your insufferable dose of post-party navel-gazing here

September 19, 2008 – 10:21 pm

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there are deep fissures in the specialty coffee crowd. like modern politics, you get intractable, polarized factions. the stunning part is that it’s not a very big crowd.

so when industry business and ben helfen’s thursday bash brought the factions together in a smallish atlanta cafe space, the result was kind of like a fabulous public zoo.

you have your wildly colorful characters, entertaining in a passing way. you have your respected, grizzled lions able to hold forth to a fascinating degree on Coffee Topics of Great Import. you have your hangers on, just along for the ride, your lesser-known coffee workhorses and of course your elephants in the room, the competition-tested barista cadre that always wows and retains a firm hold on the popular center. and you have the surly primates, cracking heads and hurling things. like epithets.

all of these were present thursday night, and it all happened. fortunately, there’s always the coffee. this blog doesn’t mean to go all kumbaya, but in a very profound sense even the ugliest glimpses of insider politics serve only to point up how much this coffee thing can radically de-center you.

this has been called “opiated adjacency” — a glorious turn of phrase to describe the pleasure derived from being placed on an equal plane with others, by the sheer leveling force of an object of beauty. this effect is involuntary (you have no choice being gripped by the awesomeness of this coffee) but it offers the voluntary option of spreading, of sharing the experience.*

that part is a choice, no? and a significant slice of people in this small specialty crowd forego this option, turning the benefits of excellent coffee inward for self promotion (proactive) and self preservation (reactive). an edifying number of others remain transformational stewards of something larger than themselves.

helfen is pursuing the latter route. he’s taken a seemingly limited genre — the latte art throwdown — and connected it to real life, turned it into a regional pretext for serious community. we’re not just saying this because, you know, we were there! it’s pretty clear talking to the dude that he’s less interested in the quick euphoria of a bash, and more interested in the fundamental benefits people get out of the thing.

the things we learned from peter g about ethiopia’s uncrackably staunch african coffee culture, for example, was what arguably what this was for, instead of a side benefit. the episode with the Very Irate Coffee Man, by contrast, was all the more bizarre because of the setting. it was third wave factionalism engulfed by community. it got lost in the thrum.

so: impressions follow, illustrated with bleary, low-lit cell phone photos of the zoolike madness.

* you thought barista champion viii james hoffman was a low-key, aw-shucks everyman? ha. well then, champion ix stephen morrissey (above) is so much more of an aw-shucks everyman he’s practically irish! oh, wait…

ridiculously genial, soft-spoken, expert, accessible. very lucid on the insanity of coffee blogging. and quite a hit with the ladies. (what is WITH these british isle boys?)

zips and unzips his hoodie rapidly when nervous. poured his latte art in a glass, whether as a joke or for some private advantage we don’t know. then spilled it over the side. did not, alas, autograph our beard net.

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* scott lucey is a phenomenal heckler. (sample heckle: “linea! he’s using a linea!“)

also, he gave us coffee. granted, he didn’t actually know what it was, but still. it says “alterra” on the label! from somewhere in one of the “a” continents. africa, asia, america … ah, we’ll remember.

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* it is absolutely possible for almost everyone to be off their game on the same night. heather perry, ellie matuszak, nick cho, octane’s danielle … none were too pleased. but not too displeased either! none was perhaps more downcast over his pour than c-n-c’s hudgens.

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* danielle’s new tamper-on-a-ring not only looks like tendinitis by midnight, it also allows you to tamp. with. your. fist. and really, how worth it is that?

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* we understand that the evening’s winner john, from octane, was a protege of the notorious crack-trainer m’lissa, now of san francisco. which made her ruthless demand for live text message updates from this blog throughout the evening — with pictures! — somewhat worthwhile, we guess. at least, that’s what we keep telling ourselves.

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* these ideas will be instantly recognizable to readers of elaine scarry.