Coffee Culture – PNW vs Boston
Mar 03, 2012
I’ve had the privilege of being Slayer’s East Coast Customer Representative for five months. I relocated to Boston, which has allowed me to better connect with the East Coast coffee community. Aside from the accents and the delightfully persistent sunshine, the transition from Seattle to Boston wasn’t much of a culture shock. It was, however, a bit of a coffee culture shock.
I believe that the community determines the industry. The Pacific Northwest is a culture that values pleasure: the food is as rich in its story of origin as it is in butter and cream. Beer and cocktails are carefully crafted, honoring years of tradition while pursuing new and better creations. Music and art, books and gadgets…the culture is nearly hedonistic, and, as a result, so is the coffee industry. Coffee is considered an art form and is treated with devotion and respect.
Boston’s community is also very rich and vibrant, but in a distinctly different way. Bostonians consider themselves salt-of-the-earth people, who are not only proud of the things they have worked hard for, but also of the things they don’t have. While having nice things is good, over-indulgence is frowned upon. The people here work hard, provide for their families, and they’re loyal, and that’s what’s worth bragging about…which is pretty cool. The incredible work ethic here produces thriving food, beer and music industries just like the PNW, but those things aren’t glorified above all else. This function over fashion-type mentality really shows in it’s approach toward coffee, although that is quickly changing.
The coffee industries in Boston and the Pacific Northwest tout some pretty stark contrasts:
PNW: Portland and Seattle have a strong history of roasting coffee. Portland in particular is full to the brim with talented third wave coffee roasters. Those cafes that don’t roast typically form strong, ongoing relationships with a local roaster.
BOS: Boston is all about guest coffees. There are very few companies in the roasting scene, so it’s easy for cafes to support many of the roasters and serve a variety of tasty coffees. Most coffee shops have a standard roaster they use all the time, and rotate in various local guest coffees every week or two.
PNW: If a brew method exists, you can probably find it in the Pacific Northwest – except for bulk batch brewers, of course, which have become taboo in that region. Most cafes have a row of pour overs on the bar. It is common to find multiple brew methods, including Chemex, V60s, and vacuum pots. Even more obscure devices can be found, like the Walkure German Kaffeemaschine, which is used and sold at Heart Coffee Roasters in Portland. The name of the game is excellence, and the PNW coffee community employs a vast variety of methods to achieve it.
BOS: Almost every Boston coffee shop’s primary brew method is a bulk brewer, with a V60 station as a supplement. When I first moved I viewed this as a bad sign, until I tried a coffee from a bulk brewer that was unbelievably good. Some cafes take particular care to properly calibrate their brewers, and the results are hard to dismiss in the debate against batch brewing. (To get in on the debate, visit my recent blog post dedicated to the topic.) Barismo is one of a few cafes which have chosen to opt out of using batch brewers altogether, using instead brew methods like Hario Woodnecks, which are otherwise unseen in Boston. Cafe Fixe, another great local cafe, has also ditched the big brewers, instead exclusively using Clever.
PNW: Most upper-West Coast cafes go the old fashioned route and keep milk jugs in the fridge below the espresso machine. There are a few clever ideas, though, like in Seattle’s Milstead & Co., which keeps milk cool in a beautiful, custom made ice bin, strategically and efficiently placed next to the espresso machine.
BOS: I never gave milk storage much thought until I came to Boston. No bending down to get a milk jug out of the fridge for these baristas: Silver King reigns supreme. Silver King is a giant above-counter milk dispenser that holds multiple five gallon bags of milk, depending on the dispenser. If you’ve ever had cereal at a hotel’s continental breakfast bar, you’ve probably used a Silver King (or something like it.) In some respects, using a milk dispenser is very forward-thinking of Boston, as they are efficient and have the potential to be less wasteful.
PNW: There is a wide array of espresso machines used out West. With Slayer, La Marzocco and Synesso all based in Seattle, it’s no wonder there’s a healthy mix.
BOS: It’s like there was a massive close-out sale of LM GB5s. Nearly everyone in Boston has one. A few new shops are breaking the mold, though, bringing in some variety and spicing things up around here. Keep your eyes peeled, Boston…Slayer’s coming to town!
The local casual coffee consumers exhibit Boston’s quirkiest – and least logical – coffee trend: iced coffee. These guys can’t get enough of it! Sure, it makes sense in the summer, but coffee drinkers don’t drop their iced habit for the notoriously brutal winters. Bostonians tell me they can be seen trudging through a foot of snow with an iced coffee tucked in gloved hand. (Weirdos.)
The structure of Boston’s coffee scene is what intrigues me the most. It is particularly insular, and as a result tends to bear a certain uniformity. It reminds me of my pre-coffee high school job as a lifeguard. Our YMCA had a whirlpool called The Vortex. The Vortex swirls in one direction, providing either a low-impact workout when moving against the current or a relaxing float around the circle. Boston’s coffee scene floats ideas and from one shop to another to another, until the information has circulated around the whole community. The information changes, like the currents in the whirlpool, but only so much as the other currents change, and we each move in the direction the other Boston coffee shops are moving. And as when a whirlpool is halted, so the growth in this coffee community stops whenever other Boston cafes stop learning. The exception to this rule is the same as the exception in The Vortex: new water constantly flows into the whirlpool from the entryway to the rest of the pool, and Boston changes whenever we widen our perspective and consider not only the exciting innovations and progress made in our city, but also that of the rest of the world wide “pool” of coffee community.
As a result of the introspective nature of the coffee industry here, change can be a gradual process – but changes are happening, and at a quickening pace. Counter Culture Coffee is set to open a new training lab in Boston sometime in the next several months. One of CCC’s accounts – as well as Boston’s newest third wave cafe – is Render Coffee, which has been challenging their local community to view coffee in a different way. They host weekly cuppings, serve a fantastically small coffee menu at appropriately higher (though still reasonably low) prices, and are one of about four Boston shops to choose not to use a batch brewer, opting instead to use the Counter Culture Pro Cone. Boston’s own Dylan Evans is doing impressive work by hand-making cloth coffee filters out of American grown organic cotton. He has created filters for nearly every brewing method, and is developing equipment which will make using and cleaning the filters an easier process for cafes. Dylan’s filters are gaining national recognition, and are rumored to soon be available through major espresso supply websites. Voltage Coffee & Art has also been spurring on growth in Boston. Perhaps the most influential of all Voltage’s efforts is their drive to bring together the coffee community through events. Most recently, Voltage creatively hosted a public competition run-through for four local NERBC competitors, who all made Boston proud last weekend! Barismo’s Jamie van Schyndel has also been participating in barista events, including hosting Boston’s very first TNT at the location of Jamie’s new project, Dwelltime (due to open very soon.) In addition to all of Boston’s exciting recent growth, several new third wave coffee shops and a new micro-roastery are planning on opening up this year.
At first I was nervous about leaving the Pacific Northwest’s well established and thriving coffee culture, but Boston is truly blooming! There is something inspiring about watching a community grow. That’s why Slayer’s here. We’re passionate about change; that’s why we created Slayer, after all. I’m excited to be in Boston while these changes happen, and to be a part of it. Each coffee community that furthers its passion for coffee and takes it to the next level – no matter where that market it is or what level they’re growing toward – has the potential to produce something new and share it with the rest of the industry. Who knows? Boston could be raising up the next Mike Phillips or Peter Giuliano or Jason Prefontaine…