I Café, Therefore I Am

As many of you are acutely aware, I am a coffee addict. Sourcing, brewing and drinking, however, are just acts in a grand symphony. Café history and culture has the breadth and depth that eclipse those of pubs and bars, and yet what the average coffee connoisseur sees and experiences seems all too one dimensional. To enjoy coffee at its fullest potential, a discussion of the “coffeehouse” – the brick and mortar, the counters, the stools, the people – is more than relevant.

Enter Niels Lee, a close friend of mine, trained historian, and fellow coffee addict. The combination of years of wandering through cafés all over the map and a thorough understanding of contextual coffee history is the prime reason I reached out to him to author the first guest piece for i am not a lawyer. As I have broadened my own observance from the mere taste of coffee to its significance of “place,” Niels reminds us of what it means to enter a coffeehouse, to order your special drink, to plunk down in your seat. What it means to “drink coffee.”

Enjoy.

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Our contemporary coffee culture has been in a mood swing of sorts. Coffee is still consumed in copious amounts in its most traditional form, yet it seems our modern gleeful entrepreneurial spirit, mixed with a hint of capitalist innuendo, has produced some interesting outcomes. People for some time have been using coffee grinds as ant and flea repellents, additional ingredients for their compost and odor sanitizers. Many of you thought that coffee from monkey droppings was weird; well, here in the West we are now being introduced to a $50 per cup coffee made from the finest ingredients from elephant dung. Oh, and coffee obsessed conservationists should rejoice, as you can now wear your recycled coffee beans on your daily runs. And of course, amidst the Americanos, cappuccinos and espressos, we have witnessed the rise of the ice blended drink that tried to sound sophisticated by labeling itself as a “frappuccino.” Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy these new attempts at recycling coffee beans and inventing new forms of coffee. “Tradition,” if anything, is built on the steady acceptance of innovation. I occasionally enjoy the drink that skyrocketed Starbucks to a passable franchise. I just wish the “frappuccino” didn’t try so hard to join the traditional coffee club.

The actual modern pushback against the adulterous affairs of coffee is lead by the “Epicureans.” No, not the pretentious “coffee snob” crowd whose sole identity is defined and confined by their defiance against Starbucks. I’m talking about the “true believers” who discuss and practice the fine art of grinding, roasting, temperature obsessing, hand-pouring and finger-giving to those who can’t tell the difference between a hand-pour and an Americano. I for one could never join this elite subculture where most seem to be card carrying members of the Specialty Coffee Association of America or hippies who spend their time in cafes well known for their torn up couches. Not that I would reject a certificate from the SCAA or avoid spending time with my friends who seamlessly use the words “those were the days” and “fair-trade” in the same sentence. I guess I’m just more of the view that the greatest evil is not a terrible cup of joe from 7/11, but energy drinks that shamelessly promote their relevance by claiming it can replace coffee simply because it is more convenient, devoid of heat, and full of “energy inducing ingredients.” Let’s face it, toothpaste and shampoo commercials with their fake smiles are more convincing. At least those selling bad coffee know how terrible their products are- the energy drink crowd actually seem to believe in their messianic pomposity.

Up to this point, most of you have heard it all, the cries of the coffee cultural wars. Yet I bring up the energy drink industry for it to act not only as my personal linguistic piñata, but because it is part of a larger issue regarding the coffee industry. While the battle between the “innovators” and “true believers” continue, I lament at the decline of the “coffeehouse” culture. The very idea of the traditional coffeehouse culture is steadily contracting to the point of nonexistence, and those pesky energy drinks aren’t helping.

What is this coffeehouse culture you ask? Wait, aren’t the young, old, and odd all converging to the nearest coffee shop to relax, engage in conversations, get work done, and to use the restroom? Aren’t I actually typing this very post in a coffee shop filled with people engaging in various social activities? Well, not exactly. I’m a son of the South, studied in the Midwest and currently live in the East Coast, all the while stormed every coffeehouse my Wal-Mart bike would take me. Whenever I stopped by local establishments, I was often struck by how customers were always quite self-enclosed. People were either on their laptops, talking about work with (usually) a single co-worker, reorienting their iPhone screens or zipping out of the café while juggling their cup of joe, briefcase, suit jacket, and divorce papers. If a local talent is out there in the corner singing hear heart out, barely half of the room seemed to notice, with pockets of people looking up once in a while to give an indifferent round of applause. Now, I will be the first to say there is nothing wrong with relaxing with a friend or ignoring a struggling musician, but it seems like we have gotten used to bringing our individualistic tendencies out into the public. Yet coffee houses in the past were more than extensions of our living rooms. Let me explain, with a very, very short history of the cafe.

