One of my special interest groups had a discussion started about the aforementioned article. I am not sure if there are trends changing and happening in the USA with the coffee market, or I have changed, but the coffee culture sure isn’t what it used to be. You have the coffee drinkers, coffee snobs, creative’s, and then a large section of the market that simply is following a herd and goes to coffee shops because they saw others doing it?
What is your coffee story? How did it become to you, what wine or another beverage is to others? Here is my tale – the U*BE*ME of coffee -
MY FIRST CUP: When I thought back to my coffee journey I was stunned to realize it is relatively a new idea in my life. Perhaps it is like my dislike of Slavic food, I didn’t realize I didn’t like coffee as my one grandfather would do a variation of Asian sock coffee and literally throw a handful of coffee grounds and some chicory in an old glass percolator and when it was “done” he took a smidgen of cold water on the top, which caused the grounds to fall to the bottom and he drank it.
One day I took a taste. Drinking asphalt and tar from a blacktop truck would have been considered gourmet.
It wasn’t until college when we were a bunch of clueless football players trying to get engineering degrees that there were these cans of “international flavored coffees!” We would empty into a cup and pour some hot water, more sugar and some milk on. Who knew we invented energy drinks before red bull? We weren’t drinking the coffee because we liked the taste – it was drink that concoction or take amphetamines. God only knows what would have happened if I did that?
COFFEE CULTURE: The understanding of “coffee culture” began in earnest when I would come back off a tour on the road. My girlfriend ran an art gallery in New Orleans, so my day off would be to get up in the middle of the French quarter. It was a bit of heaven on earth, as all my life, the writings of mark twain and the idea of the Mississippi river adventure were what probably fueled my desire for travel and adventure.
In New Orleans, there was a café that was near Jackson square. It was a retrofit in an old bank. While I would go to café Du Monde for the chicory coffee and beignet combination, or another beignet shop that made decadent ones. One day I was walking by what I thought was the bank and realized, “this is a coffee shop?”
This was the first time I can remember taking a sketchpad into a place, sitting down, having coffee and looking at all the people and having ideas begin to percolate in my head a rapid space. It also was a space where no one judged the other. You could have a homeless guy, street musician, busker, or a well-heeled gentile doctor or lawyer just sit around and talk about anything. I didn’t understand the coffee at that time. But I sure loved the “space” and the starting of how the creative process worked for me.
THE PERFECT CUP: we were doing shows in Columbia when I had to me what is still the most amazing cup of coffee I have ever had. I forget the hotel, I am not sure if that was the year we ducked under the table when machine gun fire broke out and impeccably dressed waiter bent over to say, “not a problem, they are just breaking up a protest.” What I remember was having breakfast and this rich black cup of coffee was put in front of me. I tasted it, and went, “my god, this is amazing, so smooth, rich, flavorful, not powerful…. why isn’t all coffee like this?”
I guess it was this day that a seed was planted to learn more about what makes coffee different?
PERFECT CHEMISTRY SET: The seeds for how to make the perfect cup of coffee had to be planted in the various Japanese tours we did. It seemed I spent a lot of my time in Japan. It was here that my love of chemistry met the coffee culture with Japanese Coffee Siphon makers. I guess it was a throw back from the tea ceremony where you had a long list of things to go through till you got to get three sips of tea. Here the Japanese made the art of making a cup of coffee a scientific experiment. I am not sure what was more fun, watching the coffee being made? Or drinking it? All I know is that I purchased one of the extraction gizmo’s for the states, where I hardly used it, because, “it took too much time.” (For this process I changed to tea drinking for a way to slow down time)
STARBUCKS: Fast forward to when I got off the road in 1994. I went into a star bucks, saw the idea and called the company, “can I buy a franchise?” I still knew nothing about coffee, but I knew the idea was going to work, “ask my ex wife.”
That shop was fun because I would go brainstorm from 6 am till about 8:30 and then some friends would come in before their day and a chat about anything would transpire till everyone left to work. The Internet was just breaking out; I remember we put a computer into the shop so we could have Internet access for the shop. We provided the computer, the shop manager let us have a phone line and voila.
That worked till corporate, district and the local groups all had a tizzy because I guess you can’t have an idea work upward? Starbucks was my place to go with the sketchbook and have a cup of black coffee.
Truth is, I never really wanted any of the fancy coffees. Fancy to me was a cup of Cuban coffee or a shot of espresso. I think back to the people in Beverly Hills ordering their coffee “I want half calf, 203 degree, hold the foam, but add two and ¼ shots, and blah blah blah….”
