Walking around the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago with my best friend and business partner Jean Philippe (a.k.a. JP), I am reminded of those things that most influenced my life: the great coffee divide, Ronald Reagan, garlic pasta, and tattoos.
The thread begins in Seattle circa 1984 when guys like us drank grappa and talked about things like Ronald Reagan’s influence on the culture of that city. After all, it was Reagan’s policies that drove a generation of newly unemployed farm boys to Seattle, and the result was grunge music, cheap heroin, and modern coffee. Since then, Ronald went senile and died in seclusion, Kurt shot himself in the face, and most of the old junkies rehabbed. But Reagan’s trickle-down economics managed to change one thing forever: coffee.
Back then those of us who couldn’t play an instrument or stomach black-tar smack took to coffee. Sure, lugging green coffee bags was a lot like humping grain sacks back home, but now we were paid $3.25 an hour! That kind of money was more than a futon-mattress, bus-fare, and Rainier-beer life could burn through, leaving enough for a decent garlic pasta and a bottle of red wine — served in a restaurant! We were living the big life: fake IDs and the privilege of going out to eat represented the best of it. Those tables were far from the rusty trucks and fruit-pickin’ of our past, and by ’87 we were experimenting with linen tablecloth establishments.
It became clear to us that the coffee world was newly cleaving into two segments: There was street coffee (served from a cart or counter, like Starbucks), and there was culinary coffee (served after a meal, like from roaster Torrefazione Italia). It was this kind of thinking that motivated us to jack in our Seattle lives to work as slave roasters in Italy and France. At its best, the culinary world is always evolving — it is always neo-traditional, and so it would be for us. In short, we would do what the talented American chefs did: study the masters first and then find our own thing. Needless to say the tables and roasters of Europe cured us of the flannel shirts, coffee fads (flavoring, burn-roasting), and a ton of other bad habits picked up while working street coffee in Seattle. It was like learning how to boil pasta again, except every minute seemed magical.
Sadly, Torrefazione Italia is now gone, sold to Starbucks in 2001 and strangled to death. So was Seattle’s Best Coffee, purchased and promptly gutted. If coffee were music, you’d find most of the great stadium bands dead and gone, and street coffee is going through a pretty ugly punk-rock revival phase. The fact is they’re angry and over-dosing (a hallmark of the young barista who jacks the dose from seven grams of coffee to an enamel-eroding twenty-one grams). Ironically, over-dosing creates the same effect as over-roasting — another punk favorite trick performed in the ’80s and early ’90s. I know, I did it when I was a kid.
Worse, the world of coffee feels a lot like the time your fifty-six-year-old attorney neighbor finally discovered wine and found it impossible to simply shut up and enjoy: blah blah blah. The sommelier of the ’90s had a headlock on that and oh, how annoying they were. They over-intellectualized a simple, sensory experience to the point of exhaustion and turned the act of ordering a bottle of wine into some elaborate religious ceremony combined with Mensa-style conversation. JP called them “cork sniffers,” as there is absolutely no useful information one can derive from sniffing a cork that cannot be tasted in the glass.
Beating an espresso grinder to death like an awesome guitar solo, or taking longer to make a cup of coffee than is required to open a Roth IRA, is the same nonsense. If you think about anything long enough, parts of it will annoy you. For us, the irritating “rock star barista” or equally unbearable “local coffee” (all coffee is as local as a pineapple) has the absurdity of the ’90s sommelier. Happily, street coffee has always been a lot like the weather in Florida: If you don’t like it, pull over and wait for a half hour and it’ll change. Street coffee has proven this for some twenty-eight years now. Maybe it’s so tiresome to me because I’m old. Yes, JP and I are so old (42!) that our tattoos don’t have a common tribal theme or color match, and neither do we harbor secret aspirations of forming a garage band. Most importantly, we are so old we know coffee for what it is — roasted spice, not some secret cuvee born in vineyard Shangri-La. Seen through the culinary lens, coffee is a spice used to infuse hot water, and should at its best be a delight. Coffee should never highjack the senses at the end of a meal, like a shot of moonshine served from the navel of Tina the Tequila girl.
So this week in Chicago, at a reunion of some of the culinary greats, none of the street coffee roasters are in attendance. But here we — JP and I — are gently reminded of why we do what we do. Although we can remember the ’80s and ’90s and know how to blend a coffee worth setting on a linen table, we can’t shake the feeling that the roasting world — including us — is just beginning.
Todd Carmichael is the co-founder of La Colombe Torrefaction and is the first American to cross Antarctica to the South Pole alone on foot.