Archive

Tag Archives: coffee

Wikipedia defines a collage as “a technique of an art production, primarily used in the visual arts, where the artwork is made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.”

An assemblage of different forms. Creating a new whole. Most things we consider “uniform” did not start out in uniformity. At one point, most things we consider as uniform, as a singular “whole,” began as distinct, individualistic blurbs, heralding from different corners of this organized chaos we refer to as our world. An assemblage of distinctness thus creates new wholes, whether or not the purveyor of the said whole or the recipient of the benefits of the said whole realize the distinctness that embodies this new creation.

When one studies the history of coffee, from its early beginnings through colonialism through industrialism and beyond, one realizes the undeniable fact that coffee history is “an assemblage of different forms.” As the coffee trade traveled through cities, countries, and continents, it absorbed distinct blurbs of disinctness, reformatting itself to the needs and wants of the people.

The coffee house was no exception. Debate house for debaters, political house for politicals, chat house for chatters. The coffee houses we know today are a product of this assemblage of hundreds of years, and is still being molded to create a “new whole.”

Killer E.S.P. in Old Town Alexandria is a collage.

The cafe’s entrance is bright and airy, as an impressive selection of colorful gelato and a hand-painted elephant greet you. As one walks deeper towards the back of the cafe, the more “random” everything becomes – an odd collection of tables and couches, eclectic photographs hanging throughout, and red brick walls as old as Old Town itself. Organized chaos, when executed precisely, is a beautiful thing. An assemblage of different forms creating a new whole is no easy task, and Killer E.S.P. almost has it.

“An assemblage of distinctness thus creates new wholes.”

Seating per square feet says a lot about a coffee house. More seats, more bustle. Less seats, less bustle. To add to the character of a coffee house, the decision to place more or less seats per square foot should be made on an aesthetic basis. Done this way, even a “cramped” coffee house could resemble “an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.” Coffee houses should not be about “turning tables” without any design considerations on how the seating affects the cafe experience.

The random collection of tables and couches at Killer E.S.P., seemingly thrown together at the back of the cafe, is not ideal for reminiscence, quiet conversation, or work. However, that is why this coffee house has character. The random tables and couches add character, the photographs on the wall add character, the “tightness” of the space adds character, the loud music adds character. Killer E.S.P., in short, is visual arts demonstrated in coffee-form. Preference for lighter, airy cafes should not diminish the value of human warmth devised through the proximity in which my neighbor is sipping her latte.

 

This leads to an observation of something prevalent in the coffee house world, something that does not embody the collage of coffee history – coffee houses exclusively brewing coffee from a single roaster.

The economic reasons for such business decisions are clear. So are reasons based in reality and practicality. Exclusive dealing clauses are a way of life in the world of contracts, ensuring a protective bubble around a brand’s product in the market. Killer E.S.P. brews Stumptown beans exclusively. Stumptown Coffee is excellent. In terms of sourcing, roasting, and branding, it is indeed one of the leaders in the specialty coffee world. But it seems like every other coffee house brews Stumptown. Every other coffee house (at least in the DC area) brews Counter Culture Coffee, for instance (which is, of course, another excellent leader in quality coffee). The issue is not with the standard of quality associated with these roasters. Instead, the issue is the lack of choice for the customer.

“Coffee houses are miniatures of the neighborhoods they call home. They are the essence, the quintessential, the absolute, the one-and-only.”

Coffee connoisseurship is often compared with wine connoisseurship. There begins my analysis. When one walks into a wine bar, one expects more than one variety of wine from more than one vintner. A wine bar that serves only a limited number of bottles from one vintner from one region could be deemed a “specialist,” but it would indeed close its doors in no time. Singularity is not accepted in the wine world, and it should not be so easily accepted in the coffee world. Variety should be celebrated, not only in terms of coffee growing regions and micro-lots, but also in terms of specialty roasters.

For coffee houses that roast their own beans, singularity should be celebrated, and all attempts should be made to feature, front and center, their product. But for those that “import” beans from elsewhere, this is a thought to consider. There already exists coffee houses that practice this method. Even some coffee houses that roast their own beans often feature “outside” coffee. This added variety not only enhances the customers’ coffee experience, but also adheres to the history of the coffee house.

