Friday, August 1, 2008

What Should We Call Ourselves?

Note: All opinions expressed on this blog are the thoughts of the writers and do not necessarily reflect BFC&T policy or official opinion, although you can be sure that we go back and forth about them constantly.

Jake has been in an interesting conversation over at Barista Exchange which can be found here, concerning coffeeshops and "working class" culture. Some parts of the discussion, from the perspective of a coffeeshop owner in a largely working class area, are disturbing--especially Jake's comment about McD's having a better shot at establishing an "Italian" coffee presence precisely because they aren't a coffeeshop and don't pretend to be (see the "Fratalian" Dunkin Donuts ads). That discussion informs this post/rant, but I don't want to post it there--I'm already involved in more forums than I should be.

If some of the problems associated with all of this revolve around language, then I think we should rethink our terms. I agree with Luke at 21st Street Coffee & Tea that our language should have concrete referents--in other words, a cappucino should refer to an Italian capp, just as a croissant always refers to a croissant, never to a scone. Within that linguistic space, though, there is considerable room for interpretation: good capps and undrinkable capps, croissants light and flaky, pan chocolate, etc. This, of course, is not easy and we still offer (and will for the foreseeable future) a 12oz capp. However, that doesn't mean we don't think about it and haven't encouraged some customers to try a 6oz for here capp. This argument, though, has been ably rehearsed elsewhere and isn't my main concern tonight. My main concern is what we call ourselves: barista.

For the record, I like the term. It is elegant and sets our industry apart from others. However, it is a lot like opera: for the Italians opera is in the vernacular, for us it is high-brow and unintelligble without an interpreter (and even that is no guarantee). When opera is done in English, historically at least, it hasn't been regarded as nearly as high an art form--the irony is terrible, but such is life. For this reason, I don't think barista is a good term for all coffeeshop employees to use, especially in areas where that sort of linguistic boundary marker is off-putting. Not to mention that if McD personnel are going to be calling themselves barista, then the word is so cheapened as to have lost meaning altogether, so why use it?

Instead, may I propose that we gravitate towards the term 'craftsman' (or craftsperson, if you like). In the specialty coffee industry, we often emphasize that the better shops do treat the position of barista as a craft: respect for tools, for materials, a constant betterment of product, presentation, and service. However, we rarely, if ever, look at the other crafts to see how they handle themselves and what they do. There are master carpenters, plumbers, electricians, bakers, chefs, and the list could go on. Rarely, at least with the construction trades, do we see the level of bravado and snobbery that we see with many so-called barista. The folks that I have worked with in these trades (for that is my work background--food and construction) are humble about what they do, letting the product speak for itself as a showcase of work, talent, and the pursuit of beauty (and a paycheck). Certainly, there are characters, there are cads, and there are pricks, but the level of self-overestimation is lower on the radar.

If a coffeeshop is to find itself reaching a working class clientele (and I find no reason to assume that the working class wouldn't appreciate good coffee, good surroundings, and good food expertly prepared), then it must embrace something along these 'craftsman' lines. This doesn't mean, by the way, a cheapening of quality: a shoddy building is despised, good tools are looked upon with pride by the user and envy by others--so there is plenty of room for excellent coffee prepared on excellent equipment. The problem is that, as one of the posters on the BX states, "quality is overrated". The coffee industry operates with most coffee, regardless of origin or preparation, tasting basically the same--the differences are "nuances" or "shades", hardly a convincing argument to ask people to shell over $4 more for a similar product to what they are used to. I don't think this problem is intractable, though. I've talked to many people here who can't drink coffee anywhere else anymore, because we've "ruined" them. I know I certainly cannot drink the local gas station coffee anymore, it just tastes disgusting (and they have the same equipment as us).

Which brings me to the idea of "just" coffee. We hear it all the time, "I just want a coffee". It is almost like good coffee carries the stigma of hubris, of transcending one's boundaries in a sinful way, so that anything associated with the "latte lappers" (as one local radio personality puts it) is trying to be better than your roots, as if it is a cultural slap in the face to tradition and propriety. We rob ourselves if we think anything is "just" anything. Humankind wasn't meant to live with substandard things, whether food or tools or dwellings. That doesn't mean we should all be elitist or aim for hubris, but we shouldn't lock ourselves into thinking that because something is quality, is good, is tasty without cream and sugar but still tasty with, that is necessary "above us". It isn't. Good coffee comes from humble origins and only through hard work, attention to detail, and a lot of sweat and tears can it reach a level fit for human consumption. Whether you are working class or a Brahmin, you should fight to have coffee treated so well.

I find a lot of hope in the working class culture (from which I spring) that I don't see in the "upper crust". But we've let ourselves be deluded into thinking that our way of life shouldn't be beautiful--because we've let others set the terms of debate. It is time for "unsnobby" coffee, but not from an industrial swill factory, whether the largest national chain of coffeeshops or fast food joints. There is too much to lose if coffee isn't looked at as a trade to be enjoyed and appreciated.


Bethany and I were privileged to give an informative look at iced coffee theory and practice at last weekend's Grind Event, hosted by PACA and the Union Project. I usually don't go for iced coffee, it just isn't my thing, but doing the research for the presentation brought a new appreciation for what can be done with ice and espresso (even with the recent Arlington unpleasantness). Our presentation ended up being a little slap-dash, but we have honed since then and are prepared to ice anyone's coffee.

We usually make iced americanos (shaken) for our iced coffee--the shaking seems to cut down the bitterness associated with hot coffee poured over ice, but retains the full flavor and aroma. Today, though, I made a modified Shakerato using a combination of Tim Wendelboe and Rich Westerfield's recipes. Tasty stuff. These are definitely going in my next presentation.