Like so many other people in college, Dan Magnuszewski rebelled against his parents.
Growing up under their roof, he drank their coffee: Maxwell House. "Reheated in the microwave," he said, pausing. "All these horrible things."
In college, "coffee consumption went way up," and he had to buy his own. He started to taste the differences between brands, and the radical transformation of Magnuszewski's coffee palate had begun.
Today, Magnuszewski is part of a growing group of coffee drinkers who treat coffee with all the connoisseurship of a sommelier. Unable to tolerate their parents' canned coffee, and bored with the coffee-for-the-masses approaches of the Starbucks and Tim Hortons of the world, these fans seek peak coffee experiences tailored to their individual tastes.
Their numbers are growing for many of the same reasons American craft beer appreciators are multiplying. "People don't want to just drink any old beer the previous generations had," Magnuszewski said. "They know there's all these options and all these styles. They're aware of what breweries are out there, and what kind of ingredients were used, what kind of hops."
Magnuszewski's peers are willing to pay $10 to $20 a pound for their preferred beans. "I like living in a world where I have the option of, 'What kind of coffee do I feel like drinking today? Do I want some Guatemalan, or some Rwandan?,' " he said.
Businesses in the Buffalo area are scrambling to meet the demand as coffee nerds scoop up bags of aromatic coffee beans marked with more than an expiration date. The premium coffees now inform buyers of the day and even hour they were roasted, with enough backstory for a film: the farmer or plantation name, location and elevation where it was grown. Was it grown in the shade? Without slave labor? Did they use pesticides? The coffee bag reveals all.
"A sommelier friend compared it to how he is tasting wine," said Deb Clark, who sells a premium brand called Stumptown at Delish.
Before Stumptown will sell a retailer coffee, they check to make sure it has the proper equipment and employees trained to make a cup of coffee to its exacting specifications, said Clark.
"It's grown to that level, and gained that respect, because so many people are taking much more care, and showing people the experience you can have if it's prepared properly and you're using the right product."
Magnuszewski, a Kenmore software engineer, makes his morning cup by grinding coffee beans, roasted only days earlier, usually from one of his three favorite Ethiopian varieties. Freshness is paramount, adherents say, because coffee beans start to degrade immediately after roasting and lose flavor nuances within two weeks, even in an airtight container.
He uses a burr grinder, not the more common blade grinder, to better control particle size. He'll adjust the grind's coarseness depending on whether he's using his French press or Chemex, a glass carafe, to make his brew.
He heats the Brita-filtered water to the precisely correct temperature, which he has done so often he no longer uses a thermometer. Then he pours the water into the coffee, sometimes using a watch to measure steeping time before decanting.
He knows it seems a bit obsessive. "My wife just kind of laughs," he said. "I was actually in the Adirondacks, in a cabin, with a French press, and my grinder, and people were looking at me like I was crazy."
If Magnuszewski is coffee-crazy, he has lots of company. Like many of his peers, he has gotten part of his education on the fine points of better brew from Peter Fremming, who has roasted coffee beans at Premier Gourmet in the Town of Tonawanda for the last 16 years.
Listening and smelling and looking for clues, Fremming adjusts the multiphase roasting process, roughly 15 minutes, to draw the best flavor out of each type of bean. He has a job because freshly roasted coffee goes downhill fast. "As soon as it reaches room temperature, it begins to lose flavor," he said.
When Fremming started, he said, he sold large amounts of French roast, Colombian and flavored coffees. In recent years, "our customers have become much more sophisticated," he said. "An Ethiopian Harrar or Sumatran Mandheling, those were off-putting, but now my customers understand what those are."
The new generation of coffee drinkers thrives on information about what it is drinking, from the effects that different soil types can have on beans to the minutiae of coffee fruit processing methods. The drinkers are encouraged and enabled by like-minded coffee shop workers, many of whom are steeped in coffee culture and information, and regard education as part of their jobs.
