tale of two ‘fricsos

March 2, 2009 – 12:14 am


if a coffee customer feels like a moron, the hot salty shame will quickly drown out your hand-brewed floral notes. in which case, a fine coffee establishment contradicts itself — it’s not just a minor flaw — when it believes its swill to be so yummy that it tramples on the swiller. it suddenly doesn’t matter how good the coffee tastes. you’ve just smothered it in opprobrium.

the blogfamily, after a decade in remotest africa, must have made quite the sight traipsing around san francisco in their conservative bush-wear. children don’t appear in hipster coffee shops in cities like this — not to mention six children, one of them wielding a flashbulb. they’d been through seattle and l.a., veering out of their way to sample blog-recommended coffee joints and largely ignoring the stares. it wasn’t all that different: try being the only white people in an isolated village a day’s drive from a television set.

still, it’s safe to say they didn’t feel “comfortable” in the louche part of town where ritual coffee roasters exists, but it mattered little. they were there for the coffee, and genial “chris” at the register (baca? maybe?) easily bridged all cultural chasms. yep, here’s the deal with our coffee. hey, where you from? anything i can help you with, sir? all in all, a worthwhile detour, made so by the combination of fine brew and fine salesmanship. a relationship forged.

later in the day, a stop at bluebottle coffee in a decidedly more upscale section of town. “must try the siphon brew,” this blog had told them, on good authority. and so he asked the lady, and she grumbled something about it being after 4 p.m. and, thus, well past the siphon coffee window of opportunity. just so, said the blogfather, we’ve come recently from africa and probably won’t ever be here again. is it possible to procure one? hushed employee conversations ensued. pointing and staring. and eventually, an agreement was made. a exception to the siphon beverage rule!

flashes went off in the hands of the blogbrother. patrons stared. and the blogmother waited, late in the day, in the van. the siphon did its thing, and the blogfather, pressed for time, then turned to the lady and asked — brace for it — “could i have that in a paper cup?”

“haw, haw,” this blog said, upon hearing this point in the story. because, of course, we knew that porcelain would have been the vessel of choice at the famed blue bottle. what we didn’t know was that the lady would glare and say, “you want it in what?” she lived, apparently, in a perfect porcelain world where paper cups had never shoved their square pasty bottoms into her psyche. there was another, more agitated conversation with the manager. gesticulating and peering and annoyed discussions of Policy. and then the fellow came over, this new person, and said something like this: you know, when most people order this beverage they intend to appreciate it. properly. they sit down and have it in a porcelain cup. savor the Notes and such. we are against paper. etc.

he got his siphon in paper. but by this time, of course, the blogfather didn’t really want it so much — he merely wanted to exit the establishment and never come back. he wasn’t angry or hurt. he simply had little reason left to defer to coffee purveyors who were, essentially, ripping the customer’s attention away from the famed beverage — a coffee he had gone out of his way to find — and installing it instead on their cloddish version of service.

see, there was a cultural gap here too. but instead of bridging it, they turned it into a yawning chasm.

it’s worth noting here that if this blog were running the joint, it would most likely serve in porcelain. it would also seek to educate customers and impose standards on its siphon process. worthy goals! but then, we wouldn’t do these things because we cared so much for our coffee. we would do them because we cared about introducing people — as many as possible — to the coffee.

obviously, many western u.s. markets support a more elitist approach, and customers by and large support elite, self-affirming niches. but what if “the movement,” in some places, is so elite that it’s self limiting? what if, because one likes himself so much, he walls off segments of potential consumers? what if, outside any individual shop, “the coffee” is better served if we find ways to present it to anyone who walks in the door? and hey, it seems like that would kind of benefit the shop too.

“opiated adjacency” is what elaine scarry calls it. the effect when something beautiful transfixes you, and you become happy to gawk and marvel along with every one else, even if you’re outside your social class. a truly great sculpture or poem of cup of coffee, in other words, levels the playing field. it revolutionizes the masses. this, incidentally, isn’t that far removed from the definition of shakespearean genius.

we’re not down on any west coast coffee joints. and this isn’t about good ol’ customer service. it’s about highlighting the coffee in the way you interact with people. when innocent patrons are treated as morons, the coffee seems underserved.

the blogfam, unfazed, has traveled on to other and possibly odder coffee experiences at this blog’s urging. there was some charismatic arabic fellow somewhere in the northwest who bridged a much larger cultural divide as he captivated the blogfather with his turkish coffee brewing method (!). just today, in fact, we got some crackling call about some new and great caffeinated experience near yale.

“but wait!” you say. espressomap doesn’t show any fine coffee establishments near there!

right. exactly.