Wikipedia defines a collage as “a technique of an art production, primarily used in the visual arts, where the artwork is made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.”
An assemblage of different forms. Creating a new whole. Most things we consider “uniform” did not start out in uniformity. At one point, most things we consider as uniform, as a singular “whole,” began as distinct, individualistic blurbs, heralding from different corners of this organized chaos we refer to as our world. An assemblage of distinctness thus creates new wholes, whether or not the purveyor of the said whole or the recipient of the benefits of the said whole realize the distinctness that embodies this new creation.
When one studies the history of coffee, from its early beginnings through colonialism through industrialism and beyond, one realizes the undeniable fact that coffee history is “an assemblage of different forms.” As the coffee trade traveled through cities, countries, and continents, it absorbed distinct blurbs of disinctness, reformatting itself to the needs and wants of the people.
The coffee house was no exception. Debate house for debaters, political house for politicals, chat house for chatters. The coffee houses we know today are a product of this assemblage of hundreds of years, and is still being molded to create a “new whole.”
Killer E.S.P. in Old Town Alexandria is a collage.
The cafe’s entrance is bright and airy, as an impressive selection of colorful gelato and a hand-painted elephant greet you. As one walks deeper towards the back of the cafe, the more “random” everything becomes – an odd collection of tables and couches, eclectic photographs hanging throughout, and red brick walls as old as Old Town itself. Organized chaos, when executed precisely, is a beautiful thing. An assemblage of different forms creating a new whole is no easy task, and Killer E.S.P. almost has it.
“An assemblage of distinctness thus creates new wholes.”
Seating per square feet says a lot about a coffee house. More seats, more bustle. Less seats, less bustle. To add to the character of a coffee house, the decision to place more or less seats per square foot should be made on an aesthetic basis. Done this way, even a “cramped” coffee house could resemble “an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.” Coffee houses should not be about “turning tables” without any design considerations on how the seating affects the cafe experience.
The random collection of tables and couches at Killer E.S.P., seemingly thrown together at the back of the cafe, is not ideal for reminiscence, quiet conversation, or work. However, that is why this coffee house has character. The random tables and couches add character, the photographs on the wall add character, the “tightness” of the space adds character, the loud music adds character. Killer E.S.P., in short, is visual arts demonstrated in coffee-form. Preference for lighter, airy cafes should not diminish the value of human warmth devised through the proximity in which my neighbor is sipping her latte.
This leads to an observation of something prevalent in the coffee house world, something that does not embody the collage of coffee history – coffee houses exclusively brewing coffee from a single roaster.
The economic reasons for such business decisions are clear. So are reasons based in reality and practicality. Exclusive dealing clauses are a way of life in the world of contracts, ensuring a protective bubble around a brand’s product in the market. Killer E.S.P. brews Stumptown beans exclusively. Stumptown Coffee is excellent. In terms of sourcing, roasting, and branding, it is indeed one of the leaders in the specialty coffee world. But it seems like every other coffee house brews Stumptown. Every other coffee house (at least in the DC area) brews Counter Culture Coffee, for instance (which is, of course, another excellent leader in quality coffee). The issue is not with the standard of quality associated with these roasters. Instead, the issue is the lack of choice for the customer.
“Coffee houses are miniatures of the neighborhoods they call home. They are the essence, the quintessential, the absolute, the one-and-only.”
Coffee connoisseurship is often compared with wine connoisseurship. There begins my analysis. When one walks into a wine bar, one expects more than one variety of wine from more than one vintner. A wine bar that serves only a limited number of bottles from one vintner from one region could be deemed a “specialist,” but it would indeed close its doors in no time. Singularity is not accepted in the wine world, and it should not be so easily accepted in the coffee world. Variety should be celebrated, not only in terms of coffee growing regions and micro-lots, but also in terms of specialty roasters.
For coffee houses that roast their own beans, singularity should be celebrated, and all attempts should be made to feature, front and center, their product. But for those that “import” beans from elsewhere, this is a thought to consider. There already exists coffee houses that practice this method. Even some coffee houses that roast their own beans often feature “outside” coffee. This added variety not only enhances the customers’ coffee experience, but also adheres to the history of the coffee house.
At their best, coffee houses are miniatures of the neighborhoods they call home. They are the essence, the quintessential, the absolute, the one-and-only. Killer E.S.P. smells of the brick walls of Alexandria. As a collage within a collage, the heart of a city thumps within this giant of a cafe.
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1012 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Sun – Thur 9 – 9:30ish, Fri – Sat 9 – 11:30ish