At their best, coffee houses are miniatures of the neighborhoods they call home. They are the essence, the quintessential, the absolute, the one-and-only. Killer E.S.P. smells of the brick walls of Alexandria. As a collage within a collage, the heart of a city thumps within this giant of a cafe.

*          *          *

http://killeresp.com/
1012 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Sun – Thur 9 – 9:30ish, Fri – Sat 9 – 11:30ish

“Rarity” is a virtue. It is often a valuable virtue.

This is especially true with coffee. For better or for worse, coffee connoisseurs have always searched for that magical bean, that “umph,” that something extra that they’ve never tasted before in previous cups. “Commonality” is often ridiculed, deemed “low-quality,” or simply boring.

Praise of rarity, and placing additional value for the sake of rarity, with a lack of exceptional quality and expertise, is just snobbish, exactly what this video portrays in this Huffington Post article. However, when a marketing point for rarity is backed by impeccable attention to detail (in all stages of coffee growing and processing), and meshed with beautiful design, rarity is worth the price tag.

Intelligentsia’s Café Inmaculada is such an example.

The limited edition Café Inmaculada collection (sorry, it’s no longer available) featured three cultivars grown and harvested in the Santuario farm in Colombia. The rich soils and abundance of sun and rainfall, coupled with an elevation that ranges from 1,740 – 2,040 meters above sea level, presents perfect growing conditions. The picked beans are fermented in stainless steel tanks with agitation and temperature control, and are dried on-site on shaded beds with fans that moderate airflow.

Intelligentsia describes the three cultivars as follows:

*          *          *

Sudan Rume

A legendary coffee variety that originated on the Boma Plateau, located in southeastern Sudan near to the Ethiopian border. This area belongs to a region considered to be the birthplace of the Arabica species. Sudan Rume has long been used by plant breeders as a source of “quality” genes, but is rarely planted because it doesn’t produce large yields.

Laurina

Laurina, a.k.a. Bourbon Pointu, comes from Reunion Island just off the coast of Madagascar. It is the direct descendant of the trees responsible for seeding most of Latin America, and was all but forgotten for most of the 20th century. Laurina is thought to be an early mutation from the Typica variety and is now considered the “original” Bourbon. It has the distinction of being extremely low in caffeine.

Maragesha

This is a spontaneous wild cross of Maragogype and Geisha that occurred in the Santuario farm outside of Popayán, where trees of the two varieties were growing next to one another. It does not exist anywhere else, and this lot is the first to have ever been harvested.

*          *          *

Here are some tasting notes for each. The Sudan Rume was smooth, with hints of caramel and maybe even butter. The Laurina had hints of cocoa and citrus. And the rare hybrid, Maragesha, was very nutty; I swear I tasted pistachios.

All three cultivars had great flavor. But the real question is whether that excellence in taste is from their rarity, from the expertise of Camilo Merizalde the farmer, or from the high quality of Colombian coffee as a whole. I prefer to place greater credit on the last two.

The rarity of the cultivars (come on, when one uses words like “birthplace,” “original,” and “does not exist elsewhere,” there’s a greater chance your wallet will open) certainly added to the experience. Perhaps it acted like a placebo effect of sorts. But that should not take anything away from Camilo’s work in growing, harvesting, and processing excellent beans, or from Intelligentsia’s roasting abilities.

An already immaculate set of three cultivars was only enhanced by the fact that I will probably never taste them again (or at least for a while).

Along with growing, harvesting, processing, and roasting excellence, the package design and branding efforts of this project are equally delicious. The geometric details were printed by Chicago’s Rohner Letterpress, and the stylish metal box is unlike anything I’ve seen before, a keeper in its own sake.

Once again, this reiterates the importance of design in coffee. We not only taste what’s in the cup, but also what we see. We drink with our eyes first. The rarity of the cultivars is exponentially highlighted by equally rare packaging and design. It screams “I AM THE ONE AND ONLY.” Intelligentsia didn’t have to hire Rohner to design the details, and its certainly didn’t have to come up with a shiny, metallic box. But it did, and for good reason.

Rarity in coffee is a beautiful thing. It’s a delicious thing.

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.

*          *          *

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.

*          *          *

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.

Coffeehouses are special places. “Reviewing” them is, therefore, almost heretic.