I remember one time standing behind one such very important person rattling off their commands, getting to the line, looking at the barista’s glazed eyes as to say, “help me!”
“I would like a large black coffee. Should I ever get to the place where I rattle off all sorts of words about how I want you to prepare a simple cup of coffee at the neighborhood coffee shop, you have my permission to shoot me dead.”
She laughed, the important guy didn’t. It was ok. “Beware the man that can’t laugh at himself, he always runs the risk of looking the fool.”
MY FIRST REAL TASTE: it was only about 10 years ago; I was helping a friend put a kitchen in an old railroad engineer house in a really cool section of Portland, Oregon. As a reward, she took me to what was the only stumptown roaster in the country. They had a tasting room. This was the first time I actually had someone with knowledge explain what coffee was and the variations within it. I had a blast with the cupping’s and learning what was going on with the beans from all over the world.
So there I stood walking around all the various beans, making notes, and for the first time in my life, I was really aware of how different the flavors from all over the world really were. There was this Panamanian Esmeralda private reserve that I could taste the exotic fruits grown near the coffee plants.
It was at this time, perhaps when I was cognizant of “good” coffee that the seed to become a real coffee snob blossomed.
Coffee Snob – I really hate that name, but it is pretty accurate. I could say “coffee lover” and that would be accurate, but I think what has happened to the coffee culture in the USA and how I myself was guilty of using it as a great creative space for morning brainstorms all fell apart when the internet and wifi signals become common. Previous to I am guessing 1998-1999 if was a few nerd, dorks and geeks trying to take the technology into mainstream places so the “cubicle” model of “work” could be replaced with “you can work anywhere on the planet, and connect with anyone, in real time – cheep!”
So yes, my coffee snob days happened when you could not go into a coffee shop because of campers sitting there all day updating facebook pages or social media nonsense. In New York City, as much as I love and buy stumptown products, the lobby of the ACE hotel isn’t about creative’s getting together and talking about anything. It is about people trying to be hip and all look the same – probably as oblivious as I was about coffee years before?
I go into places for a great cup of coffee and I am met with two trends –(I just edited out a few pages, as it is interesting to see the trends inside the usa and globe and how it has shifted in the past 10 years…so rather than bore you with quantitative data… and add “drive through” success to the idea of people stopping to meet people.)
Coffee Lover- As I learned to really enjoy good coffee. I was shocked to learn how much bad coffee I was drinking. This is not to say coffee is bad. It is like the old joke about a computer, “any computer you are using is a good computer!” Versus the idea of not having one to work on.
Call it levels of coffee. I would and still do go to any roaster, local spot, and yes, I even goto starbucks to get coffee, sit, and people watch. In the states, I have my spots and roasters I would simply start buying the beans and making my own coffee. The other part was I bought a jet boil camp stove and made a small road case for coffee and tea that went with me wherever I traveled. I don’t have that in Europe, just the hand grinder and the Hario pourover system.
I don’t really go to brainstorm at the coffee shop anymore. The market shifted from a few freaks of counter culture or creativity to the main stream world where what was a unique time and space in America has changed to either a snob session, the camp store where you only need one seat with every table as each customer is blankly staring into their mobile or pad devise to talk to someone “not in the store” or you have the neighborhood clique shop against the transitory “anyone is welcome” shops.
Much like the economy, you see coffee moving into two classes of sorts.
I am thinking about the lab site, where, god willing the new lab space will be built one day (it all depends on my wife getting her green card) and the amazing beautiful space of nature that surrounds it. It is an amazing space to brainstorm, think, create – oddly, it is located in pure nature.
There, the jet boil and the pour over come out. I order beans from various roasters, and the Kaladi coffee on university in Denver really has been cool with grinding up ¼ lb and small samples of various roasts that I would take down to Colorado springs and do the pourovers while sharpening chain saw blades.
The more coffee I drink, the more I realize how little I know and like tea, how fascinating a journey one has to find that perfect cup.
Is the perfect cup some scientifically engineered extraction ratio?
Is the perfect cup the way one makes it?’
Is the perfect cup the place and how the beans are processed?
Is the perfect cup the grind? water? speed and rate of pour?
Or is the perfect cup the people, place and space you are in that you drink it?
Such is the beauty of a cup of coffee and the pursuit of the perfect cup - to drink, ideally with others. Spending time - talking, thinking, or just being still staring out the window. Just "being."