Coffee Culture: Has specialty coffee gone too far?


Oct 10, 2007

“Coffee, c’est la mode. Or at least that’s what it seems to be at the moment, the rage of the day here in Seattle. The label of Seattle as the “Coffee Mecca” has been bestowed upon us and drilled into our minds. It’s like we’ve been programmed to purchase these energy-boosters at excessive daily rates. Fashionable in this urban setting is to walk about flaunting your cup of Joe; this cup gives you the appearance of ambition, sophistication, and flair; it is an accessory to one’s wardrobe. This is especially true for young-career driven women and men too. This cup can enhance one’s image because the thought of caffeine makes one think of the individual consuming this beverage as a hard-working, sleep deprived soldier in today’s society. A lack of sleep is a sign of power and hard work, dedication, success, and ambition to one’s career and work; and by drinking coffee, it is a sign of the need to heal the sleep-deprivation of the hard worker from their arduous work schedule, to boost their more awake-state for the individual to keep working. So, why not add a caramel macchiatto to your everyday wardrobe?– Sena”

I recently came across this critique of speciality coffee’s role in the lives of real people. I wonder if Sena is right in suggesting that the primary purpose of specialty coffee is to provide a caffeine jolt and a fashion statement for urban careerists? Is there any truth to her observations? Or should these ideas be dismissed as a wild misinterpretation of what is going on in the industry? When I’ve discussed these views with others inside and outside the coffee trade the responses have usually focused on the role of work and career in modern living, specifically the lack of balance in this area. Not coffee. Most people seem to think that coffee plays only a small part in this equation and maybe none at all. Would getting rid of coffee bring balance and perspective to people’s lives if they are determined to lock themselves in a cycle of earning and spending that enslaves them to a job or lifestyle? Clearly, there is a larger cultural question presented in Sena’s critique that focuses on many features of our society’s landscape, including consumerism and the inflated material expectations of individuals. But what about the coffee? . . .

While coffee is a stimulant that can be used to keep you going, specialty coffee in the US emerged from a landscape of bad tasting canned product. Specialty coffee was the antidote to years of bland percolated brews, and it was first and foremost a culinary movement to improve flavor. When Starbucks stepped up and formally defined the notion of the “Third Place”, a store where people could meet or just go and work on their computers away from home, it was basically offering a 1990’s appropriate, middle-of-the-road description, for a long-standing American cafe tradition. In reality, the cafe scene can be traced at least as far back as the 1950’s when beat poets, and hipsters, like Ginsburg and Kerouac held court in proto-cafes on both coasts. In other words, leading edge cafes had been providing this scene all along. So the rise of modern specialty coffee brought better product to an existing venue–while at the same time the number of venues for coffee exploded, as people rediscovered how great coffee could be as a mildly stimulating beverage just to enjoy.

Today, developments in coffee retailing are occurring in totally new dimensions. Many cafes in Seattle are pushing the boundaries on how retail operations, or more precisely, small private businesses, can relate to the world in terms of the products they serve, how they support their employees, and the role their actions play on the environment and in the developing world where coffee originates.

A growing number of cafes and roasters are alert to the social contract that exists between themselves and the larger global community. This relationship is not strictly an economic one, nor is it necessarily a written contract. Being mindful to how an individual’s actions and choices play out, what they could mean to the lives of other people, and taking direct action to improve the outcomes, is another way to describe this awareness. Doing the right thing is yet another way to summarize the empowerment that many of the smaller players in this industry feel. The small cafe owners and operators (and their staff) that I talk to virtually every day are acutely on point with what impact their choices and the choices of their operations are having on the larger world.

This awareness includes the provenance of the coffee being used. Who is benefiting from the money being spent on each premium espresso or latte being served? And, it also applies to other operational areas closer to home–for example the waste management efforts in the cafes themselves. The environmental side of these businesses. At the most basic level, many Third Wave venues encourage the use of reusable porcelain cups and demitasses. These reusable items are the default in many places. The message is, “Stay here and linger over your coffee”. Some of these cafes, like Caffe Fiore in Seattle, offer a choice of disposable products that are compostable or recyclable and are also made from recycled or post-consumer content. These cafes also offer ways to make sure that customers can direct these products appropriately when they are through so the items avoid becoming just landfill, despite their green potential. Spent coffee grounds are also made available to customers, even by mainstream establishments like Starbucks, for use in home composting. Each month, up to a thousand pounds of solid waste in a single store are effectively recycled this way.

Along with a focus on good deed doing, cafe operators are also seeking new ways to improve on the experience of drinking and enjoying coffee–the original focus of specialty coffee. This includes being even more selective in the coffees they cup, purchase, blend, roast and brew–for example, buying premium coffees with limited availability, in some cases only a few precious bags, direct from farmers. Furthermore, the industry has never been more mindful about the flavor experience that coffee offers when prepared to very specific parameters of temperature and now even pressure. David Schomer, essentially the forerunner of everything Third Wave, and probably its most enduring practitioner, has described this aspect of the industry’s evolution as “getting more out of the coffee”. More quality, more flavor, more consistency. However, this care for coffee also extends to the other products used in cafe operations, like milk, which serves as the base to most espresso beverages.

Today organic and rBST-free milks preferably from local dairies are on the radars of many operators too. In Seattle there are several sources of these, which have held up to scrutiny when their claims have been investigated closely for accuracy. I mention this only because recently some products laying claim to being organic have turned out to be barely so, and only because of regulatory loopholes. Anyway, even food products like pastries are now being parsed for not just flavor but also for their organic and transfat-free content. In Seattle one supplier for higher quality pastry products meeting such standards would be the artisanal bakery called Mighty-O, which I have mentioned in earlier postings.

Hopefully some of these ideas speak to less vapid motives and possibilities behind specialty coffee retailing than perception may sometimes allow. If you are still in doubt, then this winter I recommend having your friendly local barista hand-make your favorite coffee beverage. Savor it slowly with a friend. Remember to breathe. And for the career-minded, the tie is totally optional.

Eric Perkunder


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