One can only scribble one’s thoughts into merely man-made words, as all senses take part in a unique experience one refers to as “drinking coffee.”

The initial review of cafes in Old Town Alexandria started off with Misha’s Coffeehouse and Roaster. And now, the second installment of coffeehouses in Old Town takes us to a space I have been meaning to visit for a while: M.E. Swings’ coffee bar and roasting facility in Del Ray.

Established in Washington, DC in 1916, M.E. Swings became a neighborhood charm when it opened the now historic Mesco Coffee Roasters building at 1013 E Street, decked with hand-crafted mahogany interior and bright red, wooden coffee bins. In addition to crafting hand-dipped chocolates, Swings roasted fresh batches of coffee every day with a German roaster, permeating downtown DC with the smell of roasted coffee beans for 70 plus years.

I first became acquainted with Swings through their coffeehouse on G Street. Located across from the Old Executive Office Building, the G Street coffeehouse is filled with the original mahogany and mirrored fixtures, vintage burr grinders, wooden coffee bins, and counterweight scales that were part of the legendary Mesco Building on E Street.

When I heard that Swings opened an expanded roasting facility, along with a spacious coffee bar, in the Del Ray neighborhood in May 2013, I was intrigued to see how Swings would portray its rich history in a new space, a new block.

After spending a quiet Saturday afternoon there, serenity is my word of choice.

One often associates the coffeehouse with conversation, with music, with bustling crowds, with newspapers, with laptops. All of that was present, but I choose to associate Swings’ Del Ray coffeehouse with natural sunlight.

The space is bright and airy, and its high ceilings, along with endlessly tall windows spanning an entire wall, are remnants of an old bakery. The mixed use of wood and steel was a unique aspect of the space. The coffee bar itself and some of the tables featured beautiful wood, while other parts of the coffeehouse are riddled with – and supported by – what seems like steel construction beams. This concoction of wood + steel gives the space an industrial yet natural vibe. And yet you will also find refined modernity by the presence of a beautiful, shiny La Marzocco Strada espresso machine, front and center.

One commonality I am finding amongst newer coffeehouses is the lack of seating per square feet. (This was also apparent when I visited Dolcezza’s new gelato factory and coffee lab in Shaw.)

A large “communal” table, two or so smaller tables, and a few arm chairs. That was it as far as seating. Coffeehouses, at least those opening new spots in the DC area, have taken advantage of larger, “warehouse-like” spaces to create airy and spacious “labs.” These new spaces are not about cramming as many seats as possible within a given square footage. Instead, like good paintings, they fully utilize “emptiness,” and thrive upon it.

Along with design and atmosphere, an absolute must for a stand-up coffeehouse is – coffee. On that particular day, I had hand-poured Brasil Sertão, a lighter roast with notes of cinnamon, nuts, and lemon. I had a brief discussion with Brian of DCILY about how Swing’s coffee is usually roasted on the darker side, maybe too dark for some. I agreed. But Swing’s may have found an answer in the Brasil Sertão. The coffee was roasted lightly enough so that the natural acidity and sweetness of the coffee came through, and yet it was dark enough that the depth of flavor, especially the nutty cinnamon notes, was still present. Delicious.

The “lab” aspect of the Del Ray coffeehouse comes from the separate cupping room, where public cuppings are held every Friday at 10 am. With its roasters literally right next door to the cafe, the Swing’s cupping room can truly be designated as a coffee “lab.”

To go back to step one, serenity is my word of choice to describe this Del Ray spot.

A coffeehouse has many ways to “speak.” It may speak through its baristas, its patrons, its music, its design, its furniture, and of course, its coffee. But a coffeehouse may also speak through its emptiness. Emptiness speaks volumes, perhaps even more so than any other aspect of a coffeehouse.

In a world where restaurants and cafes alike fight to see who can cram more seats (and turn them over faster) into limited and pricey square footage, being able to discern the flooring at Swing’s and notice the natural sunlight bounce off of it was a serene experience.

Only in relative emptiness did I truly find a fulfilling coffee experience.

*          *          *

Swing’s Del Ray Coffee Bar

501 East Monroe Avenue, Alexandria, VA

Monday – Friday | 7:00 am – 3:30 pm

Saturday | 8:00 am – 2:00 pm

To me, Kenya AA coffee represents a New World, a new Symphony, a New World Symphony.