The first users of coffee as a social beverage were the Sufis in Yemen during the turn of the 15th century. Within two centuries, the beverage had spread through the rest of Europe. According to pre-eminent Ottoman historian Cemal Kafadar, coffee houses on the other hand were first established in Istanbul in 1551 primarily for local Sufi orders, but the idea of a coffeehouse steadily expanded into the public arena, and by the 18th century, coffee and its houses became an integral part of Middle Eastern and European social gatherings. This was possible not only due to coffee’s bittersweet taste and its ability to manipulate our biological clocks, but because coffee houses’ cultural and intellectual output. Initially, the coffee houses gained popularity in the Middle East due to its various forms of public entertainment, such as shadow puppet theatres and meddah (storytelling), while European cafes steadily began to define their place in society as unique intellectual hubs. While great German composers such as Beethoven and Bach often composed their works in cafes, English coffeehouses or “Penny Universities” gathered intellectuals, playwrights, local professors and journalists to discuss obscure philosophy and the politics of the day. In Vienna, those who were shunned by mainstream academia – the majority of which were the Jewish intelligentsia – would relocate themselves to salons and cafes to discuss the social ills of the day, so much that as the historian Steven Beller notes, the proverbial local saying was “the Jew belongs in the coffee-house.” With this in mind, Matthew Green has recently asked, “Can you imagine walking in, sitting next to a stranger and asking for the latest news? Or slamming a recent novel down next to someone’s coffee and asking for their opinion before delivering yours? It’s not the done thing.”

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. In many ways, the modern coffeehouse has improved, with relatively cheap coffee, free WiFi, semi-comfortable chairs and endless supply of bad music. But aesthetics and service aside, most coffee enthusiasts seem to be unaware of how historically, coffee itself was not the major focus, but rather the brick walls and wooden tables that allowed a place of refuge from everyday toils. The great intellectual and cultural hubs of yesterday are now either glorified vending machines for the busy worker or where the coffee elite can converse about the superior quality of their beans.

We can discuss the rising rent costs, the inevitability of cultural manipulations, the menace of the buy-one-coffee-and-stay-for-three-hours crowd, the fact that some people are just turned off by graduate students pretending to understand Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, and the simple hectic schedules many of us have to maintain. (It is of course during this confusion, the “energy drinks” with their closing caps, portability, and lack of a burning sensation, steadily rose to feed on our modern illness.) For some political conservatives, the constant Republican-bashing and promotion of a socialist utopia in certain cafes is disturbing, thus driving three individuals to establish the Conservative Cafe in Crown Point, Indiana. This conservative themed café has great ambitions to create a new franchise, where the “fair and balanced” is on 24/7, coffee blends include Conservative, Liberal, Moderate, Radical Right and sells T-shirts with patriotic slogans such as “Peace Through Superior Firepower,” whatever that means.

These troubles aside, if part of our modern civilization was born and sustained with the help of intellectually curious individuals holding cups of coffee in shady cafes, perhaps it’s a tradition worthy of continuation despite our modern ills. I’m not too pleased that one of the most historical coffeehouses in London is now home to a random Starbucks, but if that particular café focuses on creating an atmosphere that draws the various forms of social activity instead coming up with another “frappuccino” flavor that sounds great on paper but a monstrosity to taste, I think I could live with that.

The revival of the coffeehouse culture, of course, transcends politically themed cafés, does not really care about whether you’ll join in on the revolution, loves conversations that will last for hours, invites local talent for various kinds of entertainment, and tolerates poor graduate students struggling to sound significant. The coffee shop was influential because it provided alternative forms of entertainment and intellectual activity; the cup of coffee you bought was a mere entrance fee. Call me a romantic, for imagining such a cafe in world of instant gratification and uber-capitalism at its finest. But then again, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “I’m a romantic; a sentimental person think things will last, a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t.”

Anyhow, until I see the rise of snobs decrying the deteriorating state of coffeehouses, I’m staying out of all coffee related controversies, clashes and discussions.

Oh, and energy drinks, I await your defamation lawsuits.

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Niels is one of the many poor graduate students you will find wandering around various coffeehouses. He is trained as a historian, a romantic by trade, loves Dostoyevsky, and hates taking out the trash. Publications include “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Identity” published by The Birch, but understands that most people don’t really care much about tedious history.

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3 comments
  1. Love this. When I was young in England in the 60s, coffee bars were at least a hangout for musicians. More than a few aspiring stars got their first breaks singing in coffee bars. But that’s beside the point. I would love to see coffee houses returned to their former glory. However, economically it just can’t be feasible without the beverages being ridiculously overpriced 😦

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