For the past two summers I have found myself behind the steam-belching shuttering chrome plated behemoth more commonly known as an espresso machine. In two seasons of work I have discovered a couple of things: Food service is deceivingly punishing work, and that brewing coffee is a complicated discourse steeped heavily in cultural legend and conception.
Now I do realize I’m being a bit hyperbolic about coffee. Coffee on the surface is really a simple thing to make. It is the art of pouring just-below boiling water through coffee grinds of various sizes. Really that’s all there is to it. It is in the human element that coffee becomes something a bit more complicated than your average caffeinated beverage. If you have ever worked as a barista then you know all too well that people can be very particular about their coffee. Sugar? Or no sugar? Milk? There’s soy, almond, coconut, and skim Extra foam? Light ice? Easy on the mocha? Decaf? Maybe half-caf? From such a simple thing comes a world of increasingly particular possibilities. What is ironic is that coffee brews down to a game of varying ratios that can be mastered within ten minutes via a web search, and yet with names like latte, cappuccino, macchiato (Starbucks and Italian), flat-white (New Zealand or English), Frappuccino, macchiato, skinny latte and so on, it seems more like a complicated system of discourse rather than different drinks all made of essentially the same two or three ingredients. Starbucks’ insistence of adhering to a sizing system of pseudo-Italian has only served to complicate things further.
I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time wondering just why coffee (and the people who drink it regularly) can be so particular about it (Full disclosure: I am one of these very particular coffee brewers, I just happen to do my complicated method in my kitchen where it annoys no one). Coffee has wormed its way into modern culture to the point where no one really remembers a time before we had coffee. Its such a staple of the Western diet, its hard to imagine that coffee wasn’t a common thing when our country was first founded. Like tea for the British, or chocolate for the Swiss, these goods were stolen from indigenous peoples overseas via colonies and assimilated into Western culture, bearing no tangible reference to their source beyond the exotic sounding titles on Starbucks bags. In Marxist terms, this is the commodity fetishism of the coffee bean. Perhaps it is because its cultural origins lie in relative obscurity to any who have not taken Mimi Hellman’s class on the Art History of Caffeine, that coffee is able to become a drink that people feel so strongly about on a personal level. If there is no historically correct way to consume coffee, as there is with fine wines or beers, then people are left to their own devices and quickly develop their own idiosyncratic ritual surrounding the exact same drink.
The physical coffee shop itself carries with it a legacy that is just as complicated as the drink served within it. Coffee shops began as intellectual urban centers. They were rowdy like pubs at times, and at others the birthplace of revolutionary ideas throughout Europe. In the fifties they attracted beatniks. In Meg Ryan-esque romantic commidies they enjoy a privileged position next to bookshops as picturesque places where lovers first happen upon one another over the same copy Catcher in the Rye. Today, I feel that coffee shops haven’t so much as evolved a new meaning; rather they have amalgamated all of their legend into an epic poem of sorts that is different depending on who you ask to recite it. The corner coffee shop in a city might be a meeting place for locals. My shop where I am employed fluctuates between an incredibly busy tourist trap in the summer and a local haunt in the New England winter. Coffee shops are fair trade organic in Portland, and generic and homogenous on Eisenhower’s interstate system. Coffee shops can be mobile carts of varying sizes, or well-established buildings serving as coffee house, dance hall, and bar all at once. When you walk into a coffee shop, you never know exactly the atmosphere you are to expect, and for the average customer this can be either an exhilarating dive or an anxiety-producing plunge that leads to a fair bit of resentment when his/her latte isn’t quite right. The coffee shop it seems is a far more complicated entity than we often give it credit for.
Coffee and coffee shops are essential to the modern working world. Caffeine is the world’s most popular psychoactive drug. It is a ritual performed by many, and given the common devotion to that ritual, we might even think it something of a religion. In this sense the humble coffee shop is the place of that strange worship. In my time as a barista, I have spent enough time around coffee to stain my clothes and my fingernails, to burn my hands and discolor my shoes. Food service can be grueling work, however if you look beneath the dark surface, you can find a greater truth to that time spent whether you are a barista or a customer, and like the coffee you sip from, the nature of that truth is dependent entirely on you.