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Coffee People

After a hiatus, the Coffee People series is back. In previous installments (here, here and here), we discussed coffee + design, coffee + culture, and coffee + ultra running/mountaineering.

Today, enter the realm of coffee + music, with the one and only Joe Kwon.

Joe: resident cellist of the band The Avett Brothers, Haiku drafter, photographer, cook, eater. Coffee drinker. One cool, kind person.

Here’s one of my favorite from the band – February Seven.

 

In the midst of non-stop touring, Joe took the time to jot down his thoughts on brewing while on tour, music, photography, and his passion for carpentry. I highly recommend that you also check out Joe’s website, full of beautiful photographs, showcasing the ins and outs of the band on the road, at  http://tasteontour.com

Many thanks to Joe for taking the time to do this. Enjoy.

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“I actually drink my coffee at home in complete silence. It’s my way of truly engaging with my coffee.”

INL: The world famous Avett Brothers are habitually on tour, baptizing crowds with memorable sets. You are asked endlessly about your music, but I want to know how coffee fuels those sets – “coffee on tour.” What are some coffee habits of your fellow band members? Any notable coffee routines?

Joe: I proudly introduced these guys to Counter Culture coffee a few years back after I struck up a great relationship with them. They actually gave me 3 days of training to brew pour over coffee and even set us up with a bus pour over set. So, since then, we have been making pour over coffee on the bus from the moment the first person wakes up till about 5pm. I drink significantly more coffee on the road than I do at home.

INL: Among the dozens of cities you’ve toured through, do any good coffee shops come to mind?

Joe: So many, but it’s funny I don’t recall the names of them. I just know how to walk to them from the venues that we play. Sometimes I’ll make a special trip, but most of the time I drink my coffee on the bus. What were some of the better coffee cities? I’d say every city at this point has a great coffee shop. It just takes some research to find the ones that fit your mood and aesthetic.

INL: What are your favorite brewing methods and coffees?

Joe: I’m a 100% pour over guy. I own several methods, but my favorite, tried and true method is the bonmac pro-cone with white paper filters.

“I’d say every city at this point has a great coffee shop. It just takes some research to find the ones that fit your mood and aesthetic.”

INL: In early 2014, the Avett Brothers collaborated with Counter Culture Coffee to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Research Center? How did that collaboration come to fruition?

Joe: Ethan Fogleman from Counter Culture Coffee actually reached out to me via social media to invite me to come tour their facility. I was living in Durham at the time, and little did I know they were roasting some of the worlds greatest coffee just 5 minutes away.

INL: You were not always the energizing cellist of the Avett Brothers – you started young, but as a classical musician. What prompted the switch to folk rock? What was challenging about that musical transition?

Joe: Before I joined the Avett Brothers I was actually working for IBM and I felt the pull from that life to come back to music. I always wanted to be a cellist ever since my first cello lesson, but never did I imagine it would be in this capacity. I’d say one of the most challenging things was that I had very little popular music knowledge. I’d never listened to anyone outside the classical greats. I could name symphony orchestras with great brass sections before I could name a member of Nirvana. Needless to say there was a lot of room for music education.

“I always wanted to be a cellist ever since my first cello lesson, but never did I imagine it would be in this capacity.”

INL: Before joining the band, you graduated from UNC with a degree in computer something and worked for IBM. What nudged you to shift back to music? What were your fears when you u-turned away from Corporate America and onto the stage? What were your joys?

Joe: My fears were that I was going to lose my house and everything else, but it honestly didn’t feel too daunting. I had come to terms with it. I guess that’s what it took, to not care about the money or stardom, but just to truly love performing and being on stage.

INL: What does music add to your coffee experience? Flipping that around, what does coffee add to your music?

Joe: I actually drink my coffee at home in complete silence. It’s my way of truly engaging with my coffee. It becomes a ritual. Coffee fuels my life on the road as a way to stay awake at times. In other words, home life and tour life mean different things to my coffee habit.

“Coffee is the thing I look forward to you when I go to sleep at night.”

INL: Your website, tasteontour.com, is a pictorial memoir of the day-to-days of the tour. Two things come to mind: why film, and why black-and-white?

Joe: Film because I love the delayed gratification, and film seems for finite. It does get a bit difficult to grab shots though, but that’s the beauty of it too.

INL: Master cellist, knowing photographer, and more-than-amateur cook. You do it all, but now you are also chipping away at wood. What inspired you to begin woodworking? Any proud pieces yet?

Joe: I’m actually working on my biggest piece yet, it’s a dining table for my house. I got into wood working after I had discovered a significant amount of water damage in my house and I helped a buddy of mine reconstruct it. I had amassed a bunch of tools and felt it would be a waste to just sell them, so I started making things. It started with cutting boards, then benches, then coffee tables, etc.

INL: Final question: what is coffee to you?

Joe: As I mentioned above coffee is the thing I look forward to you when I go to sleep at night. I love the moments that I have and share over a cup of coffee. I love sharing a great cup of coffee and the experience behind it.

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photo

My interview with Tony Krupicka is quickly becoming one of the most-viewed pieces on this site. While most of the reviews and comments have been positive, there were several that raised a legitimate question: why is Tony an “influential coffee person?” Fair enough. This is a good opportunity to elaborate on what I consider to be key factors in determining who the “coffee people” are.

Coffee is like gourmet cupcake stores or Korean BBQ food trucks – it’s everywhere. It exists in various forms, is sold and consumed in various environments, and by various people. Whether one realizes it or not, coffee is a steeped staple in modern life; one does not necessarily have to even be a coffee drinker to be a part of the “coffee value chain.”

Given this vast omnipresence of coffee and the faces behind it, not one stereotype defines a “coffee person.” The range of individuals included in the Coffee People Q&A series (and those that will be featured in upcoming installments) are as diverse as the types of coffee flavorings some choose to wreck their mugs with. Some are professional roasters and baristas, others are coffee bloggers, some are musicians, others are artists. This range is what inspires one to write about coffee.

As Tony pointed out in his first sentence of the interview, he is not “a very educated/informed/nuanced coffee consumer.” Indeed, coffee seems to be only tangentially related to mountain running. The correlation between the two would be a stretch for some, an ambiguity for others.

But consider this. One sunny afternoon in Boulder, CO, Tony posts a photo on his social media page, a photo of a Bialetti sitting on a portable burner on the tailgate of his pickup. A pair of running shoes in the background. That single photo sparked a string of responses, almost all of which revolved around brewing coffee with a Bialetti, or portable coffee brewing in the mountains.

That is coffee influence.

The essence of the Coffee People series is to capture the role of coffee in people’s lives, how coffee has shaped them, and how they have shaped the realm of the coffee world. Another objective is to paint how coffee influences different cultural sectors, be it design, fashion, music, food, or mountain running.

Being a professional coffee person is no prerequisite for coffee talk. To go even further, being a so-called “knowledgeable” coffee drinker is no prerequisite for coffee talk. Whether one drinks only the finest hand-poured brews, or any old steaming black cup of joe, coffee talk is coffee talk. The breadth of folks involved in this daily ritual is what makes the series.

So who brews daily morning shots at 11,000 feet above sea level, in a truck? A coffee person.

The Coffee People series (interviews with influential coffee people) is back, with a force. In previous installments (here and here), we discussed coffee + design and coffee + culture. Today, we push the limits a bit further on what it means to be an “influential” coffee person, and explore the intersection of coffee and running, coffee and the mountains.

