One of the unequivocal pleasures of living in Seattle for most of the past 17 years has been my coffee drinking. I am jingoistic about Seattle coffee, and push it mercilessly on visiting friends and family. I’m sure I’m not alone in this regard; we are obviously hooked, as a city—the coffee-drinkingest town in all the country. Why should that be? No doubt it’s in part because we have long, dark winters and need constant warming up and mood lifting. Coffeehouses allow even characteristically taciturn Seattleites to spy on our own city and feel a part of it, all at once. And it seems in a city of both engineers and artists, we’re drawn to the alchemist appeal of the barista; we recognize the genius of someone who can make steam and metal sing. And, of course, there is the taste of a latte, which seems to fit our city to a T—a little bit dark and brooding, with a cloud of pleasing and appeasing milk cushioning the flint beneath. Here, then, is my biography in coffee—not because I am a trendsetting coffee drinker, but precisely because I’m not. I think I’m a pretty good reflection of how the coffee world—and in particular, Seattle’s coffee scene—has changed in the past three decades.
I started drinking coffee in the mid-’80s before the bus picked me up for high school at 6:30 a.m. On those pitch-black winter mornings, I made instant. Somehow, I drank it black, no sugar.
I wasn’t that different than most Americans, who hadn’t yet heard of lattes, or Starbucks (though around this time Howard Schultz was starting to get Seattle customers hooked on espresso drinks)—we drank whatever coffee there was as long as it was warm and caffeinated. Coffee had been a favorite American drink since the 1820s, but, in the name of convenience, we accepted several compromises to guarantee a cheap and reliable morning joe: bitter, high-yield robusta beans preroasted, preground and canned. Or worse: instant.
I had my first pot of French press in the summer of 1988 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the Coffee Connection (a Massachusetts company later purchased and rebranded by Starbucks). It was Ethiopian Harrar peaberry, if I remember correctly, and it was so much more alive than any other brew I’d had before. I was smitten: Coffee became a medium not just for caffeine, but for discernment.
I didn’t know it then, but I was riding on a wave of coffee specialization that had started sweeping across the country in the late 1960s. Alfred Peet, founder of Peet’s Coffee & Tea, is usually credited with being the first successful coffee rebel: The Dutch-born roaster created a thriving Bay Area business by seeking out great arabica coffee beans and roasting them fresh for his customers. Instead of striving for uniformity, as did the big coffee businesses like Procter & Gamble (owner of Folger’s), General Foods (Maxwell House) and Nestlé (Nescafé), the burgeoning specialty roasting industry hooked into the romance of different coffee origins: A coffee bean from the Ethiopian highlands would necessarily taste different than one grown on Sulawesi in Indonesia. To brew the coffee, specialty roasters often recommended pour-over cone filters and French press pots.
Seattle was particularly ripe for the coffee movement. Perhaps there were enough northern European immigrants in town who remembered and missed freshly roasted beans. Perhaps we were just countercultured enough to take a slightly oppositional stance with our morning beverage (though not so countercultured as to object to paying a little more for a daily luxury). After trying a seasonal Bainbridge business for a couple of years, Jim Stewart, who had discovered fine coffee working at the Coffee Bean in Los Angeles, opened his Wet Whisker roastery and ice cream shop on Pier 70 in 1971. It would later become Seattle’s Best Coffee. Joe Kittay opened The Good Coffee company in 1971, and he still roasts coffee today in his modest Post Alley establishment. That same year, Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegl started selling coffee beans (at first, roasted by Peet’s) at a little shop called Starbucks.
In 1993, the year I moved to Seattle, lattes were everywhere: in street carts across the city, little shacks in parking lots off the freeway, in the QFC. It was sometimes hard to see the espresso machine, though, behind all the bottles of flavored Torani syrup. All this seemed like fun, but then I had my first Vivace espresso drink, and I understood what I’d been missing. I ordered something embarrassing: tall, caramel, nonfat—but through the froufrou, I could taste the difference in the espresso shots. I soon stripped my order down to double short lattes.
