On Coffee

“Place” is associated with just about everything that our senses come across. In whatever activity our body and mind take part in, we do so in a “place”; whether or not one recognizes or appreciates such a phenomenon is an entire dialogue on its own. Our daily commute takes place somewhere (train, subway, bus, parking lot-like I-66); our work takes place somewhere (cubicle, hole-in-the-wall, highrise); our mingling chatter takes place somewhere (sidewalk, bar, lunch line at the salad place that for some reason always has a line); our gastronomic activities take place somewhere (Korean deli, at my desk in front of a computer monitor, Indian lunch buffets with unnamed but delicious curry creations).

Coffee epitomizes the imprinting power of place. In turn, place symbolizes an attached ambiance, a feel, a mood, a hue associated with the place that holds the coffee.

A vast number of coffee drinkers, for decades, drank coffee not only for the sake of coffee, but more so for the attached ambiance. The price one paid for a cup of black liquid gold was not limited to the beans themselves, but included the chair one sat in, the light fixtures above one’s head, and the streaming music. I recall, as a youngster in Korea, a time when (before the onslaught of Starbucks and other chains) coffee shops were referred to as “dabang.” These peculiar establishments – now almost unheard of, practically extinct – were the preferred meet-and-greet points for just about any occasion, particularly for blind dates. The servers slash waitresses, affectionately referred to as “madame,” played the roll of hostess more than a mere server. Patrons oft returned to a said dabang just for a renowned madame’s company.

And the coffee. Dabang establishments have left a permanent imprint on Korea’s coffee culture, a tattoo-like presence. The term “dabang coffee” is still used when one would like to sip a cup with cream and sugar, with more cream and sugar. Coffee was first introduced in Korea to the royal family at the start of the twentieth century, and as the beverage began to take to the masses, the unfamiliar and rather bitter taste of this black liquid was understandably pacified by the inclusion of cream and sugar. Like other cultures, coffee was enjoyed as an after-meal splurge, a sugary exclamation point, acting more as a dessert than anything else. The popularity of “Americanos” and black drip coffee is only recent history on the Peninsula. The lasting impact of said dabangs can still be reminisced by Korea’s love for instant coffee; convenient one-pack-a-cup sticks with ground coffee, powdered cream, and sugar.

Coffee influences where and how we converse with one another. Where once a dabang hosted blind dates, a Starbucks or Coffee Bean stands to host chitchatting college students in Gangnam. A lasting similarity, though, is the relatively muted interest towards the coffee itself; as it was decades ago, one pays for one’s seat and right to chat in that specific ambiance.

Greeks had their own association with coffee, as painted here by Nikos Kazantzakis:

“I took a seat in a kafeneion. The coffee and water came. Today is Sunday, services are over, and now the householders proceed to the square. Dressed in their Sunday best, grim and pompous. They sit down, light their cigarettes, sip water and wait with faces turned toward the north. What are they waiting for? The newspapers from Athens. React to the order around you, resist the current, say no! when all those around you are murmuring yes; this is one of the most demanding obligations of a soul that lives in a bankrupt era. Consonance and balance are fertile virtues in creative times; but when the historical moment of dissolution is at hand, a great struggle is needed to keep your soul in order. In order to catch hold, not to be swept away, a good method is to concentrate your mind on a great soul, one which sprang up and blossomed in your native soil. Today as I sit in the Tripolitan coffeehouses watching the people and listening to their talk, I sense that if I were a young man living in Tripolis, I would concentrate – in order to save myself – upon the rich, aggressive, cunning and valiant soul of Kolokotronis.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Journey to the Morea).

Throughout his account of his travels through Greece, Kazantzakis was intrigued by the the substance of people’s conversations while they sipped coffee. Not even “sipped,” but often his subjects would order a coffee, a couple glasses of water, and converse; the sipping of coffee is rarely mentioned in his narrative. The Greeks of the Peloponnesos, awaiting news from Athens, debated politics and the economy; they spoke of struggle, of resistance, of bleak hope. Coffee was the perfect vehicle to deliver such conversations. In the midst of political chaos and uncertainty, the “kafeneion” served as the vehicle of mutual gatherings – whether or not the coffee was consumed was secondary. And the Greeks seemed fond of their glass of cold water with their coffee; reason not elaborated by the author, but indeed for some purpose. Coffee, water and cigarettes, inseparable trio for conversation, at least for the Greeks.

