December 20, 2012

Adios, Ristretto

To call the New York Times "the paper of record" is to pay it a great compliment, but it is not quite sufficient: It is perhaps the only paper that matters in this country. And so it mattered a great deal that Oliver Strand's Ristretto column appeared in those hallowed pages, given space beside other more celebrated indulgences such as wine, food and fashion. It elevated in the eyes of the lay-reader the humble cup of coffee to something beyond a black and bitter stimulant. And to those of us who live coffee, for whom the industry is our home, his column was a thing to be celebrated. This was a voice stating our cause on the nation's largest print stage, discussing without irony the craft of coffee, and those who are committed to it. It felt like we mattered, just a little bit, when reading about Bear Pond on the same pages as whatever lardcore eatery is currently trendy.

And it's gone now.

We are reminded on the front pages of that same paper that there are real and genuine tragedies in the world today, and that this is really not so bad, when viewed with the right perspective. So I won't call this tragic, or try and ascribe to it false importance. It was a very good newspaper column that will no longer exist. And it was only ever about coffee, really. There is no tragedy here.

And yet it's hard not to feel a sense of loss, like the community is being cheated just a little bit. This was not just a column that wrote informative articles on how to better prepare coffee, or how to procure it in certain cities. Beyond merely informing the readership about those specific things, its very existence argued that this information was worth having, that coffee was a thing worth discussing and considering. Put simply: If coffee mattered to you, Ristretto mattered to you.

There is a void now. Coffee has other articulate voices, to be sure, but they are largely sequestered away on personal blogs or in industry specific publications. James Hoffmann simply cannot reach the same number of people, and no one subscribes to Barista Magazine unless they're already convinced that the trade is worthwhile. Ristretto had that platform, and an audience of the nation's tastemakers to speak to. And in Mr. Strand, it had a voice that was educational without being condescending - something the coffee industry famously struggles with. The reader was never made to feel foolish for having never heard of a Hario V60. Instead, they finished the article interested in trying coffee prepared with one. I once had a customer order a cortado specifically because it was mentioned in Ristretto.

Of course, the tide of specialty coffee is still rising. Even within our industry, this is no measure of doom. There will be other writers in other publications doing many of the same things - perhaps Strand himself will return elsewhere. He does have a book on coffee, set to be released sometime soon I hope, for which I have high expectations. But make no mistake, this is a setback, and it is disappointing. Ristretto was, in the paper of record, the coffee column of record.

And now we are left with nothing but its record, which you can and should read.

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