Coffee People

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.”


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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.

Coffee is about taste.

In my first substantive piece on coffee, which you can read here, I elaborated on how coffee epitomizes a sense of “place.” That is still true to the core; “where” we drink our coffee affects our perception of the coffee we drink. Coffee is an experience that, at times, goes beyond what is contained in the mug itself, drenching our senses with the surrounding atmosphere of where we partake in our coffee sipping. Transcendence is the optimal word to describe coffee, in which our minds travel freely in the midst of memories and thoughts intermingled with every mug we have ever held in our hands.

Perhaps this is why we have come to expect so much of coffee. Specialty roasters introducing enticing, single-origin offerings from the most exotic of farms along the equator, a disdain for internationally chained coffee shops, and an uprising of local, quality-focused cafes armed with highly trained and sophisticated baristas have contributed to our growing expectations of coffee experience. Given such expectations, recent articles criticizing Michelin-starred restaurants serving Nespresso pods, and charging small fortunes, are not surprising. This is a crime against humanity. A restaurant’s coffee, especially if proud Michelin stars hang by its name, should be on par with its food. If the bill requires me to pull out Benjamins, serving me a Nespresso pod I can sip for free at the Williams-Sonoma shop down the street is absolute nonsense. Coffee at the end of a meal should be nothing short of the pinnacle of pleasure. Pods and capsules are lame letdowns, air whooshing out of a balloon. Deflating, deflating, deflating.

Along this line of thought, it would undoubtedly make sense to expect an extraterritorial coffee experience at Noma – the number one restaurant in the world, touting a newly revamped coffee service to match its renown for mind-blowing creations, such as fried sea moss and fermented crickets. Surely, the number one restaurant would conjure exotic coffee porn worthy of its culinary magic. Surely, the number one restaurant would awe us by serving a cup of beans extracted from cat fecies, freshly grounded and brewed table side, in a vacuum, by an astronaut. That would scream innovation. Surely, the number one restaurant would not bring out a V60 and do the whole hand-pour fad thing. That would never scream innovation.

That is exactly what Noma did. According to the coffee blog Dear Coffee, I Love you, Noma recently revamped its coffee service to match its four hour long, $400 dining experience. The initial result of such revampation is as follows: head sommelier Mads Kleppe using an 03 size V60 to brew Kenyan beans sourced and roasted by Tim Wendelboe, winner of the 2004 World Barista Championship (read the full article here for an in-depth culinary and coffee experience at Noma). Beans are seasonally sourced and roasted to match the seasonal menus. In particular, I took great interest in the fact that one was guided and seated at a separate post-meal lounge, just for the coffee, and that the coffee was decanted in custom-designed brown glassware before serving. Artisanal brewing on the V60, extra care in decanting, and served in beautiful mugs.

While admirable, what sparked my conscience on “coffee and innovation” resides elsewhere, on an article posted on an “espresso news and reviews” blog, arguing that Noma’s table side V60 coffee service does not live up to the restaurant’s reputation, “as if high cuisine has fallen for the pour-over coffee fad rather than trying to chart its own course.” (you can read the full article here) A restaurant has been heralded as the world’s best for three consecutive years, the executive chef announces that he is revamping its coffee service, and after four hours and too many courses to remember, one expects big things from the coffee. But the author of the “Dear Coffee, I Censor You” article misses entirely the point of coffee and innovation. The author is displeased that the number one restaurant has settled for a V60 “fad” that has sprung up in the last few years among any old around the block wannabe third wave coffee shop. The author expected more. But what fuels this expectation? Would cricket coffee be less of a fad and more of an innovation?