AdourCoffee

Coffee’s sense of place, and its vehicular role of delivering conversation, does not always lack a rising truth: the quality of the coffee. One speaks of paying for the coffee shop ambiance, the seat and the lights, a gathering place of political discourse. But now more than ever, the “taste” of the coffee itself has a sense of “place.”

The cold-brewed coffee transforms one’s perception of the standard morning buzz or after meal coffee; the art of “culinary coffee” should be increasingly appreciated. La Colombe Torrefaction, a personal favorite, steeps its dark Corsica blend for sixteen hours in stainless steel wine tanks, resulting in its Pure Black creation with an ultimate clean and crisp coffee. Its subtle cocoa tones rest profoundly on one’s tongue – throughout the meal, and specifically with red meat. Coffee and meat, lamb chops or a bone-in rib eye for instance, are excellent partners in crime. The natural sweetness in cold-brew coffee sublimely tosses around the iron and fat in a bloody steak. A few swings of the steak knife and a chug of coffee transports one’s senses to Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, wherever the coffee beans have been grown and hand-picked.

Culinary coffee allows a profound shift in the “place” of coffee. No longer limited to the dabang, the Starbucks, or kafeneion, coffee now roams freely from table to table, across cuisines, to be enjoyed in conjunction with a culture’s specialty dish or mom’s home cooking. Coffee’s notes and flavors are vast and numerous like the Greek gods, each with a variant fury. Matching a bottle of some French wine with a Chilean sea bass (which is, by the way, endangered) drenched in truffle oil should now be as ancient and antiquated like the ruins of Corinth. Culinary matching now breathes in the fresh wisp of fresh-ground coffee or a “cold one” from steel wine tanks. The vast bean varieties from growing regions all across the globe presents an unexplored “black ocean” within the art of food.

Some say we are what we eat. One must add that we are what we drink, where we drink, and to what purpose we drink to. Coffee signifies place. Valuation shall not be shortchanged only by the beans’ price tag, or with the real estate associated with the chair one sits in to enjoy such coffee. True valuation, like good coffee, shifts – from table to counter top to cafes and the streets. Where we drink will always add value. With whom we drink always adds conversation, with its own scale of values. What we drink (region, bean, roast, brewing method) levitates our coffee experience beyond our physical presence and transports coffee’s sense of place to unseen and unknown plateaus. In all aspects, coffee is the medium in which one finds common ground where none previously existed, orating stories of people and their places, echoing those efforts of Homer himself.

  1. Nice article i admit, here at balkan area we drink what we call “Turkish coffee,” Best on world for me 😀

    • I’ve heard of this Turkish coffee…just waiting for that plane ticket to get out there and try it. Thanks for visiting!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this! Your writing is very vivid, and lovely. I’m so sad to hear that, more and more, Starbucks is, indeed, taking over the world. Here in Mexico, Starbucks, too has become a ‘thing’ amongst younger people (and, heck! even businesspeople who host meetings in their little private rooms), but we still have lovely coffeehouses and we do go out on dates and get togethers with friends. I love, like you mentioned, the friendliness of the hosts.

  3. Glad to have found this gem, your description and connection of coffee and “place” was a welcome read. I look forward to reading more.
    cheers!

    • Glad you liked it. If you think of it, “place” has a connection to almost everything we encounter daily, yet forget to value appropriately. Thanks for visiting!

  4. So true! It reminds me of my boss recently telling me we could ‘meet for coffee’ when the coffee was seemingly nothing to do with the conversation. But you wouldn’t just meet in an office; it has got to be over coffee. I can’t say I am displeased with the idea though. I have a lot of strong memories attached to coffee and I think they build upon one another, attaching coffee and its places with more and more sentiment.

    • Meeting boss over coffee, summons a completely new set of memories. Thanks for visiting!

  5. Two things: I love all things coffee, and that line “we are what we drink” is perfect. Great post!

  6. suzink said:

    Makes me remember all the places I’ve had a cup and all the people I’ve met along the way. The coffee klatche of the 50’s of women who visited in each other’s homes before they started their day. Lovely memories..

  7. feel like drinking a richly brewed coffee now! 🙂

  8. I work in a coffee shop i can say people don’t go for the coffee they could have coffee at home they definitely go for the atmosphere the culture, the surroundings, THE LUXURY that is all

  9. Reblogged this on nimbyinternational and commented:
    “Coffee signifies place.”

    I was in search of the perfect way to capture all that coffee is and I believe I have found it.

