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What is Gourmet anymore?

I was recently at the mall in a mad scramble to find my wife a gift for our 5 year anniversary (for some reason, what I wanted is now rare). In the mall there is a coffee shop called Pinoy’s Best Gourmet Coffee.

Gourmet you say? I have to try this fancy coffee.

I stopped and picked up a 16oz cup for $1.20. Seriously? Your selling “gourmet” coffee for $1.20? Something isn’t right here.

I spoke with the barista who was (presumably) a high school student, standard mall employee. I asked about the coffee, to which she only knew they had a Kona blend and a house blend. That was it. So unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of info about this place from my visit. The coffee was a decent up for $1.20. Was it gourmet? Not even close.

So here is what I was left with: a surreal experience in which a floating Gusteau telling me “anyone can make gourmet coffee,” while the rat behind the bar is making espresso drinks and the new head chef is slapping “gourmet” on his less than adequate  coffee to increase sales. (Come on… That is an awesome Ratatouille reference!)

The word “gourmet” has zero meaning now. It used to illicit images of exquisite French cuisine that is an experience of a lifetime. Now you have gourmet microwave dinners. “Gourmet” is officially dead.

What does that mean for us now? Because “gourmet” lost its meaning, the high-end products had to find new terms to distinguish themselves from microwave dinners. In the coffee world, that term is “specialty.” Right now, “specialty” coffee means a certain level of quality. The risk we run is that there is no hard lined definition of that term. The SCAA is doing a pretty good job, but it is still very vague and there is no accountability. For example, would anyone put Chick-Fil-A’s “specialty grade” coffee in the same boat as Four Barrel or Intelligentsia? No, of course not. But they put forth a huge effort to classify their coffee as “specialty grade.” Once that is stuck in the market, if the term doesn’t change, then they will be in the same conversation with Four Barrel (that would be interesting to see.)

We need words to have meaning, but we have to understand that the meaning of those words will change. Words are just symbols, and symbols only hold the meaning that people apply to it.

So here is what am going to do. I am going to set up my own definition. Instead of “specialty” or “gourmet,” I’m going to establish my own term. That term is going be, “Damn Fine.” I think that communicates exactly what I and others think when we drink an excellent cup. It encompasses both quality of coffee and experience. Now you know that I am not just swearing pointlessly, but referring to a particular level of quality.

Next time you have an awesome cup at your favorite shop, take a second and think to yourself, “this is a Damn Fine cup of coffee.”

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