To Europeans, California may not seem the obvious choice to go search for the perfect coffee. But it is here that a third-wave of creative and serious entrepreneurs goes back to the roots of the coffee house culture
Coffee. The thought of it gets us out of bed. The mere smell of it can sell houses. The consumption of it raises productivity and improves creativity – up to a certain point. Ever since its discovery, it has had an effect on social life wherever it was introduced. “Let’s do coffee” – a phrase that wraps sociability, hospitality, conversation and getting tasks off our to do list into one neat package. An impromptu survey among friends and colleagues revealed that almost everyone who has to write – be that journalists, musicians, authors or bloggers – prefers to do so in a café, away from the office or even home. The combination of coffee, the energy and background noise of music, people talking and the comforting sound of someone working in the kitchen, as it were, seems to provide the ideal environment for creativity often lacking in today’s offices. And nowhere else will you find people from different walks of life and income levels meeting daily in passing than in Californian Coffee Shops. Here, lifelong friendships are formed, loves found and discarded, books written, business deals struck and inspiration for the next big thing found.
Coffee houses, as they were originally called, are certainly not an American invention and have been around for centuries. First discovered in Ethiopia and then spreading fast throughout the Islamic world where the beans where first appreciated for helping guards stay awake, coffee became later known to Europeans as the “wine of Islam”.
Brought to Europe via Istanbul and Vienna it was in the 1600s that coffee houses saw their first raise to popularity in England, France and Germany and became increasingly fashionable among the intellectuals, writers and artists who were able to meet up, work and talk and freely discuss their – sometimes revolutionary – thoughts and ideas in what often became their home from home. However, it was mostly thanks to Italian immigrants and their beloved espresso that the coffee phenomena would find its way into America where it has remained ever since.
While in many European countries time spent in cafés is still for socialising and not working, Californians use coffee shops as a natural extension of their living and working space. One of such places is Pannikin Coffee & Tea in Encinitas, San Diego County. Housed in a former railway station from 1880, which was moved from its original location and rebuilt on its own small plot by the Highway 101, it offers plenty of outdoor seating and most customers are regulars – even the tourists, who come back year after year. Owner Shawn Holder, a long-time surfer, says of well-known coffee-to-go chains: “They are a place to go and buy some coffee but not a place to drink coffee and stay.” His focus is on people and providing wholesome food and beverages with organic ingredients. “We make all food from scratch, bake fresh all day, don't use any mixes, roast the coffee ourselves, blend our teas and we take a lot of time to train our baristas well… it is a wonderful little business and we are usually busy until we close at 6 pm.” The vibe is relaxed, lots of surfers, students who bring homework, and parents who bring children, toys and dogs. And very few laptops as Shawn stoically refuses to offer WiFi. “My fear is that people will sit and work all day. I want people to come and relax, engage, talk.” And this exactly what they do or have been doing, sometimes for many years. Several of my SoCal friends revealed that they actually met as teenagers at Pannikin – and they still go there together when they are all in town.
It seems like the gap between the original concept of a coffee house and the modern phenomenon that is Starbucks is slowly closing and many coffee shops in California make a great effort in providing freshly roasted organic coffee, healthy ingredients and an esthetically pleasing environment with an eco-conscious concept. Going North, Intelligentsia Coffee currently has six very popular shops as well as roasting and training facilities. The one in Silverlake in LA is packed during the day with the cool hipster crowd that goes to see and be seen but is serene and quiet early in the morning, says one local friend who will go at the inhumane time of 6 am to enjoy his first Java on the way to work. I chose to stop at the Venice location late one evening and found the place still busy but relaxed. The open space with its industrial but by no means cold interior offered a great place for a quiet half an hour of work while the drip coffee was carefully prepared by my very own friendly barrister who helped me select from their many options. Coffee here is a serious business. Intelligentsia pride themselves in using vintage, gas-powered Gothot roasters that are considered to be masterpieces of German engineering and their buyers travel the world to find the best beans.
The story behind the name Blue Bottle Coffee honours the discovery of coffee beans left behind by the fleeing Turks in Vienna in the 17th century by Franz Georg Kolshitsky, who opened the first coffee house named The Blue Bottle. Founder James Freeman still lives up to his original vow to only sell coffee “less than 48 hours out of the roaster and to only use the finest organic, and pesticide-free, shade-grown beans”. In addition, he has an eye for architecture, great locations and simple, clean design. Stopping at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, I am instantly enchanted with their attention to detail. The slow drip coffee takes time but everyone patiently waits for what they know is going to be excellent coffee.
What these so-called third-generation coffee entrepreneurs share, is their passion for fresh, organic, ideally fair-trade beans, with a preference for single-origin rather than blended coffee and a no-frills preparation in what may almost seem like performing rituals in a laboratory. The result: coffee that does not need flavours and gimmicks – just a quiet moment to enjoy it. Be that over a work project or a long chat with a good friend.
Other great ones to check out:
Four Barrel: www.fourbarrelcoffee.com
Bird Rock: www.birdrockcoffeeroasters.com
It took approximately eight cups of coffee to write this article.