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Sunday, May 16, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A State Of Bean -- Brew Mornings: Seattle's Coffee Culture Exerts Quite A Pull On Java Junkies

Welcome to Seattle, Mr. Coffee. But please sit down. You look so pale and weak.

I can say with some confidence that by the time you've steeped yourself in Seattle's coffee culture today, you'll leave enriched and robust. You may even be able to fly home without benefit of a plane.

Let's stop here a minute at the airport Starbucks Coffee stand and get you perking. Don't be alarmed by all the people on gurneys with IV tubes hooked to the espresso maker. Those are simply Seattleites home after long trips.

On our tour today, you'll hear from Northwest people who will explain why all the coffee world is watching Seattle. And a large world it is, too. Coffee is the second-biggest commodity behind oil.

We don't grow beans here, but our roasters sell to 50 states, and we are the country's leading supplier of espresso machines and carts. There are street corners where you could fire a fastball and hit five separate espresso carts. Density be danged: At least one Seattle cart is said to bring in a six-figure income.

Don't feel ashamed that you had to come to us, Mr. Coffee. We've already had visits from Lord Proctor Silex, Ms. Melitta, you name it. Seattle is leading a revolution of top-grade coffee in a country that traditionally bought the cheapest beans and boiled the grounds to a flavorless blah.

Whatever else you take back to the factory, don't forget this: Good coffee is not just good beans with fancy packaging. In Seattle,

it's a process of perfection that starts with checking the quality of the earth the bean is grown in and ends with the seductive touch of the espresso puller's "good morning."

There's nothing disingenuous or haphazard about it.

OK. You're looking better already, Mr. Coffee. You finish that latte and I'll fill you in on some history as we drive to the city.

Americans have been known as java junkies since it became patriotic to drink coffee about the time of the Boston Tea Party.

The folks at Cafe Ole magazine - yes, Seattle publishes a national coffee magazine - told me that at one time we served good coffee in this country. There's a place called Java, S.D., for instance, which drew people by train from miles around to get well-roasted quality beans.

Theories differ on why it became too expensive to buy good beans, but most prominent is one about a freeze driving up the cost. By the 1950s, when the bottomless cup of coffee became the loss leader at turquoise-and-plastic cafes around the country, we were drinking the dregs.

Our reputation for buying the cheapest beans is so set, in fact, that speciality coffee buyers who travel internationally have to fight growers who say, "Oh, Americans, bring 'em back here and show 'em the culls," says Roger Sandon, owner of Cafe Ole. Most of your canned coffee grounds are from the robusta bean, which often has the highest caffeine.

Japan, Germany and then Italy are known for buying the best beans, most often arabica, which is what you'll find in the bulk of U.S. speciality coffees.

The arabica is one reason espresso has less caffeine than drip coffee; another is the difference in the brewing method.

How Seattle got involved in all this is quite another story.

Excuse me, Mr. Coffee, would you mind putting your plastic lid in that little sack under the dash and your cup in the one marked "paper"? Seattle coffee drinkers are said to be at the refinement stage: that is, our attention is turning to such things as what's happening to the used grounds and what proportion of the profit is going back to the people who pick the beans.

Heather Doran Barbieri, author of "Seattle Emergency Espresso: The Insider's Guide to Neighborhood Coffee Spots" (Alaska Northwest Books/Graphic Arts, 1992, $9.95), traces Seattle's quality coffee consumption to three factors:

-- The Italians who settled in Rainier Valley, a k a "Garlic Gulch."

-- A certain pride of craft in Seattle.

-- A tradition of good marketing.

Barbieri will tell you that our first bohemian coffee houses in the 1960s included Cafe Encore on Brooklyn, The Door and the White Horse downtown and the Place Next Door on North 45th Street. They're history now, but some others from that era are still grinding along, including the Allegro, the Last Exit and the B & O.

Coffee has infiltrated Seattle's financial structure in the same way as aerospace products, not on the same grand scale, of course, but nearly as widespread. So it was appropriate that the first cart - Ambrosia Espresso, set up more than a decade ago under the Monorail at Fifth Avenue - was made from a converted Boeing electric shuttle.

Today's 200-plus carts are Cadillacs in comparison. Some are so high-tech, office workers fax down their orders. They all come either with three-compartment sinks or health department fines, some of which are encouraged by rival cart owners who turn each other in.

