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The “Profiles” features in The New Yorker are some of the most inspirational, thought-provoking pieces of writing one could read on otherwise unproductive, stifling commutes on the subway. In a recent feature, Jony Ive, senior vice-president of design at Apple, alludes to the German designer Dieter Rams as a source of inspiration. To quote the article:

“In Rams’s formulation, a new object should be innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough, and environmentally friendly, and feature ‘as little design as possible.'”

While this is certainly applicable to Apple and its immensely profitable products, that last bit is profoundly gospel-like – as little design as possible. Now, more than ever, when coffee roasters and cafes are investing more time, energy, and money into designing and operating coffee shops of varying appearances, “cafe design” has become a cornerstone topic. (As a footnote, you can read my interview with Brian Jones of Dear Coffee I Love you, here.)

Less is more. Design is most effective when it whispers. Shouting, while eye-grabbing for fleeting moments, is distracting to the ultimate experience of enjoying a tasty cup of coffee.

Peregrine Espresso, in the Eastern Market neighborhood in DC, embodies this ideal. I have heard of Peregrine’s impressive selection of impeccably (in-house) roasted beans, and the masterful orchestration of its baristas. All true. The natural sun-dried Yirgacheffe I tried that day, from the Idido farm, was immaculate. With hints of Concord grape and strawberry jam, the cup was balanced with just enough acidity.

Compared to the flashy flavors of its coffees, the cafe itself is very understated. No Scandinavian furniture, no fancy lighting, no multi-colored chalk drawings sprawled about. Space is a premium. Yet the cafe is profound. Peregrine’s logo, re-created on one wall, is symbolized with a shade of the color green; that green theme is subconsciously reminded throughout the cafe, to the point where it goes unnoticed until the second or third glance. The place does not shout “hipster.” It is clean-cut, minimal, where you have just the essentials – bar, brewing gear, pastry/coffee display, tables, chairs. Not much else.

On a rather unassuming Wednesday afternoon, the cafe was bustling. Patrons order, chat, drink, chat some more. Some stay, some leave. A cafe carrying out its essential functions is a beautiful thing. Serve great coffee, provide an inviting space, highlight your brand quietly in design, but powerfully in taste.

Specialty coffee, in recent years, has attracted (unwillingly, and unintentionally, maybe) a pretentious side. While in line at Peregrine, I overheard an interesting exchange between a patron and a barista.

“Could you grind this bag for an AeroPress, and this bag for a Bialetti?”

Perfectly legitimate request, until you think it through. The AeroPress and Bialetti are both excellence brewing contraptions. But getting freshly roasted specialty coffee pre-grinded – by the bag – defeats the purpose of buying specialty coffee or brewing with varying devices. Brewing devices exist to highlight different angles and flavor profiles in a batch of coffee. The lone fact that you are brewing using an AeroPress or Bialetti has little value in itself. It almost seems as if saying “I brew with an AeroPress” automatically places one in the class of coffee connoisseur. It does not.

It does not take a major stretch in imagination to think that coffee – although perfectly sourced, processed, and roasted – that was ground three, five, seven days prior, is not the same coffee. It loses aroma and essential oils that are so vital to highlighting the coffee’s flavors. The AeroPress and Bialetti are not flavor injectors; they are mere tools to enhance what the beans already possess.

There is no room for pretentiousness in coffee. While the science behind cultivating, picking, processing, roasting, and brewing coffee is undeniable, enjoying coffee is simple, as simple as things get. In this regard, coffee’s magnetic attraction to design is irreversible. Contraptions, cafes, brands – they are there but not there. Getting out of the way for the coffee in the cup to shine is hard to execute but essential to sustainable success.

Peregrine would have Rams’ approval. Aesthetic beauty is best exemplified through unobtrusive, honest design. And design is best exemplified when there is as little design as possible.

Design is not foreign or alien. It is most effective when it is the opposite: intimate. But one could argue good design is roving or migratory, in that it is never the overwhelming statue in the middle of the room. Rather, it is a steady, constant current, drifting through the core. According to Peregrine, its name is defined, fittingly, as follows:

Peregrine (per’e-grin,-gren)
1. Foreign; alien.
2. Roving/wandering; migratory

[Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin peregrïnus, wandering, pilgrim, from Latin, foreigner, from pereger, being abroad]

A feeling of loss? Theft, maybe. Relinquishment?

It’s the feeling when a best kept secret is no longer a best kept secret, when the world knows what you thought was secretly yours. I guess it was never a best kept secret in the first place – it was never ours, never mine. It was the world’s to begin with.

I’m talking about Baked & Wired in Georgetown.

Weekday mornings, weekend evenings, it seems nearly impossible now to find a decently serene time of day to fully enjoy this beautiful coffee shop. The coffee bar is on full throttle – milk steaming, espresso flowing, coffee grinding. Tourists, passers-by, serious folk, casual folk, they’re all lined up in a squiggly formation in front of the pastry and cupcake shrine. And macaroons, too.

Coffee is great here, partly because they usually offer a variety of single-origin beans from a few roasters. Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and so on. I don’t usually drink lattes, but when I do, it is here at B&W. If you do have a sugary urge, do grab a cupcake. Yes, you read that correctly. Cupcake. There is a particularly famous joint in Georgetown, one that has its own TV series, where tourists stand in lines that go for blocks, in rain and snow. You might of heard of it, yeah, Georgetown Cupcake, or whatever. Totally overrated compared to the stuff at B&W. Better frosting, better flavor, better and better. I don’t usually buy cupcakes, but when I do, you get the gist.

Great coffee, great baked goods. But I like this place because of its somewhat odd, unbalanced interior. The coffee bar is understated, the La Marzocco machine is prominently featured, while random trinkets hang from the ceiling in harmony with hand-written menus. Minimal, essential. The baked goods bar is contrasted by giant moon-like lighting fixtures, illuminating the assortment of carbohydrates enveloped under glass lids. More like an art showcase than a pastry display. Glamorous, even.

The back of the coffee shop is starkly different, highlighted by a “Napkin Wall.” Dozens of paper napkins are taped to the wall, all of them with some form of writing or drawing (or both) on them. I don’t know what the wall is supposed to represent. As a collective, it seems to be a “I was here” sort of thing, individual doodles making a broader collage with no particular meaning. Meaning, however, is no prerequisite to general aesthetic beauty. And the wall, in an eery way, is beautiful.

The coffee shop that was never mine, never ours, is no longer mine, no longer ours. But it’s still there, serving good stuff, and the wall is growing. Each stroll through Georgetown will always feel incomplete without a visit to Baked & Wired.

And as the great Maya Angelou would say

“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

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.

Northern Virginia, and a vast majority of Suburban America, is enchained in frappuccinos. In NoVa-Suburbia Land, Coffee is not coffee. Rather, coffee is a hazy understanding of something burnt combined with lactose, sweetener and whipped cream. Make that a grande.

Route 29, piercing the heart of Fairfax, was devoid of anything worthy of referring to as “cafe.” The lone star was Caffe Amouri of Vienna, a local hotspot for many great single-origin beans, thanks to meticulous in-house roasting. But that’s Vienna. And one Caffe Amouri cannot pump enough of its black liquid gold through the entire region.

Enter 29th Parallel Coffee & Tea. Barely a month old, this new cafe would have been a revolt against the NoVa coffee scene, if one exists. More accurately, 29th Parallel is attempting to build a niche, one bag at a time. I honestly had low expectations as I walked through its doors, but I always have low expectations when trying out new cafes.

I was impressed.

The cafe uses beans exclusively from PT’s Coffee Roasting Co., an award-winning (Roast Magazine’s 2009 Roaster of the Year) roaster based in Topeka, Kansas. Coffee doesn’t jump to the forefront when I picture Kansas, but PT’s is dead serious. When I visited, the cafe featured a variety of beans from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Panama.

The beans were fresh. The cup of Ethiopian Sidamo I tried, and all of the 12 oz whole beans on sale, were roasted within ten days of purchase. Amir Khalil, the manager, told me their current turnover rate for inventory is about ten days, and their goal is to shorten that even more, to about a week or less. Amir and his staff knew their stuff, and we struck up a great conversation about coffee regions, brewing methods, and NoVa coffee culture.

By the way, that cup of Deri Kochoha, Ethiopia? Superb.

Anyone who has a decent understanding of good coffee knows Fairfax needs just that, good coffee. Real coffee. No more fraps. It’s time to graduate, and 29th Parallel sheds hope to this barren region.

Great seasonal varieties, excellent roasting, skilled brewing. Now available on Route 29.

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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