I spent many years in the coffee business. I have worked for a number of coffee roasters. I have dragged giant burlap sacks of coffee using metal hooks and I have thrown out my back doing so. I have poured green coffee beans down the hopper. I have roasted coffee beans in industrial roasters. I have dug foreign matter out of the coffee roaster. I have come home on many days with coffee-bean dust coating me head to toe. I have regularly found roasted and unroasted coffee beans in the cuffs of my pants and in my shoes. I have eaten coffee beans. I have slept on piled up burlap sacks full of unroasted beans in unheated, dark coffee warehouses. I have done the New York Times crossword puzzle while waiting for beans to roast. I have ground the roasted beans in shiny red grinders. I have accidentally lit a twenty-five-pound bag of chocolate-covered coffee beans on fire. I have worked for a number of coffee companies in different cities and I have roasted, ground, packed, and delivered coffee to dozens and dozens of cafés. I have worked at some cafés. I have made coffee. I have made espressos. I have made lattes. I have made bizarre concoctions using sugar-free Torani syrups. I have clipped a thermometer to the side of the pot while steaming milk. I have done “latte art”. I have thrown away a shot for people who wanted “a single”. I have emptied the coffee grounds every ten minutes into the compost dumpster. I can speak good Italian and can pronounce all your dumb versions of coffee better than you can. I have spent months collectively in French and Italian cafés, to say nothing of the Turkish places. I have drank coffee from a stall in Bosnia, a ‘hotel’ in Madras, a stand in Taiwan, a hut in Mexico, fancy cafés in Vienna, the side of the road in Slovakia: I have drank coffee many, many places. Friend, I am not here to brag, but simply to give my coffee expertise. In short, it is superior to those whose claim to knowing what they’re on about is limited to “drinking it”.
That out of the way, I have come upon a disturbing new trend here in Seattle Coffee Culture. Seattleites like to go about considering themselves to be expert appreciators of coffee, and are of the opinion that they have developed a ‘coffee culture’ here, the likes of which they consider rivals that of Austria or Italy or wherever-all-else coffee drinking is considered a grand art form. However, it is no art at all that I have discovered, but rather some alarming BS behaviour.
This behaviour is said to go down at Cowen Park Café. This is the café I normally go to, mostly because it is nearby. Those who are ardent followers of my whims, fancies, and caprices will know that when it comes to food and drink outside the home,
[m]y concerns number but three:
I don’t care if the help salaamed me when I came in, or if there was a hair on the dish. I’m not worried about a cockroach on the floor or if the clock on the wall keeps the right time. I repeat, my concerns number but three:
All else is mere detail. (source)
Well, when it comes to cafés, my concerns are a bit different. The reason for this is that I believe all coffee tastes pretty much the same. I know this is a great outrage. I know it’s blasphemy, even! I know a couple (we won’t reveal their names) who have coffee beans flown in from across the country, claiming these beans “taste better”. I know a fellow who brought packets of Starbucks coffee to Italy, since it “tasted better”. All I know is that for myself, once the beans are roasted, ground, stored, and percolated (or what-have-you), it’s all pretty much the same. You may get dishwater coffee at some church function or midwest diner, I grant you, but in the Greater Café Coffee World, they’re all pretty much the same to me. So, when it comes to cafés, my concerns number but three different threes:
3. ) ambience
Let us examine, then, Cowen Park Café. Its name is properly Cowen Park Grocery; it lies in Seattle at the confluence of the University District, Ravenna, and Roosevelt neighbourhoods. It is across the street from Cowen Park, a tree-filled ravine that I commonly sit and read in (I can’t find much out about the park; the City of Seattle’s website gives a history of it, but unfortunately it starts and ends in the Ice Age! They do note that it is a “generally quiet enclave”). The place has been a grocery store for some time, but about five years ago, perhaps, it was bought by a family of Korean descent. They repainted it and turned one side of it into a café. They have periodically introduced other new attractions: fresh fruit and vegetables (pulled due to lack of sales), flowers and potting soil (still there), and “Korean tacos”: indeed, some days one of the owners is out there with a barbecue cooking up these “Korean tacos”, whatever they are. I have never seen such an item in Korea, nor have I seen any such thing in Mexico, so I imagine it to be some American junk food along the lines of sushi pasta or falafel pizza.