Anton “Tony” Krupicka is a Boulder, Colorado-based mountain runner who has taken the trail running circuit by storm since winning the legendary Leadville 100 in 2006, and again in 2007. He is a two-time USATF 50 mile Trail National Champion and course record holder (2009, 2010), and in 2010, Tony was the runner-up in the prestigious Western States 100, a race captured in the film Unbreakable: The Western States 100. He has been a New Balance Outdoor Ambassador since 2008 and is also sponsored by Buff Headwear, Ultimate Direction, Petzl, and Zeal Optics.

But perhaps, more than the wins and endorsement deals, Tony is better known as an embodiment of “minimal running,” summitting the peaks of “14ers” (mountains in the Sawatch Range of Colorado that have an elevation of over 14,000 feet) in just running shorts and a water bottle tucked into those shorts. For half the year, Tony is on the road, running and racing abroad or living in the back of his Chevy S-10 pickup truck “The Roost,” haunting the mountain ranges of the American West, exploring every square foot of terrain in the most sustainable fashion.

Along with minimalism, Tony exemplifies a new style of running, in which he “started pursuing remote summits, long traverses, and ambitious link-ups in a single-push style that requires a unique combination of mountain running fitness and technical climbing competence.”

Tony is also a prolific writer and photographer, regularly contributing columns to Running Times and the Ultimate Direction Blog, and jotting down his musings and grandiose photos on his beautiful website, http://www.antonkrupicka.com/.

While there are many interviews with Tony, this is no race report or thought piece on better running per se. Instead, I caught up with him shortly after the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix to talk coffee, pain au chocolat, and of course, the mountains.

Many thanks to Tony for taking the time to do this. Enjoy.

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“The mountains give me hints and tips on how to live with intensity and attention.”

A typical summer post-run scene for Tony, on the "porch" of the Roost. Photo: Anna Frost

A typical summer post-run scene for Tony, on the “porch” of the Roost.
Photo: Anna Frost

INL: Your typical pre-run morning routine consists of: get up, brew two shots of espresso, drink said two shots, and run. Brewing coffee in the high country can be tricky. How do you manage your morning espresso when you camp out in “The Roost,” your affectionately named white pickup?

AK: First, let me clarify that I’m really not a very educated/informed/nuanced coffee consumer. And that your readership probably cares/knows a whole lot more about all of this than I do. So, I’m a Bialetti man. Sometimes I’ll do the mini, 2oz version and just add roughly equal amounts of hot water to make an Americano. If I’m looking for a little extra kick, or I’m having a particularly difficult time waking up, or I’m really into procrastinating and reading my book before running, then I’ll brew up the more standard 6oz version, and usually don’t add quite as much water then, either. This is all via a JetBoil camp stove, on the tailgate of my truck.

Morning brew via Bialetti, on "the Roost." Photo: Anton Krupicka

Morning brew via Bialetti, on “the Roost”
Photo: Anton Krupicka

INL: Regarding coffee beans, do you have a preferred roaster? How do you usually brew your coffee? (espresso all the way, French press at times, drip sometimes?)

AK: As outlined above, I’ve only brewed via the Bialetti. I’ve yet to venture into French presses or pour-overs or drip or whatever else. I have a couple of roasters here in Colorado that I’ve found myself returning to. First, my buddy Geoff Roes was home-roasting a bunch last winter and I would always get a 12oz bag from him every week or two. Since he’s moved back to Alaska I’ve gone back to the larger, local roasters (well, larger than Geoff’s garage, at least). In Boulder, my default seems to be Boxcar and occasionally Ozo. One of my favorite café’s in town, though—Spruce Confections—uses Kaladi. And I love their coffee. Never bought the beans myself, however.

I actually worked as a barista at a great coffee shop in Leadville, CO, for two summers. It was called Provin’ Grounds when I worked there but has since changed ownership and its name (City On A Hill), and they now roast their own coffee, so whenever I’m up there (which is a lot), I buy their stuff. Usually their Mount Massive Medium Roast. Finally, simply because I’m a big fan of the town and this particular coffee shop, I gotta give a shout out to the Buena Vista Roastery in Buena Vista, CO. I’ve bought a few bags of beans there, too, and they were great. Not sure I have the most discerning palate, though.

Tony, just another day in the Sawatch Range, this time on Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado (14,440 ft). Photo: Anton Krupicka

Tony, just another day in the Sawatch Range, this time on Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado (14,440 ft).
Photo: Anton Krupicka

INL: Since becoming a “full time” runner, you have had the luxury of going on (more or less) two long runs per day. In between those runs, you’re known to hang out in local coffee shops to read, rest, and catch up on the Internet of things. Do you have any favorite cafes in Boulder? If so, what makes it (them) attractive? How is the café scene?

AK: I definitely have my favorite spots in Boulder. I’ve had an apartment on the west side of downtown now for a little over a year, so my routine has generally settled into Trident Bookstore and Café and Spruce Confections. Both are a five-minute walk from my front door and on Boulder’s iconic Pearl Street. If I’m looking for a change of scene, I’ll go to Ozo, basically just across the street from Trident, but it’s rarely my first choice.
Spruce is attractive because it’s the classic sidewalk café. There is barely any indoor seating and the outdoor seating is excellent, with a little shaded, garden area. Even Boulder’s winter weather is typically pretty excellent (sunny), so it somehow works year-round. There is also no wifi. So, this is my default first-thing-in-the-morning-cuppa-jav spot with a friend or a book if I’m not brewing it myself on my kitchen range. They’re primarily a bakery, and their fresh scones are probably my favorite in town. They supply a lot of other cafes around town with their scones, too, but, of course, they’re never as fresh at those places. The clientele runs the gamut, but I would say is generally pretty upscale/wealthy (as is much of Boulder, generally speaking). This is not your gritty hipster joint. (Not much of anything about Boulder is very gritty, though.) And the lack of wifi mercifully keeps Boulder’s plentiful tech crowd away, too. They have live music on Sunday mornings (usually very strings- and winds-heavy and Parisian feeling). It’s a great spot.

“Two double-shots of espresso, two pain au chocolat and I’m ready to go run in the Alps all day.”

Trident is my workhorse hang-out. It’s a Boulder institution. Ample seating, wooden floors, brick walls with art hanging, connected bookstore next door, it’s probably the closest thing to an intellectual, hipster hang-out in Boulder, but definitely across all ages. Some of that at The Laughing Goat, too, down on East Pearl. Cell phones are frowned upon (you’ll be asked to step outside), conversations are generally kept fairly muted. People are totally welcome to chat and converse, and do, but the general vibe is very mellow, not boisterous and high-energy at all. Lots of books, lots of Macbooks, lots of horn rims. They serve up Boxcar coffee, and tie with Spruce for my favorite Americano in town. I do a lot of reading here, some interneting. Generally an afternoon spot for me. They don’t do any baking in-house, and their pastries are pretty limited, but they carry a couple of bars/cookies that I really like and that I don’t find any place else in that part of town.

Ozo is kind of the big successful joint in Boulder. They have another location out on the east part of town. Their West Pearl location is only a couple of years old, and it has apparently stressed Trident’s business some, which is too bad. Ozo is kind of the opposite of Trident. Trident baristas serve up tough love—the default seems to be scorn and you have to earn their warmth, which is fine with me—whereas Ozo is all about customer service. Baristas are young, hip, bouncy, high-energy, and never stodgy or put-out to serve up your jav. The music is loud (and far too often tends to reggae, which grates on my nerves something fierce), encouraging loud conversations and hustle and bustle. I will read a book here now and then, but it seems to be primarily a computer hang-out, along with business meetings. Lots going on in here. They don’t do any in-house baking, so they bring in others’ pastries (including Spruce’s scones), but I think they’re pretty obviously crushing it as a roaster.
There’s a lot more going on in the Boulder coffee scene. The Cup, The Laughing Goat, Jet’s Espressoria, Innis Free, Café Sole on the south side, Amante Coffee, The Brewing Markets, etc., etc., but I just don’t make it to these places nearly as often. There seems to be a fair bit of turn-over in the scene, too. I’ve lived in Boulder for five years, and in that time three different coffee shops on Pearl St (Saxy’s, Boulder Bookstore Café, Atlas Purveyors) all went out of business, and I really enjoyed all three.

I think, in general, especially given its relatively small population (100,000), Boulder is considered to have a pretty hoppin’ café scene. Obviously, it’s no San Fran or Portland or even Denver, but I enjoy it.

Becoming overwhelmed by the majestic sense of place of the mountains is reason enough to climb a mountain a day. Indian Peaks. Photo: Joe Grant

Becoming overwhelmed by the majestic sense of place of the mountains is reason enough to climb a mountain a day. Indian Peaks.
Photo: Joe Grant

View of lightly-powdered Longs Peak from Chasm Lake (Rocky Mountain National Park) Photo: Joe Grant

Trekking across a frozen Chasm Lake, at the doorstep of lightly-powdered Longs Peak (Rocky Mountain National Park)
Photo: Joe Grant

INL: In terms of food, I know that you do not follow a rigid diet of any sort, besides your fair share of fruits and vegetables. I do know, however, that you are no nay-sayer when it comes to simple carbohydrates. Which café best satisfies your renowned sweet tooth? Do you have a favorite dessert?

AK: Improbably, in Bouder, Jet’s Espressoria down on East Pearl does some killer baked goods. Cookies, sweet breads, etc. City On A Hill in Leadville probably has the highest number of sweet-things-I-want-to-eat. Best scones I’ve ever had. Lemon bars, cookies. Their sweet breads—particularly the vegan Pumpkin Bread—are great. Pannikin in Encinitas, CA, is probably my favorite all-around café anywhere, though. Their baked goods are out of this world. All of them. And they’re located in an old train depot. It’s an exceptional spot.

If we’re talking about the single best sweet treat anywhere in the world, though, the muffins at Wooglin’s Deli in Colorado Springs are truly enigmatic. Each one is reliably incredible—especially the Cherry/White Chocolate—and despite extensive research around the world, I’ve never found anything else that compares. Most muffins are crap—spongy, cake-y blah. Wooglins’ are a transcendent experience.

Finally, I spend a lot of time running and racing in Europe, and the espresso and chocolate croissants at Aux Petit Gourmands in Chamonix—pain au chocolat—are pretty much the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. Two double-shots of espresso, two pain au chocolat and I’m ready to go run in the Alps all day!

INL: You are oft-described as a “minimalist” runner – minimal gear, minimal clothes, just you and the mountain. I find that my approach to coffee is similar; minimalist coffee, no frills, no hippity hipster hipe, just quality beans roasted and brewed in a technically sound way. How is “minimalism” reflected in other aspects of your life?

AK: Oh boy. Hmmm. I hate talking/writing about this kind of stuff because it’s too easy to come off as preachy. I guess I just try to prioritize the things in my life that I know will make me a happy, healthy, functioning human. I don’t have it completely figured out, and there are lots of things that I would like to improve about my current approach to the world, but if I can get up a mountain and read a good book—often with some good coffee in hand—then it’s been a good day and a lot of other things tend to fall into place more easily.

Tony on his way to a first-place finish (12:42:31) at the Lavaredo 199K in Italy. Photo: The North Face Europe

Tony on his way to a first-place finish (12:42:31) this June at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 199K in the Dolomites of Italy.
Photo: The North Face Europe

INL: You teamed with filmmaker Joel Wolpert – “The Wolpertinger” – again to write, shoot, and produce “In the High Country,” a thirty-minute impressionistic mirage of mountain and man, cliff and man, land and man. Towards the end of the film, you wrote: “When integration of self and place seem seamless . . . that is when the mountains truly become home.” Regarding coffee, I once wrote, “Coffee epitomizes the imprinting power of place.” What does trail running have to do with the sense of “place”?

AK: For me, a huge part of running in the mountains is focusedly experiencing my surroundings with a higher degree of attention. Integrating myself into my surroundings in a way that requires me to tune in, be aware, be present—not tune out. If that doesn’t imbue one with a more rich, nuanced sense of place, I’m not sure what will. The thing about moving quickly in the mountains is that this kind of focus and attention almost becomes a requirement.

“Outside of running, writing is my most apt form of creative expression . . . I suppose running and writing intersect in that they’re both forms of challenge and creativity.”

INL: What was your thought process when you were writing the narration for “In the High Country”? What does writing mean to you? When and how does “running” intersect with “writing”?

AK: The narration for ITHC was co-wrote by Joel and myself. I tend to be long-winded. I re-read a bunch of my old stuff and then wrote a typical, wordy, too-long new essay around the topics of “home” and “place”. This was pretty horrific. Joel and I put off recording the narration until the very last day of filming in Colorado because we were both pretty frustrated with where it was. Finally, in a late-night, by-headlamp session at Halfmoon Creek near Leadville, Joel took my essay and brilliantly distilled it down to a series of much more focused, terse statements. This was essentially the narration that made it into the film. The next morning, Joel and I went over each sentence word by word, together, until we were happy with it, and recorded it.

In general, I’m not sure how to answer the second two parts to your question. I guess, most essentially, outside of running, writing is my most apt form of creative expression. I typically find it more frustrating than anything, but like anything worthwhile, I also feel a sense of satisfaction after I’ve put a bunch of time and effort into writing something. I suppose running and writing intersect in that, like I said before, they’re both forms of challenge and creativity for me. Like anyone who has run, I constantly experience the frustration of being out on a run and thinking of the perfect way to word something, but then when it comes to sitting down and actually writing it later, that inspiration and ability has seemingly evaporated.

INL: You have now run across numerous mountain ranges on different continents, your hair flowingly fluttering through atmospheres to and fro, your battered feet scrambling and sliding in the midst of rocks here and there. What has your trail runner career taught you about travel thus far? How are they related?

AK: Travel is all about being open-minded and adaptable. If you have a strict, rigid agenda, not only will you miss out on the whole point of travel—to experience new things and meet new people—but you will inevitably be frustrated because there are too many variables involved in travel to stay in complete control. Accept your lack of control in a foreign environment and be open to arising opportunities and situations.

A shot from near Flegere, the top of the last climb on the UTMB course Photo: Jordi Saragossa

A shot from near Flegere, the top of the last climb on the UTMB course
Photo: Jordi Saragossa

INL: To me, bustling open air markets – stench and all – have stories to tell. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants in some basement serving one thing for three decades have stories to tell. To you, I’m sure each mountain pass has its own story. Which trail or peak tells the best tales for you? What do the mountains tell you?

AK: I think my home mountains—the in-town peaks and crags of Boulder and Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park—probably tell me the best tales. Or the most meaningful ones, at least. Because these are the hills I visit the most, I know them best, and my lifetime experience-base in the mountains is most obviously shaped by them. Basically, the mountains give me hints and tips on how to live with intensity and attention.

INL: Last but not least, please summarize your life in the mountains – and your trail running – in ten words or less.

AK: Curiosity, challenge, discomfort, serenity, and personal growth.

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Coffee seeps through all aspects of society. No longer just a “quickie” shot of caffeine through one’s veins, coffee, at its core, is culture itself.

In our first Coffee People installment, I discussed coffee and design with Brian Jones of Dear Coffee, I Love You. We had an in-depth conversation on how coffee intersects with design and branding, and why those things are inseparable.