Along with my first cup of coffee from the Yirgacheffe region, Kenya AA – particularly the beautiful SL-28, SL-34 cultivars – introduced me to the immense flavor possibilities of hand-drip coffee. Powerful, playful, dynamic, bursting – all words to describe some of the Kenya AAs I’ve tried thus far (which includes coffees from Verve and PT’s).

Kenyan AA in a K-Cup. Who knew.

For the past two months or so, I have had my share of K-Cup coffee (audible gasp). Purchased by the firm as part of new office space furnishings, the Keurig has been, by far, the most popular piece of equipment in the office. Thus began my objective experimentation to find out what exactly draws people to press that “Brew” button on the Evil Empire’s facade every morning. Here are my three conclusions to date.

*          *          *

1. Consistency

A thumbs-up for Keurig, as consistency is key to brewing good coffee. The only problem is, consistently brewing bad coffee is just as negligible as having no consistency at all. K-Cup coffee, I find, has a distinct “machine flavor” to it; a K-Cup flavor, might I say. Consistently tastes like machine.

2. Flavorama

My office underling affectionately ordered box loads of “flavored” K-Cup pods. Take any wild guess, and surely you will find a flavor for you: spicy eggnog, wild mountain blueberry, Cayman coconut, butter toffee, creme caramel, pumpkin spice, and my personal favorite, “Breakfast in Bed” with/by Wolfgang Puck. Had enough yet? I am beginning to think the vile shots of peppermint syrup I used to add to my law school 6th floor detergent coffee had better flavor than some of these concoctions. But oh, for the adventurous soul seeking new boundaries in coffee, flavored K-Cups give them the mojo to make it through their otherwise monotonous day.

3. Convenience

In a gallant effort to guide my office underling to world of quality-brewed specialty coffee, I offered him an excellent cup from my Aeropress brewer. Alas, while he acknowledged the superb quality and mind-blowing taste, he cites to “convenience” as he gleefully returned to Mother Flavorload in K-Cup Land.

*          *          *

Out of the three reasons discussed above, it seems to me that “convenience” is the biggest reason people use the Keurig. This bothers me. Nothing good can come from a society that prefers “convenience” over “quality.” Convenience is inherently rooted in the need for efficiency and speed; the need to get things done, and to get them done now. Convenience, speed, and efficiency are good for the office – for copying, scanning, shredding, reading, writing, editing, yelling, screaming. It becomes an issue when we “convenienize” other aspects of life.

Brewing your cup of coffee should not be a matter of convenience. I am not advocating for a culture that requires you to process, dry, and roast your own beans (thankfully, we have masterful sourcers and roasters who do that professionally, and, beautifully). I am advocating for a culture that understands the need (and want) to slow down, to skillfully craft something for one’s own serenity. A culture that whips you constantly with a carrot on the end of a stick is at risk of “losing” so many things, which is ironic because a go-go-go culture is that way only to “gain” things, not lose them.

If Keurig’s “convenience” brought equal or almost equal quality to a cup of coffee, then I would have less of a reason to object. However, as evidenced by Green Mountain Coffee’s “Kenyan AA” in a pod, convenience has failed to bring about quality, flavor, or respect. If anyone has ever tried masterfully roasted, “real” SL-28, SL-34 coffee, one would share my utter disgust at the stale grinds buried in that pod. (On a different note, what is “Medium Roast, Extra Bold”? I would like to think coffee is one or the other, either medium roast, or bold roast, but I guess this is a new paradigm in coffee culture, curated by none other than Keurig and Green Mountain.)

So we have come to this. Kenyan AA in a pod.

I shall shed a tear or two, for if this doesn’t signal a society in demise, nothing will.

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.

 

In his beloved novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera talks about a lot of things.

For one, he talks about “shit,” calling it a “more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.”

In relation to this revelation on shit, and perhaps more famously, Kundera elaborates on the true meaning of “kitsch,” a critical theme of his book.

“‘Kitsch’ is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”

That is some heavy duty manure to digest in one sitting. But in re-reading Kundera’s classic, I’d like to sum his ramblings into two words: “transitory nature.”

