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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]

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.

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

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