    • Thanks for the reblog and glad you liked the piece. I’m sure you can write a better essay to capture what coffee is to you..

      • We have an ever evolving relationship – On Coffee captured the moment : )

  10. Reblogged this on nickydhingra and commented:
    What is better than coffee in this world?
    Beautifully put “Coffee epitomizes the imprinting power of place. In turn, place symbolizes an attached ambiance, a feel, a mood, a hue associated with the place that holds the coffee.”

    • Glad you liked the piece. Thanks for visiting and for reblogging!

  11. julan62 said:

    I adore coffee… And thoroughly enjoyed your article..Many thanks.

  12. Love the flow of you’re writing. There is a small town called Bakewell in the Yorkshire peak district that is trying to ban the establishment of Costa Coffee. I believe that although it would be the tourist/cosmopolitan ‘place’ for outsiders it would ruin the charm and localness of ‘place’ for the already long established cafes, and the reason for tourists flocking there to begin with.Your article reminded me of that issue.

    • Thanks for bringing that issue to my attention. The dichotomy of “place” is at issue there; subjective values of “place” clashing. Glad you liked the piece!

  13. ohtallulah said:

    The coffee bean aisle in Safeway was my favorite. When I was young, way before I ever touched my first coffee cup, I used to sneak away from my mother to this aisle and pull down the coffee latch so that a few of the fresh beans would pour into my hand and I would smell them. I knew the importance of it to my parents (and their sanity) and so it seemed sacred…

    I remember exactly where I was when I drank my first cup of coffee. I volunteered to do an overnight inventory shift when I was 14 and once midnight passed I was withering. I remember walking up to the stained carafe, with God knows what caked and burnt onto the sides, and I poured the black pungent liquid into the Styrofoam cup, took a sip, winced, and felt wonderful. It was an initiation into a new world…

    Fast forward 10 years later and coffee is the center of my day. I plan where I go based on the black gold. Should I miss a cup it “ruins” my mood and subsequently my day. We live in a coffee universe.

    Tallulah
    http://choosesimplicitydotorg.wordpress.com/

    • I have similar childhood memories of the Safeway coffee aisle; I often stashed a handful of beans in my pockets. You have vivid memories of coffee, thanks for sharing them!

  14. Lovely thoughts. Coffee and place have strong linked memories for me as well.

  15. Jessica said:

    I’ll never forget the first time I had “real” Vietnamese drip coffee in a Vietnamese restaurant in the north of Taiwan. So strong. Sooooo very good. I agree that coffee can transcend both place and time. Great post.

    • Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk is probably the only “non-black” coffee I drink; it’s that good. Glad you liked the piece, thanks for visiting!

      • Jessica said:

        Absolutely! You’re welcome. I enjoyed my visit. I’ll be back 🙂

  16. perpetualflaneur said:

    Beautifully written. I can sense your respect and love for coffee through the manner and tone of your writing.

    • Then I’ve done my job. Glad you liked it, thanks for visiting!

  17. Great article, was hooked from start to finish. That, and I LOVE coffee. Well done!

  18. dylzrecentes said:

    Love coffee! 🙂
    Good points. I often drink coffee with my close friends just to chill and talk, but all this time it never crossed my mind that coffee, place, and conversation were all associated with each other.
    Nice article!

  19. Enjoyed reading your blog, I studied in Korea for a year in ’79 and have fond memories of meeting friends in the ‘Dabang’ and drinking the sugar and cream coffees. I came from a tea drinking family, so the coffee experience was new to me. Now I am married to an Italian, coffee is now very much a part of my life. 🙂 D 34

    • How Korea has changed since ’79. Italian coffee culture is also fascinating to me, and you’ve got a great guide! Thanks for visiting.

      • I bet it has! I lived in Busan as was hosted by the South Busan Rotary Club. 🙂 D 34

      • There is a great hand-pour coffee shop right on Haewoondae in Busan. Tiny place, but great coffee and a view overlooking the ocean.

      • I remember the beach 😉 D 34

  20. So true. Life is like a cup of coffee and the values we live in, lies on it! Thanks for sharing. This a wonderful post! Congrats getting in FP!

  21. wakeuptojava said:

    great article- very interesting read!

  22. My thing is, we western Americans are always rushing, never stopping enough to smell the r…coffee! I wish I had a designated coffee place where I could sip and enjoy…thnx for this!