“The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing . . . Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Coffee from the Yirgacheffe region in Ethiopia is why I first fell in love with specialty coffee. I vaguely remember where I had that cup – perhaps somewhere on the West Coast, perhaps some douchey cafe in Shinsa-dong in Seoul. I do remember flowers, an entire, radiant bouquet, perfuming my mouth. I do remember bright acidity, not enough to wince, but just enough to acknowledge its existence.

I do remember, most of all, its “transitory nature.” The flowers, the acidity, the brightness, all of it was fleeting, gone before I could ask anyone what I just put in my mouth.

There is no reason for good coffee to stick to your tongue like caramel. That is the beauty Verve’s Yirgacheffe coffee from the Konga Cooperative.

Verve describes the washing process as “a single washing station member of Konga was isolated for employing stringent attention to detail and extremely ripe coffee cherry delivery. As an experiment, this station was isolated and milled separately to see if the production would be heightened. The result is a coffee that is filled with concentrated flavors and extremely electric citric tones.”

No doubt, the wet-process for this batch was a success. In addition to the intense tropical fruit flavors and floral tones that I am accustomed to from coffees from this region, the wet-process adds a creamy, velvety feel that I was not aware of. The descriptor “graceful” on Verve’s beautifully designed packaging is accurate. When brewed just right, flowers burst up-front, followed by a mellow wrapping of lavender, which leads to a creamy finish.

Verve’s logo is simple yet brilliant, using a bold yet elegant typeface to etch a permanent image of the “V” for Verve in your retina. The scorpion-leaf-vine-like pattern, repeated endlessly on the black packaging, stays true to the roaster’s roots in Santa Cruz, while the color combination of olive green, brown, and orange (used sparingly, once towards the top of the bag, and once more on the side) breathes air into a potentially dark and heavy exterior, perhaps as a prelude to the brightness tucked within.

The coffee from Konga is enriched by its “transitory nature.” A typical batch of coffee may have one of many flavor notes – caramel, fruits, floral, cocoa, lavender, you name it. But whatever the note, I think the beauty of specialty coffee (and the masterful picking, washing, drying, roasting process) is the ability to make the notes dance for a brilliant moment – then vanish. Linger, yes, but vanish. Just as the passion fruit note hits you, just as the lavender starts to peak, the “unbearable lightness” of the flavors swiftly lift them as if they were never there.

Verve does that. Gracefully.

*          *          *

Verve Coffee Roasters – Konga, Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia
12 oz whole bean – $19.75
Santa Cruz, California
http://www.vervecoffeeroasters.com

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.

*          *          *

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.

The wind was blistering cold, churning the frigid air, molding it into icy torpedoes gusting through the narrow streets of Old Town Alexandria. Right in the heart of town lives Misha’s Coffeehouse, a local favorite known for its addictive Route 66 blend (roasted in-house, like all of its blends and single-origin varietals) and cozy atmosphere.

The centerpiece of this coffeehouse is the vintage refrigerator, featured prominently next to the main entrance. Draped with all sorts of local community news and announcements, the fridge, which is still used regularly, shows how deeply Misha’s is integrated with Old Town.

I can sum up Misha’s as “vibrant.” The amount of red used in a cafe, let alone in any interior design layout, could be frightening. But the red used in Misha’s is anything but that. Rather, the red is inviting, complimenting the rows of freshly roasted beans, loud but not boisterous jazz music, and the unassuming black and white exterior.

In terms of cafe design, I prefer minimalist approaches, lots of black and white, modern metallic pieces mixed with vintage items, and bold colors used sparingly as highlights. If color is to be used, in any amount, it needs to make a statement without screaming at you. Misha’s interior accomplishes that at some level.

Fresh batches of coffee are roasted several times a week. While its signature Route 66 blend has customers incessantly storming the counter, Misha’s also roasts an impressive lineup of single-origin varietals, from Yemen Mocca Matari to Kenya AA. The barista’s pour over technique was less than impressive (did not pre-soak the paper filter to minimize the paper taste, and I always cringe when there is a row of commercial Bunn coffee makers displayed at a coffee bar), and the “French Roast” for certain beans seemed too dark to bring out any of the unique flavor notes of the coffees. That said, with a little training, this coffeehouse has potential to brew delicious coffee in a delicious, historic neighborhood.

Misha’s Coffeehouse & Roaster

%d bloggers like this: