumptown, and a few weeks ago, Peet’s decided to buy it, because it was a Good Coffee Brand whose readymade cold brew would be easy to scale. That same week, it became public that Intelligentsia, after twenty years in business — some of which were financially rocky, according to many coffee men and women, despite making it all the way to Los Angeles and New York from Chicago — put itself up for sale or a lot of investment, whatever. Peet’s decided to buy it, too, because while it owned a lot of Fine Coffee Brands, it could always use another Good Coffee Brand.

There are perhaps some people who will be upset that their favorite Good Coffee Company is now just another Good Coffee Brand, revealing once again the insignificance of their person and the futility of their Brand Devotion when it is set against forces vastly larger than themselves, like capitalism, but they should take solace in the fact that even if the Good Coffee Brand becomes less Good as it becomes ever larger — which, FWIW, Blue Bottle has only gotten better as it has gotten bigger — it was never even Great to begin with. It was just coffee.

Photo by Alexandre Enkerli