Starbucks was in its ascendancy, expanding across the country as fast as a flash flood in a box canyon. Howard Schultz, who joined Starbucks in 1982, had become smitten with the coffee drinks he had tasted in Italy, including a longer cappuccino called a latte, and he urged his colleagues at Starbucks to start serving espresso drinks at their growing chain of bean shops. They demurred, but when Schultz bought the controlling share of Starbucks in 1987, he shifted Starbucks’ focus from beans to retail drinks, and the expansion was breathtakingly fast, first here in Seattle, then Chicago, and quickly across the country, sometimes gobbling up other specialty roasters along the way. Schultz had famously described coffeehouses as the essential third place (after home and work), where one could read, meet friends, write and otherwise find community, even if you didn’t talk to anyone besides the barista. And, indeed, in those years I never felt more comfortable than when I was in a coffee shop.
Espresso was the new language of coffee—and even though I preferred to frequent the coffee indies, it was Starbucks’ omnipresence that had made milky coffee an essential part of my day and of so many other Seattleites. I didn’t always attend the concerts and poetry slams at coffeehouses around town, but it seemed right that coffee shops should strive to be bohemian utopias with saggy thrift-store sofas. I felt a kinship with my fellow latte sippers: the lean tomboys, the ratty-haired band dudes, the rumpled students with their Italian dictionaries. I liked Uptown’s microbubbled milk and its vintage table lamps. I liked the streetside bustle of Monorail espresso. But David Schomer and his crew at Espresso Vivace had won my heart and my patience (good espresso takes time) with their bittersweet, full-bodied, aromatic espresso shots.
Things got tawdry: I moved to Los Angeles for a few years in 1995, cooking in L.A. restaurants like Campanile and Spago, and finding myself far from the superior coffee of Seattle. I had a brief, salacious affair with a milky frozen coffee concoction called the Ice Blended.
I was not the only person to fall for the idea of a frozen drink—Starbucks purchased the Coffee Connection in 1994, and with it the right to sell its frozen coffee drink, the Frappuccino. The Frappuccino joined automated espresso machines, the super-tall 20-ounce venti cup and ravenous expansion as symbols of Starbucks’ distraction from fine espresso.
I returned to Seattle in 2000, started writing for a living, drank coffee in many shops around town, especially Capitol Hill’s three V’s: Vivace, Victrola, Vita. With the help of a truly skilled barista, I worked my favorite drink down to a macchiato: espresso marked with just a touch of milk—almost as much of the froth comes from the espresso’s russet crema as it does the milk.
During my absence, coffeehouses had spread. Each neighborhood, from Ballard to Georgetown, coalesced around its own coffeehouse. With my first laptop in tow, I headed to coffee shops around town to drink coffee and write. Laptops in coffee shops hadn’t exactly been a rarity during the ’90s dot-com boom in tech-savvy Seattle, but with the dawn of Wi-Fi, coffeehouses could truly become offices for nomadic freelancers like me (or tech workers who suddenly found themselves working on a contract basis). Since its introduction to Europe in the years of the Enlightenment, coffee has always been a business drink, keeping the mind clear and the words flowing. But now it seemed to be losing some of its social appeal. Worker bees would plant themselves for hours hogging tabletop real estate, especially at work-friendly places like Zoka and Herkimer. The stare-downs over electrical outlets could get downright chilling. And there’s only so much business a single customer can bring a coffee shop in a day (especially if the coffee shop offers 25-cent refills). What’s more, when coffeehouses became full of earphone-wearing people staring at screens, they lost some of their cred as casual hangouts. The third place began to collapse into the second place, the office.
These days, I make most of my coffee at home, picking up single-estate beans every several days from a nearby roaster. When I do go out for coffee, just two or three times a week, I alternate between espresso drinks and slow-brewed methods.
About the same time that Wi-Fi became de rigueur (and maybe in reaction to a now screen-addled clientele), Seattle coffeehouses began to seek a new way to engage the public, entering a new level of obsession with the origins of the beans themselves. Some of this was inspired by the fair-trade movement, which had its origins in the 1980s, when activists realized that a good deal of the turmoil in coffee-growing countries—particularly those of war-torn Central America—had something to do with the very valuable commodity that we put in our coffee pots every day. The idea of fair-trade coffee meant buying directly from farmer cooperatives and critically raising the price of coffee per pound from the rock-bottom commodity prices major coffee companies were seeking. If, say, Caffe Ladro and its compatriots around the world were willing to pay more for fair-trade coffee, they would, ideally, help the campesinos who harvest our daily brew to have a better quality of life, and it would ease the consciences of habitual coffee drinkers.