For our second installment, I invited Chérmelle D. Edwards, curator of smdlr, an influential site on all things coffee. As a writer, documentarian, and “coffeetographer,” Chérmelle portrays all aspects of coffee culture, from fashion to music to art and, of course, coffee.

As all talented beings are, Chérmelle is inspired by many things. Here is an almost-short list: God, family, friends, flea markets, people, Henry Miller, Picasso, architecture, style-bloggers, print magazines, William Faulkner, random conversations, Alexandre Dumas, independent music, Miles Davis, neighborhoods, thrifting, hostels, Toni Morrison, beaches, books, Brooklyn, Thomas Newman, travel bookstores, L.A., love, natural light, Africa (all of it), acoustic guitars, airports and airplanes, Picasso (yes, she listed him twice), graffiti, Gustav Klimt, Maxwell, caffeine, Bon Iver, Modigliani, Annie the movie, yard sales, Van Gogh, ideas, and paper in all its tangible forms.

Ever since I stumbled upon smdlr, Chérmelle’s content has provoked me to ponder about how coffee affects fashion, music, and all shades of culture.

Coffee + fashion, coffee + music, and coffee + culture are at the heart of our conversation here. While coffee culture cannot be summed in one interview, I hope this serves as a valuable insight as to how coffee has stained our beings. For the better.

Enjoy.

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INL: “smdlr.” This is an interesting name for a website. What does it stand for and what is its significance?

smdlr: Thanks, you’re right.  I have a lot of fun helping people to pronounce it too. But, that’s always been an excuse to start a wonderful conversation. So, smdlr is an acronym. It stands for small, medium and large. The name harks back to a historical and traditional time when coffee was consume in standard and understood sizes, small, medium and large. Of course, there is also a personal and subliminal implication of the impact coffee has on culture to these varying degrees. 

INL: What inspired you to start smdlr?

smdlr: So many things!  I was at a point in my life where I realized that how coffee culture was documented didn’t speak to me, nor did it represent me and the types of things that I was interested in that was happening in the space. And, as I think about that now, it’s so serendipitous, because isn’t that how most passion projects start because of a lack of something? So, this lack quickly became a passion as coffee culture had been a part of my life since my early college days at UCLA, and I wanted to give myself first a chance to see what was missing, so I created the site. And, by extension, I knew that I would also be proffering another view of what coffee culture encompassed: culture.

INL: “Coffee + Fashion” is an intriguing concoction. You defined “coffeetography” as “photography . . . inspired by independent coffee culture . . . a visual response from connecting and communing with the people.” What does “fashion” add to the coffee house experience? How is “coffeetography” different from the likes of Scott Schuman and other fashion photographers?

smdlr: Intriguing indeed! I can’t get enough. It’s an interesting question you ask, because in some ways, fashion doesn’t add to the experience, because its equally part of the experience – it’s always there. Everyday that a human being wakes up in the morning, and dresses themselves (whether it’s 7 a.m. in their pajamas with an overcoat or they are dressed for an actual job) they are contributing to fashion. Now, if you compound that with the universal desire for people to gather in a communal space like the coffee shop, well that’s just human nature – fashion included – happening in one of the most revolutionary spaces of all time.

However, there are fashion moments or events that occur in neighborhoods where maybe you have a population that may dress a certain way – i.e. hipster – which adds an element to what I can find in spaces, or you may have a neighborhood prone to say graffiti artists, and that set of individuals upon entering a coffee shop will add something very interesting to the space in how they fashion themselves. And then of course, there is Fashion Week, which in New York adds an astronomical sense of expression because of the fashion industry, and it’s an event where style is on display and that definitely affects the space.

Regarding coffeetography and the likes of Scott Schuman and others. Scott Schuman is a wonderful modern progenitor to documenting the street. To be queried about photography in the same sentence with him is really an honor. I would like to believe, and this is from reading many interviews and hearing Schuman talk about his work, that he (along with some other wonderful photographers in the field) are also feeling something when they respond to a person. And, like them, it’s that moment that moves me to want to capture something. In that respect, coffeetography is the same: it’s responding to a feeling.

Where coffeetography differs for me is that I’m often choosing to allow myself to have that feeling from a specific space – the coffee shop. As well, I’m choosing to align myself around where these spaces are so that I can put my work into the framework of a specific culture, which is coffee. The specificity is by no way limiting because coffee is universal and so is the coffee shop. One doesn’t have to drink coffee to be apart of the culture or be aligned with it. When I’m working like this, with these lens’ in mind, I’m attempting to capture something personal while a person is choosing to have a personal experience – sometimes by themselves and other times with others – the dynamic of that occurring with so many other people around in a set space, makes being the coffeetographer something quite different.

I also feel that coffeetography is about capturing something immediate, raw and that deals with some innocence of the human element. I can’t always put my hand on the latter, nor do I always achieve it in a photograph, but when I do, I know it. And, it’s an indescribable feeling. I hope this answers your question.

“Coffeetography is about capturing something immediate, raw and that deals with some innocence of the human element.”

INL: Do patrons of different coffee houses have different “styles”? What does the patrons’ style say about that particular coffee house? How does “fashion” change a coffee house’s atmosphere?

smdlr: Yes and No. Yes, if they are a regular, as in they frequent that space often. But, a coffee house can have a style depending upon the population of its neighborhoods, and that at best is a generality that can always be broken. There’s always the person who is in the area, or visiting, or touring, or who stumbles upon it that makes the space fluid when it comes to style so that you can’t always pin it down. When I’m entering spaces, I can choose to think that I’ll know what I might find based upon previous visits, or if it’s my first time there, I could base it upon the people on the street, but I attempt not to, because the joy is being incited by something, and by someone.

INL: The “coffee + thrift” collaboration, in which you partnered with Stefany Mohebban of Pretty in Thrift, was created to “travel to four countries through four coffee shops and local vintage shops.” Why thrift? What does vintage fashion have to do with coffee? How is vintage fashion reflected from the four featured coffee houses and coffees (Ethiopia via Toby’s Brooklyn, Guatemala via Stumptown, Sidama Region via Café Grumpy, Brazil via Ninth Street Espresso), and vice versa?

smdlr: Why not thrift? I’m laughing. I grew up thrifting. It was a weekend ritual with my dad. It was always about the discovery, what could we find, and later as I got older, it became about the stories I would make up about the things discovered and how they also became apart of my life – be it clothes, or books, or Klein bags and the like. Stefany and I connected on Instagram – she’s such a lover of thrift and I loved following her before I knew her, and still do. She reached out to me via email and said we should meet up. When we did, what I didn’t know was how much she also loved coffee. We sat over coffee and grilled cheese at The Queens Kickshaw having moment after moment about the things we loved and an aha! moment hit me to explore what we loved through what we loved – coffee and thrifting.  Together, we ironed out the details and the journey began. I absolutely adore her!

Vintage fashion has so many correlations to coffee. It’s at times raw, meaning it needs to be attended to, just like a green bean. It can be well curated, like a special lot of coffee, i.e. microlot or single origin. It has to have a lot of attention in its detail to be received properly, which is the same with specialty coffee found in independent coffee shops. And like vintage because it’s often one of a small kind, which could be for anyone, its usually suited for a particular someone and that’s what I find about coffee too.  Coffee is for everyone but within that universality, there are particular coffees suited better for particular types of palates. Vintage fashion is an influencer; it’s a source where many artists pull from – in fashion, in textile, in art. Coffee is the same way; it’s also an influencer, and it has long been used as a muse for the creative set.

When it came to the four coffees we featured with vintage fashion, the goal was to let the coffee inspire the fashion. So, we chose coffee houses first, then it was Stefany’s idea to thrift in the circumference of the coffee house so that we could link the two by proximity and also keep the excursion local and close to the coffee. So, upon going to a coffee house, we would taste coffee and write about how the coffee made us feel, where did it take us, and what did it remind us of, and with those notes we went to the thrift shop looking for a fashion choice that spoke to the feeling of the coffee. It was a marvelous journey. Stefany and I both learned so much from allowing our senses to be at play in such tangible and visual ways. 

“It’s the sound of a nation, the rhythm of a culture, the story of a people”

INL: smdlr also features music at coffee houses. What does music add to the coffee house experience? What does the type of music a coffee house plays say about that establishment?

smdlr: Music is everything! It’s the sound of a nation, the rhythm of a culture, the story of a people. I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve walked into a coffee shop and heard silence – in the form of no music playing. It’s uncanny how eerie that silence is, at least for me.  Music is important in that it gives the walls of a coffee shop its own energy and I believe that every room has one. It’s crucial for the barista who is in that space to have something sonically that allows him/her to feel a sense of oneness in the space with his/her machine and the people around him/her.  It’s also important for the customer who is looking for a total experience, whether they are attuned to what’s playing or not as music sets mood, it creates memory and that plays into how a person responds to an environment which also influences if they’ll come back and for what purpose. Music, ah, it’s a powerful thing, very powerful.

What’s played in a coffee house can say a lot about a coffee shop and that’s even if the music is a Pandora station, a Spotify playlist, or a select repeated mixtape. Each of the former requires some thought, some decision. However, when the music that’s played is more curated, for example, a select crate of vinyl, an iTunes playlist, or assigned to the barista on shift, then we are getting into the realm of curating and individuality. Now, we’re talking specific intention and that means that the purveyor of that music is thinking about what he wants to hear, and also about what should be played at the time of his shift. These small choices have a huge impact on experience. I was in a coffee shop recently where I was served by a wonderful barista, and when I heard the music, I knew it was his selection. The time of the day was around noon, perfect timing for his compilation of Tupac with some oldies but goodies, followed by a punch of Taku. It was just perfect. I was picked up by the music and by my almond and macadamian nut latte. And, more importantly, my experience is now cataloged by not just coffee but part of the culture of coffee – the music.

INL: Like coffee, music has “layers” of flavors – melodies, countermelodies, alto and tenor lines, and so on. In a coffee house, which “layer” does music occupy? Is music an “upfront” feature, or is it more suitable as something in the background? Are there particular genres of music that fit better in coffee houses?

smdlr: Great question. Music has the ability to occupy any and all of those layers. I find that it’s really up to the owner of the coffee house or whom they’ve entrusted the music too. In some spaces the music is so faint that you can barely hear it. And, when that happens it reminds me of barista competitions when competitors are like, “Can I get my music up please?” Music is supposed to be heard. So, I feel that it should be heard, at a decibel where it can be enjoyed.   I feel certain spaces lend to music being more of a background player – sometimes these are smaller spaces because people still need to hear themselves. Whereas big spaces can play music a bit louder because it can evenly disperse throughout the area without hindering people in its spaces from talking and hearing one another.  

When it comes to genres, I think all is fair in love and coffee culture. There’s a shop in Park Slope in Brooklyn that serves a brilliant cappuccino, and they only play classical music. I love that! And, when I go, I have a cappuccino, listen to classical music and read the Sunday paper. There’s another shop I go to on the weekends, late at night and all you’ll hear is Dilla, Biggie, Das EFX, Chromeo,TuPac, Taku and the like, and I love that too – I wouldn’t want it any other way. And, then there’s other spaces that I go to and I’m constantly asking ‘Who is this,’ or tagging it to discover who I’m hearing because its something that I haven’t heard before, and I really love that because I’m being exposed to something new.

INL: Like coffee, coffee houses exhibit different “layers.” A coffee house visit may begin with the visual entrance (front door, signage, logo), leading to the first “whiff” of coffee, then the design of the counter and sitting area, music, and the patrons (and their fashion). When Chérmelle the “coffeetographer” walks into a coffee house, in what order does she experience these layers? Which layers are more prominent?

smdlr: Ha. This is an excellent question. Sometimes, I’m experiencing these layers all at once and other times, it’s upon entering a space – because of what it expresses – that something indigenous to it speaks so loud that I experience that layer first. Sometimes it’s the art, sometimes it’s the frequency of the people as a collective, but often it’s not the coffee at all that I’m experiencing until I actually have that first sip. Then, that’s where it all gets really exciting, because now I have a tactile experience to negotiate with all that my visual senses are already responding to. If there is music that has a resonance within itself to who I am, that will usually trump everything else. Most times, it isn’t a whiff of anything as it relates to smell that I am experiencing. I believe I am always experiencing the culture first, and then the coffee.

I must say that what always speaks the loudest to me is who I get to be because of what is happening in the space, and that extends to people, an article of clothing, a visual element, a sound, a feeling, and in the end, what I’m actually taking into my physical being, be it coffee, tea or something edible.

“Coffee is self-expressionism in the most absolute form.”

INL: “Culture,” in one word, could be defined as “self-expression.” Fashion, music, art – central themes of smdlr – are all forms of self-expression. Is there “self-expressionism” in coffee? What are your thoughts on coffee as a mechanism for self-expression? Can a “beverage” do that?

smdlr: Absolutely. Indubitably. Beyond a doubt! Coffee is self-expressionism in the most absolute form. Everything about coffee is a statement. From how a farmer decides to seed his cherries, whether they are growing in shaded conditions to if they are designated as a micro lot coffee, those choices are evidence of how a coffee is going to ultimately be expressed from how it’s picked, to how it’s sold, to how it’s roasted.  And once it’s roasted, there’s an entirely different movement as to “self-expressionism” in coffee. It’s what that coffee tastes like that then has to be articulated by someone so that it’s part of an accessible yet transparent conversation for the industry and the consumer.

Then, there’s also the brewing methods that will determine how a coffee expresses itself, which in turn directly correlates to what one experiences in the cup and that’s where coffee as a beverage plays its role. If that coffee beverage is a pour over sans milk, that will have a specific communication, and yet if that same coffee is communicated through espresso and milk, say in a cappuccino, that will communicate something different as well. So, how a coffee is dressed – i.e. brewed and then accessorized with a form of milk, condensed milk, iced, cold brewed and beyond – will communicate something as well. Coffee is always a tool of expression; it just depends on whose hands it’s in that determines what will actually be expressed, which is why when it comes to coffee actually being consumed, the role of the roaster and barista is far from infinitesimal.

INL: What is “coffee culture” to you? What transformation could we expect to see with this culture in the coming years?

“Coffee culture is the body of the arts expressed through the lens of coffee.”

smdlr: Coffee culture is the body of the arts expressed through the lens of coffee. And, to be a little more specific, for my terms and purposes that lens is specialty coffee.   I believe we are going to see more of an enunciation of culture, than a transformation. Coffee culture has a long history. It’s nothing new. It’s just that in our present day, it’s being perceived as new, transformative because we are learning how to.  We are going to see more of culture as a whole making a connection to coffee and expressing itself with it and alongside it. It’s already happening, and it’s been happening for a long time. It’s a little lot generation culture up when it comes to coffee. 

I think there will be an increasing space to look at how the elements of music, art and fashion eimpact the space and influence the culture. There is absolutely no way to walk into a specialty coffee shop and ignore the fact that the three big players in culture – art, music and fashion – are primal factors in humanizing the coffee shop space, which is a long, storied and beloved institution. The biggest thing we’ll see is ourselves changing in relation to the conversation of coffee. We will be the ones talking about it as a culture and not just coffee. And, when that happens, we’ll have a transformation.

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All images incorporated into this Q&A was provided by the courtesy of smdlr. All rights and privileges to the images belong to smdlr and Chérmelle D. Edwards.

Tim Wendelboe.

I have only heard legends of him. Supposedly the best Nordic roaster. Owner of supposedly one of the best Nordic coffee houses. Supplier of coffee to Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant heralded as the best in the world.

Sadly enough, there is no way I can take part of this legend, as I have not yet tried any of Tim Wendelboe’s coffees. Alas, the perils of international shipping! But I have no doubt that the man, and his beans, will live to fulfill – and outdo – the hype. If someone would just send me a bag of his goodies, I would gladly indulge in documenting this as a matter of fact. Only if.

In the meantime, Mr. Wendelboe has been busy shooting a 14-video series for “home baristas,” as reported by Daily Coffee News. The series, produced and hosted by the Norwegian news agency Aftenposten, covers everything from brewing equipment to farming and processing in Colombia. A sneak preview of the series, which begins on February 28, is available here. The only problem is that the series will be in Norwegian. If someone would be kind enough to provide closed-captioning, the world would be a much warmer place.

For those that are not familiar with Mr. Wendelboe and his coffee house, here is a short video from Monocle that will make you want to book that next flight to Oslo.

I came upon a delicious clip about coffee, by pure chance.

“A Film About Coffee” is a feature-length documentary that follows coffee production and consumption, from harvests in Rwanda to coffee farms in Honduras.

“No matter the quality of your cup, people who love coffee, love it. Coffee is about people, and people are what I’m interested in ultimately.” Brandon Loper, Director

Brandon Loper’s work (see his portfolio here) is more than impressive. Born and raised in Alabama, Mr. Loper has worked in San Francisco for the past seven years, mostly in short films and advertising. I would sum his work as “honest” and “direct,” a powerful storyteller who guides you through the jungles at root-level.

“A Film About Coffee,” due out sometime early this year, is Mr. Loper’s first feature film. If you would like to sign up to receive more information on the film’s release date, and learn more about this project, visit the official site here.

Truly, no matter how you see it, coffee is about people. While there are many coffee videos out there, I am looking forward to see how this feature film will shed new light unto our old, beloved beverage.

Enjoy the teaser from a “film about people.” Coffee people.

 

If there is one site that genuinely influenced the way I think about coffee, it is Dear Coffee, I Love You. In its fourth year, DCILY has become the go-to resource for inspiring articles and reviews on “the intersection of coffee, culture, creativity and design.” In addition to publishing quality content, DCILY has branched out to sell stellar original coffee products.

For most of 2013, my mind was mulling over thoughts on coffee, branding and design – coffee taste, coffeehouse atmosphere, coffee and design, coffee and creativity. There was one way I could delve further into this rabbit hole, into the qualm of everything coffee, everything creative, everything design: ask DCILY. So I did.

Meet the wizard behind DCILY, Brian W. Jones.

Brian is a designer, photographer, writer, Project M Advisor, Sandboxer, & social entrepreneur who currently lives and works in Göteborg, Sweden. His work has been recognized by Print, STEP, ID, The New York Times, Fast Company, the AIGA, Swiss Miss and numerous other places around the web. On top of all that, Brian is a contributing writer on consumerism & sustainability for Unconsumption.  In his “spare time,” Brian is completing a Masters in Business Design at the University of Göteborg in Sweden.

For those of you that are fortunate enough to attend the 2014 SCAA Annual Exposition in Seattle, Brian is giving a talk entitled “Value of a Distinct Brand” (click here for more information), challenging businesses to think differently about their brand and customer experience.

This Q&A was a tremendous learning experience for me. As my thoughts on coffee and design continue to develop, Brian’s work will always be appreciated.

Enjoy.

INL: What first attracted you to design? What first attracted you to coffee?

DCILY: What I love about design is the opportunity to transform things that aren’t working the way you want them to, into something more preferred. Everything around us is created by someone, and very rarely are those things questioned. We just keep using things, or doing things the way we always have—because that’s the way it’s always been. Design allows you to challenge that.

Originally, coffee gave me the energy to focus on design. I hated coffee for the first few years that I drank it (and made it for other people). I thought it tasted terrible, because it did back then. But the first time I had a sip of better coffee, my design mind kicked in and I wanted to know why everyone drank that awful burnt tasting stuff, when it could be so much better. So I started reading as much as I could about coffee, and looking into how I could improve the current state of coffee, not only in my life, but in the lives of those around me.

INL: You are currently living in Sweden. Why Sweden? What led you there? What was your first impression of the country (and the region in general)?

DCILY: The short answer, a girl. The long answer, an admiration and fascination with Nordic culture, the landscape, the people, the coffee, the women—see short answer.

The landscape is serene, and the cities integrate nature really well into their design—they don’t hide it or get rid of it. You always feel very connected to the environment around you. I really like that. The people are pleasant and easily approachable, but there is also a sense of personal space that I appreciate. So many things I’m use to in the US are simplified and systemized. The grocery stores are smaller, with less choice (less unhealthy choices). The transit systems, while not perfect, are better than anything I’ve experienced in the US. There’s also a much stronger emphasis on equality and accessibility than anywhere I’ve ever lived. I like those things.

“Take-away is not the default option for ordering coffee and I find that incredibly inspiring. Not only for culture, but for humanity.”

INL: What is inspiring about Nordic coffee culture? What are some hallmark differences between Nordic and American coffee cultures?

DCILY: People sit and drink their coffee in the coffee shops. Take-away is not the default option for ordering coffee and I find that incredibly inspiring. Not only for culture, but for humanity. You have to specify that you want to take it with you because most people want to take a break, they want to sit with friends and chat or read. There are also a lot less laptops.

In terms of specialty coffee, everything is roasted lighter, which leads to a much different flavor profile than some people are use to—but it’s definitely my preferred way to drink coffee. There’s more emphasis on the delicate notes, florals, berries, acidity. It can often taste as much like a tea as a coffee. Even the largest coffee chain in Sweden, Espresso House, uses coffee from Solberg & Hansen, that’s as light if not lighter than many US specialty coffee roasters.

INL: You run a design studio, you co-founded Coffee Common, you’re a graduate student, and you publish one of the most respected coffee blogs around. How do these different roles feed off each other?

DCILY: Each one of these things provides an avenue of procrastination from the others whenever I hit a wall. Which is great, but it can be hard to devote the attention I want (or that something needs) to each one of those things. Ultimately that’s why Coffee Common came to an end—everyone involved had too many other things going on. DCILY often get’s relegated lower on the list as well, since client work and school come first. That’s why there’s been a fluctuation in the post frequency on DCILY in the last year and a half—it’s not for a lack of content, but a lack of time.

INL: You have an interest in café design as well. After sipping through dozens of cafés in various cities, do you have a few favorites in terms of design?

DCILY: Koppi Coffee, in Helsingborg Sweden is just perfect. I love that shop and the people who work there. It feels like family when I’m there and the coffee is always great. Certain times of the day, the light is truly magical and I never want to leave.

The simplicity and warmth of Tim Wendelboe’s coffee shop is fantastic and I’ve had several of the best cups of coffee in my life there. If there isn’t a line, the smartly dressed staff will have a glass of water waiting for you before you even reach the bar. You always receive top notch service.