Downtown, at Spot Coffee on Delaware, assistant manager Jenn Custard-Jarosz expresses reverence for the coffee bean, and all the work farmers put into getting it to her cup. "When the bean's in your hand in the final stage of the process, it's kind of doing it an injustice to not serve it properly," she said.
Not just minimum-wage pourers, Custard-Jarosz and her barista associates train to produce the perfect dose of espresso, crowned with foamy crema that signals a righteous cup. She travels to coffee conferences and participates in latte art tournaments, facing off against other baristas in making the prettiest picture in foamed milk.
Baristas can take a moment to chat about what their customer likes, and make an educated bet on broadening their horizons. "A good barista is going to take the time to answer questions their customers might have," said Custard-Jarosz. "When they have the opportunity, show them something different the customer might not be willing to try if someone doesn't show them the way."
It's coffee evangelism, spreading the good news about better coffee, one convert at a time.
Another noted local coffee disciple is Phil Roberts, former head barista at acclaimed Boston coffee shop The Thinking Cup. Roberts brought the Stumptown training to Delish last year, then moved on to Elm Street Bakery in East Aurora, where he's roasting coffee and training more baristas. Eventually Elm Street Coffee Roasters will offer freshly roasted beans and staff training -- to Roberts' exacting standards -- to local coffeehouses and other customers, he said.
"We want to train our accounts to brew that coffee to really highlight what we've roasted it for, really present it in a good way," he said. "The training will be a huge part of our wholesale plans."
Roberts' coffee curriculum vita includes five weeks helping coffee farmers in a small Guatemalan village form a co-op and produce better beans.
"You'd be surprised by how long some of these coffee farmers have been doing it, with room left to improve their methods," said Roberts. Now they're picking coffee fruit only when it's ripe, which is more work but produces better coffee. More important, Roberts said, the Guatemalan co-op now has its own processing mill, so the farmers can keep the processing work in their village.
That roaster-to-farmer relationship is called "direct trade," Roberts said, meant to provide a better living for farmers and better coffee for drinkers. "I do have coffee coming that they are harvesting as we speak," he said. "It'll be our first direct trade relationship coffee."
But you don't need to brave international travel to enjoy a better cup of coffee. Step No. 1: Reconsider canned coffee and automatic drip.
"People realize that 'Hey, if I used filtered water, if I used a kettle instead of the coffee machine, used a Chemex or something and brewed one cup at a time, I could really improve my experience,' " said Roberts. "It can transform coffee from a caffeine 'keep me awake' experience, to a culinary experience where you are actually tasting it, and experiencing nuances with each cup."
GRAPHIC: LOCAL OUTLETS
* Spot Coffee, 227 Delaware Ave. and other locations. 332-2299. Small-batch roaster, pounds $11.95. Drip $1.90-$2.34, and espresso drinks. spotcoffee.com
* Elm Street Bakery, 72 Elm St., East Aurora, 652-4720. Small-batch roaster, pounds $11-$15, cups $1.95-$2.75. elmstreetbakery.com
* Premier Gourmet, 3465 Delaware Ave., Town of Tonawanda. Small-batch roaster, coffees $11.50 per pound, drip coffee $.79-$1.29 a cup, and espresso drinks. premiergourmet.com
* Kornerstone Coffee, 472 Montrose Ave., Town of Tonawanda. Micro-batch roaster, pounds $8-$32, available through home delivery and farmers' markets. 830-6915. kornerstonecoffee.com
* Delish, 414 Amherst St., 881-2022. Sells premium Brooklyn-roasted Stumptown, 12-ounce bags $15-$18, drip coffee $1.50-$2.50, and espresso drinks. delishblackrock.com
* Lexington Co-op, 807 Elmwood Ave., 886-2667. Micro-batch roasted coffee by Kenmore's Salerno Organic, $11.99 a pound. Equal Exchange drip $1.35-$1.60 a cup.
* Buffalo Coffee Roastery, 350 Main St., 852-1108. Small-batch roasted coffee $10.50-$13.50 per pound. Drip $1.45-$2.20, and espresso drinks.