    • “Stopping” is so critical for me. And where there is great coffee (even in my dainty living room, in front of my computer), that becomes my designated coffee place. Thanks for visiting!

  23. Coffee is definitely more than just a drink – it is a place, culture, conversations. I had Vietnamese coffee everyday while I was there; and savored each cup of Colombian coffee I received as a gift. Will definitely try dabang coffee one day! Nice read, by the way. 🙂

  24. I live in Honduras, a country that grows wonderful coffee, but I ship (and beg friends coming to visit to bring coffee) all my coffee from the States. Why? Honduras exports the fine beans all over the world and we are left with stale beans. Of course, the heat and humidity are not helping the shelf life. If I didn’t love coffee, I wouldn’t put in the effort. I enjoyed your post immensely!

    • Sad to hear that all the great Honduran beans are shipped out; good for US consumers, but bad for Hondurans. Thanks for visiting!

  25. Charlene Velas said:

    Perfect article.

  26. I am a coffee lover like millions of others. Never thought there was a coffee blend I wouldn’t enjoy. . . that was until I traveled through Egypt. They mix cumin with their coffee grinds. I’d rather have a caffeine headache than drink that blend.

    • Cumin coffee…one more reason I need to book a ticket to Cairo. Thanks for visiting!

  27. I am one more coffee lover who read your article. I just wanted add one more thing about coffee – it’s somehow related to lots of pleasant memories 😉

    • Coffee’s role as memory-generator is indeed special. Thanks for visiting!

  28. There really is something about sitting down with a steeping hot cup of coffee at a nice coffee shop that surpasses its taste. There’s a coffee shop by my home where I go to write, and I go there all the time. It’s sort of become my office. I continue to go back because the people who work there now know me and will sometimes already be pouring my medium dark roast coffee before I have even reached the counter. I always get it in a mug, not one of their disposable cups. I love holding the ceramic mug close to my chest and breathing in the aroma. I sprinkle cinammon on top in lieu of sugar or milk and the smell instantly relaxes me and gets me in the mood for work. I think it’s probably a combination of the white noise and environment, the heat, the smell, and the taste – there’s nothing that beats that first sip when all those factors are in place.

    • That is a truly lethal combination – “the heat, the smell, and the taste.” Great combination for some writing. Or thinking. Thanks for visiting!

  29. Leah said:

    Loved the article. And now I can’t wait for my midday coffee after class to help me unwind. 🙂

  30. Enjoyed reading this and agree with your thoughts! For me coffee represents also a little “test” at a restaurant. After a great meal I’m always worried if the coffee will be as good as the food. It’s such a let down for the dinner if it’s not.

  31. This is a great blog post! I am very much into coffee and have been writing about it too. You are right that coffee is not about the drink itself (ok, it is a little bit about the drink, hey I am drinking one now) but about sharing, experience and warmth. I like you blog very much!

  32. This was a great read. I total agree that coffee is an experience. I much prefer sitting down with a friend then my boring run to Starbucks.

  33. Hey I loved this post so much I linked it into my recent post! Thanks

  34. nice article. love learning coffee houses before star bucks arrived were called dabangs. for after all if any one is going to have a quilty pleasure and a way to have a chat with some one might as well be doing it by drinking coffee

  35. You had me at the mention of coffee, I’ll be back to read more.

  36. jexeones said:

    This was awesome and very well written! I’m inspired to have a cup now.

  37. As a mother coffee is greatly appreciated and a huge part of what gets me through my day! Great article.

  38. So much more than a drink, I’m glad you give it its dues as a social device.
    One often hears about a coffee shop as a meeting place for people, but so rarely have I ever seen it in practice, born into North American Starbucks and (typically Canadian) Tim Hortons. More recently there has even been a trend towards the drive-thru coffee shop, so I have always seen coffee shops as somewhere to run in and snatch a venti to go. But here in Germany I’ve found something very different. In my neighbourhood there is a cafe that is truly our meeting place. Whenever you walk by there’s somebody you know. We go every Sunday for hungover brunch. We study together and have even had classes there. And when I was homeless, moving from couch to couch, I connected with my family with their free internet, and found a much need comfortable spot in the cozy corner seat with a strong black brew to keep me going. And who doesn’t love it when the cute blonde behind the counter knows your order as soon as you walk in?

    • Great point, totally agree. So much to gain from your “personal” cafe that fits like an old infielder’s glove. Thanks for visiting!

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