Now you can't talk Seattle coffee history and not use the word "Starbucks," which, as you know, is the largest coffee roaster in the country and booming. As Barbieri relates in "Seattle Emergency Espresso," the company was founded by Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegl in 1971. They used to run up to Vancouver, B.C., to get good beans. In a caffeine-induced brainstorm, they decided to open their own shop at Pike Place Market.

The company was named for the coffee-quaffing first mate in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." It really took off after marketing genius and current president Howard Schultz visited Italy in 1983 and came back touting the notion of installing an espresso bar right in the store.

The Italians don't think we've got it right, yet, since they wouldn't dream of putting milk in their espresso after 10 a.m. But they're intrigued by our success.

Two of our bigger roasters, Torrefazione Italia and Caffe Mauro (soon to be Caffe D'arte), have Italian roots. But Starbucks gets credit for first educating consumers about the wonders of espresso and setting a standard for consistency.

You're looking pale again, Mr. Coffee. Let's swing by the Uptown Espresso here at the foot of Queen Anne Hill and get involved in the morning rush.

The Uptown is routinely voted best espresso bar in such yup-scale periodicals as The Weekly and The Seattle Times' Pacific magazine. There's a definite sense of style here, casual yet urban.

(I suggest you wipe off that milk mustache before we go in.)

Let's sit here a minute and listen to the banter.

Watch how the baristas make contact with each customer. They sass the ones they know are up for it, and they're caring and quiet with the ones who can't get it together before they've had their morning coffee.

Making espresso is an art that can't be hurried. But people are often in a hurry because they're on their way to work. So see how they keep those three pitchers of whole, 2 percent and nonfat milk going? They're going to customize each drink, but they do it in a way that's most efficient.

"Thank you much."

"You're welcome much."

It's almost a seduction. Many people say they fall in love with their baristas, who move so gracefully and yet have the enticing air of an artist/rebel.

Ellen Chevalier, who owns L'Elephant Espresso on Eastlake Avenue, worked for six years at the Uptown and also got training at Starbucks.

At Starbucks she learned to time her espresso shots to 19 seconds. Anything more, anything less, Chevalier says, and down the drain it goes.

At the Uptown she learned to make velvet foam, a smooth rich top that makes the latte slide right down. She also learned to "personality surf."

She told me, "It's riding the waves. You learn to surf off people's personalities. Different people come in and you get a rush off them."

Caffeine helps. Chevalier gets up at 4:30 a.m. seven days a week to open her espresso bar. It's a former one-car garage enriched to look like a British den. She tanks up herself first thing and then rides off other people's energy until early-afternoon closing.

The feeling must be mutual, because when Chevalier was out of her shop for five weeks in an ownership dispute last December, her loyal customers boycotted the place until she came back.

She was so pumped up by that she looks forward to being there every morning for the next decade.

The six-figure incomes are rare. Most cart owners will tell you they "make a living." For everyone who pulls in $60,000, there are many more working 12-hour days to make $10,000.

But the beauty, Mr. Coffee, is where else can you invest $15,000 and be your own boss?

I talked to a woman named Ronni Woods, who opened a cart outside a Kirkland grocery store with her business partner, Melissa Jory.

Those two scouted their location for 18 months. What they found is if there isn't a cart in what looks like a good location, there's usually a reason for it.

It's hard, sometimes cold, work for a reasonable living, even though they make the best lattes on the Eastside, they say, and have the best customers.

Yet, like Chevalier, if you ask what they want to be doing in a decade, they don't hesitate.

"We want our tombstones to be here," said Woods. "We want to be buried in the sidewalk."

I don't know about you, Mr. Coffee, but I've never said that about my job!

Whatever the lure, people notice. Jeff Wiley, who runs Jo-To-Go, a drive-through off Leary Way in Ballard, said that in the warm weather not a day goes by when someone isn't snapping a photo of his stand and asking how many cups a day he sells, which is the same as asking, "How much do you make?"

Wiley spent a lot of time checking out his location. The day before his espresso machine was to be delivered, he drove by and noticed a brand-new cart set up outside of AA Rentals next door.

"My heart just dropped," he said. "But then I started to think, at least there's someone else with the same weird idea."

Both are doing OK, he said, and both seem to have their regular customers.

Mr. Coffee, you've been kicking my shin for an hour. Let's get up so you can shake out those jitters while I show you the Golden Triangle.