But fair-trade coffee as originally conceived was not much concerned with the sensory quality of the beans. A new breed of coffee buyer, like those at Counter Culture (in Durham, North Carolina), Intelligentsia (in Chicago) and Stumptown (in Portland, whose founder Duane Sorenson had worked for respected Seattle roaster Ed Leebrick), began to obsessively seek the best beans in the world, and they would pay a lot. Top-drawer raw coffees might sell (often in online auctions) for $20 to $30 or more per pound, wholesale. Not every coffee makes that much money, but these top prices are meant to up the ante—to help coffee farmers around the world discover the economic advantage of growing great coffee. Plus, at this price, coffee ceases to be viewed as a commodity and instead is seen as an artisanally raised craft product from bean to cup. Even if most consumers at these places opt for a $12–$15 bag of beans over the $35 bag, they are still drawn to these trading relationships and the challenge of comparing different bean styles. This movement toward direct relationships with high-quality farms has been called the “third wave” of the specialty coffee movement (early specialty roasters like Peet’s counting as the first wave, and the espresso-driven marketing of the Starbucks era as the second), although it’s a term met with some discomfort by coffee specialists, much in the same way musicians squirm when labeled with a genre they did not choose for themselves.
Even before Stumptown landed in Seattle in 2007, flying high its single-origin, small-farm flag, roastery/coffeehouses like Vita, Victrola and Zoka were jumping into the movement, seeking their own direct-trade beans from Africa, Central America and Asia. Roasteries started to offer public cuppings, teaching laypeople the strange, slurpy process by which coffee experts determine the quality of a cup of coffee. (They’re also the source of the wine-label-like descriptions you’ll find on a bag of fancy coffee beans—all those “milk chocolates,” “cherries” and “orange blossoms.”)
Since today’s cutting-edge coffee is all about nuance, it tends to be less darkly roasted than the characteristic roasts that the nation grew accustomed to in the Starbucks-dominated ’90s. And so our coffee has come full circle—espresso is still a classic coffee drink, but various forms of slow-brewed (as opposed to espresso) coffee have been revived. At Seattle Coffee Works, for example, you can geek out and taste samples made using French press, pour-over and vacuum methods side by side. The longer steeps are seen as a way to retain the nuances of the lighter-roast, single-origin coffees. If you’re paying more for a coffee that has notes of ginger and mandarin orange, you want to do what you can to preserve these flavors. And choosing your beans and method of preparation gives you a chance to chat at a little more length with the cute barista, too.
I still don’t have my own espresso machine, much less a Slayer.
I’ve not often been tempted to buy an espresso machine for my home—not even during the 1990s, when it seemed as if the kitchen of every upwardly mobile coffee drinker boasted a countertop Krups machine with a milk-encrusted steamer nozzle. I’ve generally felt I could get better macchiatos at my favorite coffee shops than I could ever get at home, and that with a hand-crafted shot there came the bonus of interaction with baristas and coffeehouse regulars. Espresso-based coffee for me is an event, not just a drink, and one that I’m willing to pay for.
The perfection of the drink itself also might be the future of Seattle coffee. Much of the current buzz in the industry is about how coffee is being brewed (some even call it a fourth wave of specialty coffee, though it seems to me there have always been coffee-method geeks), and if there is one place where Seattle is still the driver of high-end coffee culture in the country, it is as a source of coffee-brewing equipment. It seems we are still a city of tinkerers: Synesso, Slayer and the important importer La Marzocco USA are all supplying the nation’s most forward-thinking espresso shops with top-of-the-line machines (not to mention the now-Starbucks-owned Clover system for brewed coffee). The new machines demand highly skilled baristas as dedicated to the craft of making coffee as today’s cocktail chefs are to making boozy infusions. In other words, they are trying to help consumers realize just how much more flavor and body can be captured in a cup of coffee. I’m willing to go along for that ride. My dilettantish coffee life has always been improved by the obsessions of the coffee cosmonauts who explore the outer reaches of coffee’s potential. If all goes well, I’ll soon drink my espresso with no milk at all.
Originally published October 2010