In the US, there are some really epic spaces, thanks to all the room available. Sightglass in San Francisco really sets the bar high, Verve Coffee in downtown Santa Cruz and the new Saint Frank are incredibly beautiful shops—and that’s just around a small region.

The problem with specialty coffee shop design currently is that too many of the start-ups and independent multi-roaster shops are relying on the formula that’s been proven to work. So there are a lot of places that, while nice, could all have the exact same sign out in front of them. They are just replicas of replicas—nothing new.

Very few companies are creating a space that challenges the preconception of what a coffee shop is or can be, meanwhile many people in the industry talk about elevating coffee in order to increase its value to become sustainable in the long run. It’s hard to change perceptions by recreating standard archetypes. Pretty wood and standard service is still just standard service and pretty wood.

“Pretty wood and standard service is still just standard service and pretty wood.”

INL: What weighs more – coffee taste or café design and atmosphere? How do these things complement each other to present a unique coffee experience?

DCILY: Preferably it’s a completely holistic experience, but that’s rarely the case. I’ve personally been known to drink less enjoyable coffee to be in a space that inspires me. I would say that to most people, the brand and atmosphere (and location) probably matter more than the taste of the coffee—unfortunately. Starbucks has proved that point pretty well.

INL: Why is branding important to coffee?

DCILY: I think branding is incredibly important to coffee for several reasons. While coffee varies greatly from k-cups to the finest specialty coffee, the differences become less perceptible to average customers at the higher ends of the specialty spectrum. So how does one company set itself apart from another when they are essentially selling the same product?

First, brand is extremely important to customer acquisition. When someone is making the jump into specialty coffee, or from one company to another, it will most likely be based on a company’s reputation. If they are browsing the coffee aisle in Whole Foods, a combination of brand awareness and design (like wine labels) will play a role. If a customer has never tried your product, they will rely on all of the information they can gather elsewhere—which is intrinsically connected to a company’s brand. This information can be from word of mouth, previous experiences, or simple awareness of the name over others.

The tricky part is that people react differently to different design details, so there’s never a “one size fits all” solution. One person may connect better with the flashy packaging from Verve, thinking it’s more professional or premium, while another person thinks the brown paper bags from Stumptown means it’s more crafted and natural. These kinds of details reflect back on how the brand is perceived overall and can have a huge impact on whether a person connects with it or not.

INL: Which roaster and/or café has the most iconic brand, and why?

DCILY: Starbucks? That can be hard to answer with specialty coffee. I think there are regional differences, so everyone will have a hometown advantage, i.e Stumptown in Portland versus Intelligentsia in Chicago versus Coffee Collective in Copenhagen. Some companies have benefited from high profile media coverage or marketing on a national level, so Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Blue Bottle are pretty household names. Within the world of coffee nerds, the world is a much smaller place, but the companies that have been around longest tend to be more universally known.

“The future of coffee will be determined by service.”

INL: In your opinion, how does design empower coffee? What is the interplay between coffee and design?

DCILY: Design can help change the experience someone has with coffee in a positive or negative way. Whether it’s the interior design of a coffee shop or the way the service itself is designed, it can affect whether someone has a pleasant experience or not. The design of a cup, packaging, seating—they will all affect a person’s experience. The better the experience, the more willing customers will be to pay more for specialty coffee. Also, the way information about coffee is communicated can affect the level of knowledge consumers have, how much they retain and whether it’s interesting or off putting to them.

Design can also affect coffee behind the scenes on the supply side, like new processing and drying techniques, new storage methods and even harvesting tools. These things aren’t as glamorous but design could have a huge impact on them in the future. With different types of disease like Leaf Rust effecting coffee plants, it will become even more urgent for new solutions on the farm and design could play a major role in developing them.

INL: Where is specialty coffee headed in the next five or ten years? How will design be a part of that future?

DCILY: In 5 to 10 years, I think the changing climate will mean there will be less of the good stuff—so we’ll be buying it on street corners for exorbitant prices and injecting it straight into our veins.

In the next 2 to 3 years, I think there will be even more focus on the design of better service experiences and less on the theater of coffee. After a recent visit to LA and spending a lot of time in G&B and Go Get Em Tiger, I’m convinced that coffee from a Fetco, when used well, can be fantastic. It was better than any of the pour overs I had elsewhere and it was delivered quickly.

The focus and energy recovered from manual brewing can be refocused on making customers feel welcome in a way that won’t make them scoff about a $6 coffee served by someone with tattoos and a denim apron. I’ve been spending a lot of time in cocktail bars recently, and although there are a lot of differences (including cost margins), there is a lot that could be learned from the quality of service they deliver. The future of coffee will be determined by service.

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All images incorporated into this Q&A were provided by the courtesy of DCILY. All rights and privileges to the images belong to DCILY and Brian W. Jones.

Coffee should taste good. This assertion should be uncompromising. But what about the café? What role does the café play in one’s coffee experience? Or does the coffee matter at all? What is a café? What should it be? Why do we need it?

This piece by guest blogger Niels Lee (friend, historian, coffee addict, author of this post on coffee house culture) addresses these questions, and boldly states what some may consider to be heresy: “the taste of the coffee does not matter.” Whether or not you agree with this statement, this is a topic worthy of discussion.

I welcome your thoughts. Enjoy.

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Not too long ago, I walked into one of my favorite local coffee shops known for its artsy interior, flamboyant cupcakes and soul-soothing coffee. I came for the coffee, but stayed for the atmosphere; it was one of the few places where I could just let my imagination wander about with the right amount of distraction. The occasional laugher, pictures that aren’t too distracting, the sound of people typing on their laptops, mixed with some light background music has been difficult to find nowadays with coffee shops experimenting with various moods, styles and provocations. But then again I wasn’t surprised when one day I received a cold response after having preceded my order with the word, “tall.”

“Yeah, I don’t really get the whole Starbucks lingo, what size is it you want?”

It was a slip of the tongue. I also prefer the “small, medium, large” metric since “tall, grande, venti” are not units of measurement. Yet I was a bit taken back.  Although the barista knew exactly what size I wanted, she thought it was necessary for me to say “small” before finishing my order. No, I didn’t feel angry enough write up some obnoxious negative review on Foursquare or Yelp. But it did make me wonder what we as should actually be looking for in a coffee house.

I’ve read enough coffee shop reviews to see that most talk about the drinks, atmosphere and service. But let’s face it, most of us have no clue if we’re actually drinking “authentic” coffee, “cozy” is such a subjective term that it can for some mean “claustrophobic,” and if you can’t tolerate wobbly tables and red-eyed baristas, you shouldn’t even be here. So I’ve just come to the conclusion that our (or perhaps my) obsession with the wonders of hand pour coffee, power outlets and comfy couches is misguided. Or let me be blunt: even the taste of the coffee does not matter (that much). Let me explain.

There was a time when the public’s philosophy surrounding businesses and corporations wasn’t so cynical. Ask any marginally educated individual about the business practices of contemporary firms, corporations and local shops. Most will simply state that of course they’re out for your money, as their primary motivation for opening a shop is to profit. You’re just being naive, the saying goes, if you’re expecting Corporate America to be fair with their prices and use legitimate resources and materials. Thus, the appropriate attitude of a customer is the reward and punishment system: “Ah, so you’ve decided to screw me by using styrofoam cups, well you’re never touching my wallet again.” It’s like a bad marriage, where the relationship is not based on any sense of loyalty or commitment, but a default suspicion that the other side can (and eventually will) fail the litmus test.

