Thursday, July 7, 2011

Coffee: for Seattle and the Soul

Coffee.  It's what Seattleites like me think of on a day like this: gray, drizzly, cool.  The rest of the country may be sweltering, but we're hunkered down (again) with our noses perched above steamy mugs, not just warming our nostrils but inhaling the aroma, assessing the brew's perfection. Or lack thereof.

Perfect coffee started here, in a small shop at the Pike Place Market that expanded to 17,000 outlets, 11,000 of them in the U.S. I'm talking, of course, about Starbucks, loved by most, eschewed by some, but undeniably the force that made taste complexities, mouth-feel, aroma, and presentation style of coffee drinks important to the masses.

My husband requires coffee to start his day. Black. When we had a morning ceremony with breakfast welcoming our baby boy into the Jewish faith nearly 19 years ago, my husband insisted on good coffee.  Starbucks was relatively new in Los Angeles, our home at the time, but we went out of our way to get it.  People kept telling me how delicious the coffee was, and it changed the ambiance of our whole event.  Just as it changes the outlook for every day.

An article recently in the New York Times describes the mania the popularization of excellent coffee has unleashed. The piece is about the rush to capitalize competitive coffee roasters who seek to top off what is arguably the most sophisticated array of coffee offerings ever.  For example, Stumptown Coffee Roasters of coffee-competitor Portland, Oregon, mentioned in the article, currently features Guatemala Finca Semillero-Tekisic, traced to a five-acre family farm (The Zelaya family's at Finca Semillero) and a special bean, the Tekisic, which is "a dwarf mutation of the Bourbon varietal," blah blah blah.  The result? "Honeysuckle and butter interweave through flavors of nectarine, cocoa and graham cracker."

Caffe Vita, a local Seattle roaster is similarly descriptive. For example, its Sumatra bean from the Gayo River produces "A rich, aromatic cup with well balanced flavors of dark berry, vanilla, baking spice, smoke and earthiness. Accented with notes of tobacco and hops throughout the warm, comforting finish."  Another Seattle homie, Zoka Coffee, offers "Sulawesi Totaja Jaya...from the Rantebua Disctrict in the Nothern Toraja province of Sulawesi," with flavors of  "Summer Squash, Honeydew, Chamomile, and Portobello."

To appreciate the contents of one's mug in Seattle means to know the name of the family who owns its land of origin, the history of its cultivation and roasting, and details of its first taste through lingering post-swallow notes.

Coffee writer Oliver Strand asks, "Does this sound too elitist for the average American?" rhetorically answering, "Remember when the idea that millions of people would spend $5 for a latte seemed absurd?"

We live in a suburban Seattle town of 22,000, and we have 5 Starbucks outlets, a Tully's and an independent drive-through kiosk. It is normal in our overcast part of the world to nurse a cuppa joe at (nearly) all times. Certainly while shopping. Often a coffee cup is seen perched near exercise equipment, next to the Nalgene water bottle.

Studies released this month show that drinking at least four cups of coffee per day brings health benefits, significantly lowering one's chances for Alzheimer's, certain cancers and perhaps diabetes.  It's definitely an antioxidant, though decaf doesn't seem to confer the same benefits as regular caffeinated  brew.

The big drawback for me was taken as the name of a coffee kiosk chain here in the northwest: "Jitters."  It's an unpleasant buzz that interferes with my normal peace.  Also, for me, coffee is a food.  Unlike my purist hubby, I doctor my mug with copious sugar and half-and-half.  The "enorme" Mexican Mocha I got instead of breakfast at a Nordstrom's espresso bar was listed on the menu board at 790 calories (photo, right).

Did the calories posted in red deter me? Not at all.  I want what I want.  And I'm not the only coffee drinker in our region who's determined to have her drink exactly the way she enjoys it most.  The string of adjectives many customers feed baristas was even the subject of a local insurance company ad profiling weird Northwest types, this one the "super long coffee orderer" (hear it here).

Coffee in a morose climate not only elevates the spirits with nervous energy, but roasting, brewing and serving it becomes a culture that gathers people together.  Classes are held in Starbucks stores.  Independent coffee houses boast unique blends, weekend music, latte-foam designs, and a strong connection to their neighborhoods.  Of course, there's free wi-fi.

And here, to grab a coffee is to come closely face-to-face with some very uniquely adorned folk.  Multiple facial piercings, lavish tattoos and creative garb under their aprons are de rigeur.  Along with unflagging cheerfulness and a very serious dedication to the nuances of coffea aribica.  Even vaccuum-pumped coffee at the supermarket or corner bagel joint has to have a card proclaiming the liquid's fancy name and special qualities.

I host a class weekly in my home, and of course strive to please with excellent coffee.  Brag: some of the members say they come not only for the enlightenment but the flavor of my java.  I watch the participants compose their cups: one puts her half-and-half and flavoring in the cup first, then adds decaf, no stirring.  Others want caffeinated, with milk, or soy, or what-have-you, in their particularly favored mugs.  Coffee is a comfort not only because it warms from within, not only because it delights several senses, not only because it provides a welcome kick in our cloud-darkened town, but because it allows us to have one small part of our day that goes exactly as we desire.

Now, I wouldn't mind if we got a little summer sunshine.  I'll just put some ice cubes in my cup and an even bigger smile on my face.


  1. As a coffee non-drinker, your post this week has helped enlighten me to the passion that seems to have started in, and currently grips your part of the world. Thanks!

  2. It's Coffee Bean for me ... And, in LA it seems as though every celeb feels the same. I've seen everyone from Mrs. Brad Pitt to Charlie Hunnam to Brad Garett in line to get their liquid antioxidant. I gave up on Starbucks long ago ... Great piece.