From the corner of Fifth Avenue and Union Street, you can see all three of what Sandon describes as the most lucrative espresso carts in Seattle: Nordstrom, Monorail Espresso and Espresso Vivace.

Legend has it Nordstrom's espresso cart makes more money per square foot than any other section of the store.

But we may be about to brim over.

We seem to have peaked in Seattle, according to David Baron, marketing director for Torrefazione Italia Inc., which is so authentic some people go just to drink in the beauty of the Italian baristas.

We have espresso in parking garages, furniture stores, car washes, dental offices, life insurance drive-throughs, fast-food joints. You name it, there's likely a little red cursive sign reading ESPRESSO, which around here is like ringing the bell for Pavlov's dog.

The new market is the outside world, Mr. Coffee, which should make you happy. Sandon says he can sit in his office chair and hear where it's moving around the country. Four months ago, it was Manhattan. Two years ago, it was Minneapolis.

Most recently Cafe Ole has been getting calls from Alabama and North Carolina.

Carole Paulson, associate editor, said she hears "rural noises" in the background, and a backwoods voice will say, "My mother said to call Seattle because you folks know all there is to know about ex-spresso."

And they're right, but most often they don't want to hear about the whole package. Paulson and Sandon shake their heads and figure the ones who love money more than coffee and people are destined to fail.

And that's because the secret, Mr. Coffee, is that it's your own little bit of paradise.

Right here in the big city, there's a barista who sees you coming, knows your name, knows your daughter got married last week, and starts making up a coffee exactly to your order.

These days it's politically incorrect to go sit in a tavern, and so we miss our bartenders. Paulson can quote from an article she read about the loss of the "third place" - that is, a neutral spot that's neither work nor home - and how the coffee bar fills that need.

If that doesn't make it clear to you, Mr. Coffee, maybe something Sandon said will top it off.

"If the Queen of England can afford the best cup of coffee in the world, so can I."

TAKE YOUR BEST SHOT: AN ESPRESSO GLOSSARY

-- Espresso: A single shot of espresso, 1 1/2 to 2 ounces. Espresso is an Italian word that translates both as "rapid" and as "prepared especially for you." -- Espresso lungo: A shot that is pulled long (meaning that a bit more espresso is added) to maximize the level of caffeine. -- Espresso macchiato: A shot of espresso with a splotch of steamed milk on top. Italians like it as a midmorning coffee drink. -- Cappuccino: A shot of espresso finished with dense, foamed milk that is ladled on or poured on with a shaking motion. A traditional part of the Italian breakfast. -- Caffe Americano: A shot of espresso diluted with hot water to the strength of American coffee. -- Caffe mocha: Hot chocolate with a shot of espresso. -- Single: A single 1 1/2-ounce shot of espresso. -- Double or doppio: 3 ounces of espresso. -- Espresso con panna: Espresso topped with whipped cream. -- Ristretto: A short pour, 1 ounce or less, of espresso. (A more concentrated drink for hard-core types.) -- Caffe latte or latte: A shot of espresso with steamed milk, topped with foamed milk. (Latte is Italian for milk.) -- Grande: A 16-ounce latte. -- Double tall: A double shot of espresso with a double amount of milk or water. -- Latte macchiato: Steamed milk with less than a full shot of espresso poured in to mark the top with a brown dot. -- Breve: Espresso with steamed half-and-half. -- Latte caldo: Hot, steamed milk. -- Caffe Amaretto: A half-ounce of sweet almond syrup with steamed milk and espresso. -- Tall or alto: A single shot of espresso with extra milk (for a latte) or water (for an Americano), served in a 10- to 12-ounce cup. -- Short single: A single shot of espresso with the standard amount of milk (for a latte) or water (for an Americano). -- Tall skinny or tall non: A tall latte made with 1 percent or nonfat milk. -- Double tall skinny: As above, but with a double shot of espresso. -- No fun: A latte made with decaf espresso. -- Double no fun or harmless: A latte made with decaf espresso and nonfat milk. -- Lattecino: A latte with milk that has a consistency between steamed and foamed. -- Tall two: A tall latte made with 2 percent milk. -- Yankee dog with white hat on a leash: An Americano with foam, to go. -- Thunder thighs: A double tall mocha made with whole milk and topped with extra whipped cream.

(Source: "Seattle Emergency Espresso" by Heather Doran Barbieri, Alaska Northwest Books/Graphic Arts.)

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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