Ozersky’s Exertions: Specialty Coffee Ragged In TIME

The man who literally wrote the book on Archie Bunker has become him.

Josh Ozersky‘s latest article for TIME Magazine is titled “The Perils of Coffee Snobbery.” Mr. Ozersky was once on the very forefront of modern culinary journalism, and has the James Beard Award to prove it, but soft! How swift the tides of time can change.

Mr. Ozersky’s article in TIME first takes specific umbrage with Blue Bottle Coffee Roasters, first for this promotional video - “You will take a kind of masochistic glee in how annoyed it will make you” – then from music to fashion, handwriting to physical demeanor (calling Blue Bottle’s founder James Freeman a “mild weenie”), and especially with specialty coffee’s dedication to advancing deliciousness while building quality-focused and equitable global trading relationships. In one breath he’s mocking Mr. Freeman’s taste in eyeware, in the next he’s belittling the $16 (heavens no!) cost of “a small bag of beans.” There’s seemingly no end to the amount of umbrage taken.

How’s this for “get off my lawn” histrionics?

When I watch the Blue Bottle video, I see whole urban-mandarin world in which I live in broad burlesque. There is the insufferably pretentious soundtrack, which moves seamlessly (or so it thinks) from Bach to some indie band that is never identified but which, no doubt, works as a cultural dog whistle for those in the know about such matters.

Or this line, just begging for a rejoinder:

One of my coffee geek friends still talks about the day I put Sweet & Low in a $20 cup of Esmerelda [sic] from Panama.

We think you’re going to the wrong coffee shops for your palate, Mr. Ozersky, and you’re drinking the wrong coffees. It sounds like you’re in a real pickle, and you clearly aren’t too happy about it.

Fortunately for us all, a journalist named Erin Meister has summed up Mr. Ozersky’s quandary in this recent article for Serious Eats. Here’s the pull quote:

If you would describe yourself as “not a coffee snob,” you would do well to pick a coffee shop whose aesthetic and product resembles what it is you’re looking for in particular.

If you are irritated by baristas who tend to get excited about the coffees they’re serving, or whom you find too effusive or chatty (aka “lecturey”), you might feel more at home at a cafe with less of a focus on the coffee itself and more on the hospitality experience. There are different types of coffee shops for the same reason there are different types of restaurants: Not everyone is comfortable donning a black tie for dinner, especially when all you want is a slice of pizza.

Patronize an establishment where you feel at home, not one where you feel out of place.

People are doing different, innovative, often intimidating things with coffee right now, and the whole thing is kind of leaving you behind, or at least leaving you befuddled and in need of additional caloric succor. And that’s totally fine, man. A lot of people feel like that, and it’s something that most people who make specialty coffee for a living are aware of. We all should hope it feels different in five years, as education gets better and the unique customer service demands of the barista (server and chef, all in one) are more finely honed. But in the here and now, this impasse leaves you with what we think are two very reasonable options:

Option 1: Have an open mind. Try new things. Let experts guide you. Say yes. Put away the condiments you’ve associated with coffee for decades. Just try it, man. Be cool, and recognize that you’re the last step in a remarkable chain of meticulously sourced, processed, roasted, and prepared coffee that quite literally comes from the other side of the planet, carefully cultivated by real living people there.

Option 2: We’ll just quote Meister again: “If you would describe yourself as ‘not a coffee snob,’ you would do well to pick a coffee shop whose aesthetic and product resembles what it is you’re looking for in particular.

Those are your two reasonable options. There’s a third option, though it is completely unreasonable and we do not recommend it:

Option 3 (Not Recommended): Continue to patronize Ninth Street Espresso and Blue Bottle, and continue to insist on artificial sweetener from the “small jar from behind the counter”. Then use your larger-than-life online platform to publicly queen out about these experiences, and your perceptions of the industry. Ignorantly spear specialty coffee from stem to stern like some reactionary, aspartame-addled Queequeg. Publish the journalistic equivalent of that episode where Archie gets on “The CBS Evening News”, but he never actually gets to see or appreciate the clip because his TV is broken.

It’s not that coffee as an industry is beyond reproach, or above criticism, or wholly innocent of the sin of pride. Goodness, gracious no – let us assure you that specialty coffee’s service shortcomings, its educational identity crisis, are part of a robust debate going on within the industry. Specialty coffee needs to better understand and isolate the potential for disconnect with consumers. A lot of people assume that the startling leaps in coffee quality made in the last 10 years will trump all preconceived notions, and that the eccentricities and whims of specialty coffee’s upper echelon will be duly embraced and tolerated by the guy off the street. This simply isn’t true, because if it were, such a mindset would naturally have to touch across all forms of consumption, and we’d already be living in some kind of Alice Waters utopia.

But Josh Ozersky is not the guy off the street! Critics like Mr. Ozersky and Ben Leventhal are throwing stones at glass houses; they came up, made their careers, and got their book deals through the hard work of exhaustive snobbery, which in their case was journalistic snobbery, perhaps the most simultaneously exhaustive and self-important of all known forms (guilty!). It’s a snob calling a snob a “snob”, but published by TIME Magazine, in a tone that echoes the vaunted blogatorial hallows of Die Hipster Dot WordPress Dot Com. He’s being a jerk about the whole thing, like that episode where Archie first meets Meathead.

Ozersky and Ben Leventhal (whose own anti-coffee tirade now exists in heavily redacted fashion here) are from the first generation of internet food writer celebrities. There wasn’t a lot of great coffee around in New York when they were still in the trenches, writing daily website copy. Or maybe there was, but they were using it as fuel to build their culinary critiquing empires, instead of appreciating it as something culinary in its own right. Regardless, specialty coffee is not their home turf, and it very publicly shows.

Back in the infancy of the self-made internet culinary tycoon (like 5 years ag0), guys like Ozersky and Leventhal were a sort of Henson and Oz of online food writing – and with startling alacrity, before our very eyes, they’ve turned into Statler and Waldorf. They’re terrified of trends and progressions from beyond the zenith of their purview.

Mr. Cutlets? Perhaps the more appropriate Melvillean sobriquet would be Starbuck(s).