To begin, what is “innovation” anyway? What does it mean to innovate? What can be defined as innovative? Perhaps something new, something not seen or experienced before. Perhaps taking something old and transforming it, giving it new life. Perhaps it needs a “wow factor,” that light bulb in one’s head, that “aha” moment. For the sake of food and culinary history, cooking methods have evolved over time to make ingredients taste better. Ancient humans consumed raw meat at first, before the discovery and use of fire. Then one day, they thought ‘hey, why not put this hind leg of gazelle over an open fire’ and voila, meat cooked over flames, the char and the fat dripping off, has been loved since. These ancients did not sit around and watch the burning fire: they ate the meat. In the coming generations, man tweaked his fire techniques to better roast the meat, to create maximum taste from the meat. What the hell is innovation as it pertains to coffee, then? It must be “taste.”

Noma is all bout “taste.” Its seemingly innovative ingredients and cooking methods are chosen and executed to bring about innovative “taste.” Accordingly, the chosen beans (Kenya) and brewing method (V60 pour-over) were precisely called out of the bench and into the game because they bring about great “taste” to accompany a great-tasting meal. Innovation for the sake of innovation is useless. There is no need for rocket science brewing for rocket science brewing’s sake. When did we start needing circus acts to enjoy a cup of coffee? When did we start expecting circus acts to enjoy a cup of coffee? The coffee experience need not look like a damned AP chemistry lab. As one may observe, the word used here is “experience,” not “experiment.” An innovative coffee experience means one will enjoy a great tasting cup of coffee, period; the road one takes to reach that great cup is varied on a wide spectrum, but the road itself is never centerfold in the coffee experience. It is just the road. Noma’s coffee acts as a sub-part to its overall dining act; the coffee compliments the food. The room in which the coffee is brewed and served compliments the food. The vessels in which the coffee is decanted and served compliments the food. After all, it is a restaurant. If this revamped coffee experience (beans, roast, brew method, service vessel and atmosphere) accentuates the food, then the coffee is innovative. Also, to Noma’s credit, the coffee was served with a chocolate-dipped potato chip and a bone marrow infused caramel (what?). Even these accoutrements, undoubtedly, were served with the Kenyan coffee because they accentuated each other in the best of ways, not for the sake of infusing bone marrow with caramel, although that is truly innovative on its own merits.

For black coffee lovers, there are two broad categories of brewing techniques: (1) full immersion, and (2) filtered. There are other methods that take both of these into consideration, such as the syphon and the aeropress. One’s brewing method of preference depends on one’s preference for coffee “texture”; if one enjoys, a more dense, thick texture, with a fuller taste, full immersion methods, like a French press, best suites ones desires, which allows the coffee’s natural oils are “immersed” into every yielding drop. If one enjoys a lighter, cleaner, more crisp texture and taste, filtered methods, like a Hario V60, best suites those desires. More importantly, brew methods differ from bean to bean, and from roast to roast, to draw out the best flavors of each batch. And much like sommeliers and their wines, “coffee pairing” is also emerging, in which coffee is matched with food, both savory and sweet. Nothing surprising there, as the hundreds of varieties of coffee each have unique characteristics that lend themselves to different dishes. For example, with a medium rare bone-in rib eye steak, I prefer more bright and acidic beans, perhaps Ethiopian, to accentuate the steak’s richness. With sweets, such as pies and cakes, I prefer more medium to dark roasts, with fuller bodies and cocoa notes. This is coffee innovation centered almost entirely on taste, not a cat-shit-coffee-brewed-in-a-vacuum-by-astronaut science project.

The brewing method is a mean to an end. The method can be a single “particle” of the show, but it is never the show itself; the cup of coffee you put in your mouth at the end, that is the show. To be fair, some brewing methods are downright innovative and fun to watch. Hell, have you seen someone work a syphon? All that glassware and heat lamp action is beyond sophistication. That moment when gravity pulls the immersed coffee down through the filter is a great pleasure to look at, let alone taste. This performance has a purpose, to brew a cup that incorporates both a full immersion body and a filtered crispness. That said, even syphons and other outer space methods serve only as means to that golden end we all search for – a good cup of coffee.