Yet the truth is that not too long ago, many believed that having a local business was about serving the community, and the community, in return, becoming loyal customers. Of course, making a profit was still important, but the monetary drive rarely overpowered the want and need to be part of a particular community. If this sounds too idealistic, here is John Bogle, not some economics professor shaking his first at Wall Street, but investor and retired CEO of The Vanguard Group being interviewed by Bill Moyers:

BILL MOYERS: What should be the dominant? What is the job of capitalism?

JOHN BOGLE: Well, ultimately, the job of capitalism is to serve the consumer. Serve the citizenry. You’re allowed to make a profit for that. But, you’ve got to provide good products and services at fair prices. And that’s the long term, that’s what businesses do in the long term. The businesses that have endured in America have done that and done that successfully.

For those interested, in his article “Democracy in Corporate America” published in the journal Daedalus, Bogle goes on about the “pathological mutation of capitalism,” but I’m more interested in how we as consumers should respond in an age of cynicism. I am for one suspicious if the job of capitalism is indeed “to serve the consumer” even if the modern sense of greed is diluted, but nonetheless the sense of community that business provided is something worth pondering.

This is where my blasphemous remark comes to play: what matters more than the taste of coffee (which nowadays seems to be the mere fetishization of “authenticity”), is how the coffee shop interacts with its surroundings. One of my favorite coffee houses as an undergraduate was a placed called “The Pour House.” It brewed a decent cup of coffee, had plenty of tables and sofas, cute baristas, but it stood out because it actually was part of the town. You could see everything from local happenings, posters with dogs that needed to be adopted and a list of foreign and local charity organizations the coffee house was sponsoring. I stopped by the Pour House almost every morning and I would usually see the same people, half of whom seemed to have just rolled out of their beds. The owners didn’t seem to mind us students rubbing our eyes as we stared into our laptops, though I suppose most of us were civilized enough to order a pastry or another cup of coffee if we were planning to stay more than two or three hours. For us, it was an extension of our living rooms, a place where a hot cup of coffee and familiar strangers greeted each other with a gentle nod. And of course there is nothing more welcoming than the barista who starts preparing my order the second she spots me walking through the door, drenched in rain or history papers. There were at least two coffee houses that actually served “better” coffee than the Pour House, but the other establishments couldn’t deliver a rivaled sense of community.

Yes, the financial side of things is important, especially with the rise of franchises. But even from a monetary perspective, the refocusing on building a sense of community also seems to be the best means of defending local establishments against the tyranny of Starbucks and its minions. Many local coffee houses, adherent to the third wave coffee movement, have been distinguishing themselves by promising high quality coffee – sourced and roasted by distinguished roasters across the world – that stands in contrast to the burnt and bland incorporated. While this is a noble tactic, what will they do if Starbucks actually begins to, well, serve properly roasted beans, and command their baristas to hand pour every drip order? Offering free Wi-Fi has been one successful Starbucks tactic in bringing in more customers, steady improvement of how they roast and pour their coffee seems only years away.

Yet one thing franchises will never have a monopoly on is the unique local(ness) of a particular coffee shop. Franchises thrive because of “consistency” – you know what you’ll get when entering a McDonald’s, Olive Garden, Subway or Seattle’s Best. Whether their coffee is consistently bad is another discussion. But this is also a franchise’s limitation. Predictability, along with corporate policies and an overarching shadow that hovers over trademarks and products, make it extremely difficult for any chain to present itself as an integral part of a local community. This is precisely why it’s a stretch for Howard Schultz to believe that he can create some sort of global community under the Starbucks brand, driven by the need to combine the often contradictory impulse of universalism and local(ness).

Coffee houses are unique communities. In no other public establishment do we conduct business, catch up with friends, flirt with the barista, write papers and rotate our iPhone screens out of boredom. As such, in the long run, it seems only appropriate to lower our expectations for a masterfully poured cup of coffee and instead look for places where a sense of community is set as the priority. The idea of a coffee shop where community and high quality coffee coexist in holy matrimony is a near fantasy, especially during an economic downturn, where businesses struggle to keep up with the price of high quality specialty coffees. While you can pour yourself a near-perfect cup in your kitchen, your kitchen is no community. Your café should be.

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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.

Tuesday and Wednesday of the last week in July 2011 seems ancient now, given the twists and turns in my life during the last two years. For those of you not familiar with the “last Tuesday and Wednesday in July,” I am referring to the traumatic experience known as the bar exam.

Around this time of year, especially after the Fourth of July (when Bar Takers’ Panic officially sets in), one of the most common search terms leading to this site is “New York Bar Exam,” thanks to a series of posts I wrote on the first anniversary of my pilgrimage to Albany. (You can read the posts here, here, and here.) The series is less “how to pass the bar” and more “here is what my mind went through during the two days of hell.” Plus some hopefully useful tips here and there.

As most practitioners would say, the exam itself is not that difficult. It is the sheer volume of subject material and time constraints that kick your ass. But the questions and fact patterns are rather straight forward, if you put in the time to memorize the law.

Recently, I was asked a critical question. Can you bring coffee into the exam room? Critical question. If you are anything like me, the constant churning of neurons throughout the eight or so weeks of studying for the bar was fueled by coffee and more coffee. A sudden absence of coffee, therefore, may or may not have adverse effects on your brain, body, soul, mind, and entire being during the exam. One would hope that you are not so hopelessly addicted that you cannot sit through a few exam sessions without coffee. But to be certain, I looked up the single most important piece of paper for the New York bar exam – the Bar Examination Security Policy. (You can find the original file here.) This is the most recent version as of April 2013. As such, my experience from July 2011 is no longer relevant, as far as the security policy is concerned.

There are enough things to worry about during the exam period. You do not want to be distracted by what you can and cannot bring into the exam room. At that point in time, you’ve crammed so much black law into your head that a mere tilt may lead to a tragic spilling of precious knowledge out of your ears. That’s why reading the security policy on the night before New York day is so critical. On Monday night, set aside what you plan to bring into the exam room. Don’t wait to do it on Tuesday morning.

So, coffee. Is it allowed? Here is the relevant provision from the security policy.

“One beverage/drink in a re-sealable clear plastic container, (max size: 1 liter, no label, no glass, cans or cups). If the plastic container contains a label, the label must be removed. It must be kept under the table when not being used.”

From this, it seems like coffee is indeed allowed. The “re-sealable clear plastic container” part would be most important, as many coffee tumblers are not clear. A full liter of coffee is not necessary for anyone in any dire circumstance. Labels, both stickers and anything written or imprinted on the container, are not allowed. The container must be clear in all aspects.

If fretting over the nature of the container is not worth your worry, one option is to get some delicious cold-brewed coffee from one of the respected cafes around (none in Albany, in my humble opinion, but I could be wrong), and pour it into a clear plastic water bottle, with labels removed. Problem solved. The security requirements would be met (there is nothing saying that the beverage or drink itself has to be clear), and cold-brewed coffee during the exam will surely get your motors running. One caveat. My exam room was freezing cold, so maybe a cold drink is not advisable. Use your judgment.

I did not take coffee into the exam. I drank some as soon as I woke up, as to avoid an unnecessary restroom trip during the exam. I had a bottle of water with me, which proved useful, especially during the essay portion. All that typing perhaps?

In short, yes, coffee would be allowed for the New York Bar Exam, under strict guidelines. However, given coffee’s nature of triggering the bladder at the most inconvenient of times, I would advise you to reconsider. Water will do.

Good luck to all test takers during this final weekend. Regurgitation is right around the corner.

This is the sole opinion of the author and is not meant to be used as legal advice in interpreting the New York State Board of Law Examiners Bar Examination Security Policy. This does not reflect any official interpretation of the policy by the New York State Board of Law Examiners.

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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