Sunday, September 11, 2011

Coffee Culture

“Where’s the best place to get a latte?”   Thanks to the Coffee Mania wave, I can even find a café in whistle-stop towns.  My vocabulary, spending habits and preferences has unfolded over the past 20 years as I have been swept along into the rise of coffee popularity.  Though my body has spurned coffee, I remain a wannabe, captivated by its aroma and sweet-bitterness. 

The quest for the best java has morphed over time.  Years ago, my father would drive his half ton to the local diner and park alongside other trucks.  Inside, the men sat in a line at the counter on swivel stools where they caught each other up on the news of the day.  As each one seated, a waitress flipped a cup over in front of the customer with one hand and poured the coffee from the pot she held in the other.  Cream was in metal containers and sugar was poured out of a glass jar with a metal lid.  It was rare that they ordered anything to eat.  Coffee cups were topped up, and once that was done, they all went off to do their chores.  The women who poured the coffee were called waitresses, and what came out of the pot was never questioned. 

Today, baristas serve up our drinks, a long list of possibilities centred on an espresso.  The customer is frequently conversed in the specific language, and the degree of strength of their cup. 

What is espresso?  People often think that it is about the type of coffee bean or grind, but it is about the preparation method.  Each cup begins by forcing hot water under pressure through a finely ground coffee.  Depending on different regional preferences, the coffee beans used may be dark or lighter, a result of beans chosen and the roasting process. The result is a thicker consistency than drip coffee, and a reddish-brown foam on the surface, called crema.  From this base, other variations are created such as cappuccinos, lattes, americanos and mochas.  Prepared by a barista, an Italian word for bartender, each cup is presented in an individual, “just-for-you” fashion.  And fashionable it has become, with recognizable logos on the sides of to-go cups, and the emergence of the word grande into everyday language.  Selecting what to drink at a coffee bar has also become stylish, and ever changing; for example, one new trend is a Canadiano which is an espresso with added drip coffee.  A Banff café calls this one a “caffeine avalanche.” 

Italy is the birthplace of espresso. It was there, in 1901, that the first espresso machine was patented. In North America, Seattle is perhaps the most well known city for its coffee, and perhaps because this is the birthplace of Starbucks, and other roasteries such as Seattle’s Best Coffee.  Starbucks opened in 1971 across from Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a popular visitors’ attraction.  By February 2008, they had 15,700 stores in 43 countries, and in 2006, they bought 32 million pounds of coffee.

Smaller coffee roasteries abound in Seattle.   Espresso Vivace in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district identifies itself as an Italian-style coffee house.  Vivace’s is a vibrant culinary delight with enthusiastic baristas who create spectacular coffee art on their lattes and cappuccinos.  The motto at Vivace is “una bella tazza di caffe,” – a beautiful cup of coffee.  They take their motto seriously.  One of the founders has created a book on professional espresso techniques and a video called “Caffe Latte Art.”

By the time, I stumbled upon Vivace on Broadway Avenue, I knew that the secret of a great cup of coffee was freshness, both in the preparation and in the roasting of the carefully chosen beans.  Vivace embodies both.

The pursuit of excellence in a divine cup of espresso stretches far beyond Seattle and Italy.  In my hometown of Nelson, BC, Oso Negro, coffee roastery and coffee bar, was immensely popular from the start.   In 1993, the roastery occupied a 200-square foot room and has now expanded to roasting 4 tons a month.  At Oso Negro, freshness is emphasized; employees advise that customers’ newly purchased coffees be used within 4 weeks.  The popularity of Oso Negro has locals bringing a bag when they go away on vacation, and former residents requesting it from afar.

For those who are insistent on the ultimate in freshness, the roasting of coffee beans can also be done at home.  For $89 plus shipping, a person can buy Freshroast Plus 8.

Roasting coffee beans is an acquired skill.   An Oso Negro video of the art of coffee roasting illustrates the miniscule time between a perfect roast, and one that is burnt.  The results are what make a coffee popular, or not.

Starbucks, for example, have been criticized for the bitterness of their coffee, and nicknamed Charbucks.  Bitterness is all in the taste of the beholder.

The growth of Starbucks and independent coffee houses have not gone unnoticed by the big companies who are vying for our coffee dollars.  McDonalds pounced into the lucrative coffee market in 2006 when they announced their Premium Roast Blend to increase their ailing sales.  Then, in May 2009, they launched a $100 million advertising campaign for the McCafe line of espresso drinks, which are aimed to be an affordable alternative to coffee houses.   Burger King’s entry is the BK Joe, which comes in either regular or “turbo strength,” which has 40% more caffeine.  Dunkin’ Donuts bills itself as  “America's largest retailer of coffee-by-the-cup” with their fair-trade offerings that now include espresso, cappuccino, and lattes.  Many places are battling for our coffee dollars including our financial advisors who plead us to consider the “latte factor” when thinking of investments. We are not giving up our coffees quickly.

Tim Hortons, the land of the “double double,” a coffee shop established by an ex-NHL hockey player .  Tim Hortons is also popular with a new generation of hurried morning commuters who take advantage of the drive-through and famous food such as the Hot Breakfast Sandwich.  Tim Hortons’ motto, “Always Fresh,” is illustrated through their commercials, which have servers marking the time on each fresh pot; after 18 minutes a new pot is brewed.  Like the espresso, freshness is essential.

Whether it is brewed or espresso, the phenomenon of coffee houses has exploded over the last few years.  Our local Safeway has a Starbucks installed so customers pass by on their way from the tellers.  On Robson Street in Vancouver, two Starbucks are on diagonal corners from each other; it is not unusual to see a line-up at both places.

Starbucks’ growth has much to do with their atmosphere, as well as their coffee.  The coffee movement, called Coffee Culture, has been called a “social lubricant,” and indeed Starbucks is a social gathering place. 
Coffee Culture is a social atmosphere centred around coffee, and in particular, espresso.  But it is also about the consumption of coffee, how it is prepared, and where it is served. Coffee Culture has infiltrated the modern world, changing the fundamental ways people lead their daily, busy lives.

A chain of stores called Coffee Culture, started in Woodstock, ON, is a 100% Canadian owned café and eatery with over 26 locations and 17 planned ones in Ontario.  On their website, Coffee Culture describes itself as a European-style coffee house, “Canada’s hottest coffee concept.”  Their motto is, “Come for the taste, stay for the visit.”

One of the ways that we know when a trend has become ingrained into our lives is when it is becomes part of the entertainment culture.  In the movie, Shrek 2, a building called Farbucks is destroyed and all the customers run out and go to another one across the street.  Humorist Andy Burowitz announced that Starbucks would be opening 11,000 cafés on the moon by 2021.  "Those astronauts are going to be working long and hard to build that moon base and we’re betting they’re going to want a latte or two," says a Starbucks spokeswoman. "Fortunately for them, there’ll be a Starbucks on the edge of every crater."

With such a prominence of specialty coffee cafés, imagining Starbucks on the moon doesn’t seem that farfetched.  Coffee Culture is clearly here to stay; the pursuit for more exquisite tastes will engage the aficionados and delight the rest of us.  

Where’s the best place to get a cup of coffee?  Like love, it is truly in the eye of the beholder.

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