It is possible that some day in the future of coffee brewing, there will be some new and fascinating way to brew coffee that will shock our taste buds. But in the meantime, certain brew methods are loved and used repeatedly because they yield the best cup. Steak still tastes the best when its flame-kissed, right? One does not take a dry-aged, luscious cut of meat and dump it in a boiling pot of water for the sake of doing just that. If, for unimaginable reasons, boiling steak results in better taste, go for it. Yet this is highly unlikely. Flame-kissed. Very few things have changed in that department. This truth also applies to coffee. The pour-over method is no fad, as the Melitta cone has been around for a century, and the Chemex is over seventy years old. The popular nature of a brewing or cooking method does not devalue the method. On the contrary, it heightens its value. “Boundaries of the culinary world” are bent and broken by ingredients and methods that have been proven over time. Yes, fried reindeer moss and fermented crickets do not typically fit the definition of “popular nature,” but using dried ice on every other dish and topping everything with nasty and pointless foam is not innovative either. Under this definition, even Starbucks is capable of innovation, coming up with their blond roast, which just means they managed not to double burn the hell out of their beans. Does not change the fact that it sounds funny to step up to the counter at seven a.m. to order “two tall blondes.”

One may argue (meaning the author of “Dear Coffee, I Censor You) that coffee’s boundaries will never be pushed using a simple V60. But then you are doing it wrong. To utilize the best characteristics of a V60, it makes more than a scale and a blog post to follow. It is not something “every wannabe third wave coffee shop has been pumping on every street corner in every coffee-aware city in the world for the past several years” (quoting Dear Coffee, I Censor You). You need to do it right. The perfectly roasted been, under two weeks old, the perfect, even grind, the perfect water temperature just off the boil, the perfect bloom, the perfect timing. It takes perfection. This required perfection is what creates innovation in coffee. That light bulb in your head after that first sip, or on some mornings, that slap-in-your-face flavor you get after a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, is what draws out that “holy shit” shit expression, which, translated, means “innovation” in coffeese. After a great meal, you are led to a “coffee lounge” (that sounds sexy), presented with a carefully picked Kenyan batch that has been specifically chosen to match the food you just devoured with all five senses, and handed a hand-poured cup in a custom-made mug designed to help you reach coffeegasm. Take that first sip, and if your first thought is “why the hell is he using a V60,” something is terribly wrong. Coffee innovation is spoken through the final liquid itself. If one expects a show, Vegas is open twenty-four-seven, and one would not be surprised to find exploding capsules of coffee somewhere on that strip. But this is not the essence of coffee. Not even at the world’s number one restaurant. No coffee porn fantasies here. Just coffee.

This is in line with what I have written previously on coffee; you pay for the experience, the atmosphere associated with coffee. You’re in Copenhagen, in a specially decorated coffee room, sipping hand-poured Kenyan coffee, nibbling on bone marrow infused caramel. Digesting, relaxing, reflecting on that incredible meal you just had. This is priceless aurora resulting in a highly innovative and non-duplicative coffee experience. Much like that cup of Ethiopian coffee I had on the shores of Haewoondae beach in Busan, after stuffing myself with the best bulgogi in the world at Uhnyang Bulgogi. Coffee, in signifying “place” and “circumstance,” also signifies innovation. The process of brewing that perfect cup of coffee, from the harvest, the washing and drying, the roasting, the grinding, and the brewing of the beans, is nothing short of a miracle. The masterful end product, black liquid gold, is at the pinnacle of innovative beings, even without the presence of unnecessary circus acts. The coffee itself, while arguably the most important criterion when discussing coffee, need not always be the center focus of an “experience.” Where one drinks it, with whom, after eating what, in what the coffee is placed in – all of this adds insurmountable value to the overall coffee experience. Innovation is place. Innovation is people. Innovation is the pairing of coffee with food. Innovation is in the vessel. One need not look further. Innovation is right there, in the cup in front of you.

After all, fermented cricket coffee would taste like, well, fermented cricket.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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