In any case, I always order the same thing: a small cup of coffee. Oh, sure, they have all sorts of things with exotic Italian names, and a pastry case full of pseudo-French pastries with the words spelled wrong. Well, I’m not too worried about any of this. I just want my cup of coffee.
The ‘lattes’ at this place are said to be something special. The Seattle Weekly, a middle-class status-quo-style publication owned by an Arizona-based corporation, sent a staff member to Cowen Park Café. She wrote that she ranked said latte among the ‘Top Five Lattes in Seattle‘. The people at Cowen Park have taken this recommendation to heart, printing out copies of the article, highlighting the relevant bits, and posting them around the café. I think I may have had a latte there before. It tasted the same as a latte anywhere in the world. People (usually Americans) I meet in Italy spend their time raving over how the lattes in Italy are superior to those elsewhere. “What can it be?” they ask me. “The Brazilian beans, transported in filthy gunny sacks to the other side of the world in musty, worm-chewed ship holds? The sun-kissed, grease-secreting, gently rusting Italian espresso machines? The local water, gently infused with cocaine residue? The milk, from scandal-ridden Italian drinks giant Parmalat? Or is it something deeper, much deeper, something we can’t see, something unknown to science, something intangible, undefinable, something in the Italian soul?”
I don’t know, it all tastes the same to me. Some have suggested there must be “something wrong” with my tongue. That may or may not be, but a square is still a square.
The coffee at Cowen Park comes in white cups which are usually chipped. A small, which I get, is $1.67 (up from $1.34 in 2010). The location is good (near my house). The ambiance is OK (unobtrusive) to poor, due to the many dogs and children people bring in there. However, that’s a failure of all Seattle coffeehouses, to actively prohibit pets and children, so I can’t fault Cowen Park alone. The music they play is generally one of five things: NPR (they rarely play this nowadays; it was more prevalent years back), classical (baroque, medieval, opera), or what sounds like Portuguese fado when the owner is working. When employees are working, we hear something along the lines of The Rough Guide to Arabic Music and The Greatest Hits of French Yé-yé. None of them are too annoying, and Cowen Park’s competition, Herkeimer, down the street, assaults my ears with droning, tedious, rambling Radioheadesque go-nowhere-rock. So Cowen Park wins there.
However, pleased (or content) as I am with Cowen Park, they have their detractors. Sometimes they forget to give me my coffee: I’m not concerned as I have all the time in the world, but some of the go-getters in the world get upset at that. The service is pretty bad: people who’ve never even been there ask me “Aren’t they notorious for bad service?”. A common greeting (barista to customer) is “Do you want something?”. Some of this used to bother me at first, years ago. Now I don’t care. For other people, though, things are going downhill there.
I took coffee with young Brimbie last week, and not only was he given a coffee smaller than that he paid for, he was given a croissant so hard and stiff that upon thrusting a finger into the top of it, the golden, flaky pastry collapsed and his finger emerged cleanly from the other side. Brimbie chalked the event up to “a lack of respect” and vowed he wouldn’t go back there: a loyal customer for years, he decided he wanted to “explore other places” that would “show some respect”, i.e., give properly-sized coffees and freshly-baked croissants. However, the places he favours I disapproved of, since they were
1.) more expensive
2.) further away
3.) had TVs blasting in the café, only used paper cups, or other things I didn’t care for,
so I convinced the erstwhile young Brisbie to give another try to Cowen Park. He examined the contents of his pocket. Within he found some bits of lint, some vegetable matter, a crumpled dollar bill, and some coins. ‘I can’t go–‘ he told me. ‘I don’t have enough for a tip.’
‘So don’t tip,’ I told him.
‘If you tip,’ he told me, ‘they say your name’.
Hold on! If you tip, they say your name?! And people are excited by this? What is this, you tip and they say your name! ‘Oh yes,’ Brimbie told me. ‘They just say Hello and Thanks if you don’t tip, but if you do tip, they say your name at the end.’
What nonsense is this, Seattle Coffee Culture?! Do you know, in Italy and Austria, the reputed homes of coffee culture, they don’t even have tips! Do you know, I’ve carried and roasted and ground and delivered and made (and consumed?) thousands of pounds of coffee in my life time, and no-one’s given me a tip! This is a scary new development in Seattle Coffee Culture. Does it extend to other cafés? Who came up with it? Arrrrgh!
I don’t want you to say my name! I just want my cup of coffee!