Gone are the days when coffee was simply a black sludge inhaled in the morning to get out of the house on time. Right under our noses, coffee has changed from a "cuppa Joe" into a "decaf low-fat latte."
Coffee drinks such as cappuccino and cafe mocha -- which combine deep, dark espresso with steamed milk, foam and flavorings -- are growing in popularity.
The signs suggest that the coffee craze that's in full bloom on the West Coast has hit the rest of the country. Specialty or gourmet coffees are in fact cannibalizing the regular coffee market, says Bob Dechillo, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association, a coffee industry group.
Sales of regular coffee have been flat for the last four years, while the specialty market has grown.
The gourmet category includes more than flavored beans. Most specialty coffee drinks are based on espresso, which is made by forcing steam through dark-roasted coffee grounds. The addition steamed milk and foam turns espresso into cappuccino; add still more milk, and it's a cafe latte.
Cafe latte is the most popular drink on the menu at Starbucks Coffee, the Seattle-based company that's gradually changing the face of coffee in the United States. Starbucks Coffee opened its first EastCoast shop recently at 3430 Wisconsin Ave. N.W. in Washington and plans are in the works for more shops in the area.
"The taste of espresso is strong and takes some getting used to," says Derek Chasan, vice president of brand marketing for Starbucks.
"People like a warm, nurturing milk drink," he says. "A latte gives a more subtle coffee flavor."
Starbucks' early score was in Seattle, where cool weather makes coffee a natural. But weather isn't the only factor.
"People have turned away from alcohol, and coffee is an acceptable alternative," Mr. Chasan says. "I think that timing is important, too. [Specialty coffee] is a very personalized, customized kind of drink thing."
"Although the coffee thing has really taken hold in Seattle and on the West Coast, it's still news to a lot of other places," says Matthew Tekulsky, author of a new book called "Making Your Own Gourmet Coffee Drinks" (Crown Publishers, $12).
"It won't be long before most major cities will have a pretty good idea of what gourmet coffee is."
"We did some focus group research, and found a funny thing: When people first come into a Starbucks store, they're very intimidated," Mr. Chasan says. "But when they get to know what's going on, it's like they've joined a club. They walk in and say, 'Can I have a double non-fat?' Once they get to know the coffee talk, it becomes fun.
"It's not just a cup of coffee," he says. "When someone spends $2.50 [for a specialty coffee], they're getting treated really well, it's a pleasant environment, and the whole experience culminates in a good cup of coffee. People are choosing a lifestyle that includes coffee."
"As soon as you try drinking a better cup of coffee, meaning a high-quality coffee bean," Mr. Tekulsky says, "it's very difficult to go back to the coffee we used to drink a few years ago. The coffeehouses and coffee shops started it, but when people found out they could make coffees and espressos for themselves at home, sales of beans and equipment took off, too."
Making espresso drinks at home requires a few pieces of equipment plus knowledge of some coffee basics, Mr. Tekulsky says.
"For equipment, you'll need an espresso maker that can also foam milk. In this category, you get what you pay for. There are cappuccino machines priced below $100. But the machines within the $100 to $200 range work a lot better than the low-priced ones.
"Stovetop models -- the old-fashioned kind that use stove heat to create the pressure required for making espresso -- are very inexpensive, under $20. They make a nice espresso that some people swear by," says Mr. Tekulsky. "Some models have nozzles for steaming milk. You can also buy a separate milk steamer."
But even a top-of-the-line Gaggia espresso machine from Italy with a price tag of $500 needs an informed person to turn the nozzle.
"Good coffee starts with the grind," Mr. Tekulsky says. "It has an amazing impact on the quality of your cup of coffee that has nothing to do with the bean.
"Proper grinding allows the water to sit in the coffee and extract the flavor for a long time to get maximum flavor," he says.
"If those same beans are ground too coarsely, the water flows through the coffee too quickly and the interaction between coffee and water doesn't last long enough, so it comes out diluted."