Richard Reynolds examines the impact of Seattle on the American coffee scene, along with some history and some frank talk on the (often sad) state of espresso in the United States. This article originally appeared in the 2002 Coffee Almanac published by Fresh Cup Magazine. Reprinted with permission. For more information, visit www.freshcup.com.
A surprising thing happened in Seattle in the 1980s. In this rain-soaked city about as far as you can get from Italy in the continental United States, the seeds of a coffee revolution were planted. Howard Schultz made his now-legendary visit to the espresso bars of Milan in 1983 and convinced the founders of Starbucks to test his new coffee bar concept in downtown Seattle the following year. Soon after, Mauro Cipolla began roasting his Neapolitan-inspired Caffe D'arte blends; Umberto Bizzarri brought his family's Perugia roots to Torrefazione Italia in 1986; and in 1988, David Schomer opened Espresso Vivace - all in the city eventually dubbed "Latte Land."
Cipolla says that when he began roasting, the norm in Seattle was espresso drinks that were "either bitter and burned or smoky and extremely strong. We saw an opportunity in the marketplace to bring espresso closer to its historical culinary flavors." But the scene was changing quickly as cafes and roasteries continued to multiply in the Northwest. By the mid-'90s, Starbucks was adding hundreds of stores a year to its empire. With its emphasis on milk-based espresso drinks, the company single-handedly put the word "latte" into the popular lexicon and made the consumption of espresso-based drinks a daily habit for millions of Americans.
But why exactly did the American espresso tradition develop in Seattle? Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), puts it this way: "Seattle's coffee tradition grew out of a collision of three waves. First is the 'West Coast wave' that embraces change; second is the 'fertility wave' that brings together cold weather and great water, which spurs drinking of quality coffee brews; and third is the 'aficionado wave,' where people of upper education and income investigate and initiate new modes of behavior."
Seattle pioneer Kent Bakke, who set up his first espresso cart in 1977 and is now president of Seattle-based Espresso Specialists Inc., offers a similar explanation: "The weather in Seattle is conducive to drinking coffee, and we are blessed with good water, without which you can't brew good coffee. In addition, the strong Scandinavian heritage of coffee consumption helped create the coffee culture of Seattle and the Northwest. Being somewhat isolated from the other cultural parts of America, the Northwest developed its own roasting and brewing styles that melded the best of Italian and American tastes."
Asked the same question, Bruce Milletto, owner of Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup in Eugene, Ore., cites a "migration" to the Northwest that took place in the '60s. "A lot of really aware, hip people got in their Volkswagen buses and tried to find an area that was suitable politically and environmentally to their concerns." Milletto adds that "nobody expected it to be Seattle," but by the early '90s, even before Starbucks started its geometric expansion, the Seattle coffee scene was becoming known to people around the country.
Many specialty coffee independents find little good to say about Starbucks, but Schomer of Espresso Vivace observes that the company did "raise the bar on professionalism," setting a high standard for cleanliness, consistency and service. Starbucks, he says, spelled the end for dives like The Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Schomer frequented when he was a student at the University of Washington. ("The bathroom required a gas mask to enter," he quips, "and the coffee was ground fresh that week.")
But if Starbucks seems to have opened a store on half the street corners in America, it also opened up opportunities for people like Schomer, Bizzarri and Cipolla, not to mention the scores of other entrepreneurs who have used their Seattle experiences to open cafes and roasteries around the country.
Jean-Philippe Iberti, co-owner of Philadelphia's La Colombe Torrefaction, began working at Torrefazione Italia's Pioneer Square espresso bar in 1989, and he still remembers the excitement of working at one of the busiest cafes in the city. "It was fun to have a line out the door," he says. "We had great people, and it was wonderful to be exposed to making that many drinks." In 1993 Iberti and Todd Carmichael, who had worked for Starbucks and Espresso Roma, decided to open their own business in Philadelphia. "Our mission," says Iberti, "was to take the West Coast coffee experience to the East Coast."
But Iberti and Carmichael soon discovered that Philadelphia consumers were afraid of espresso. "They believed if they had one they wouldn't sleep for three days," Iberti says. He adds that locals didn't want a taste that was long-lasting, one of the hallmarks of Italian espresso. Their solution was to create a blend called Nizza, which Iberti dubbed "a soft espresso for the novice." Phocea, another La Colombe blend, was designed for the New York market, where, as Iberti puts it, "people think they like strong coffee, but they don't." La Colombe now supplies espresso blends and decaf coffee to more than 800 restaurants in Philadelphia, New York and other cities.
Another entrepreneur who branched out from Seattle in the early '90s was Arne Holt, who moved to San Diego in 1991 with an espresso cart built by his uncle and later brought in his sister, Susan, as a partner. Holt says that the first six months were not easy. "People would ask for a cappuccino but expect a mocha. They didn't want to taste the coffee. They wanted caffeine and they wanted sweet." But, slowly, Holt began to educate his customers. "When they order a double tall cappuccino, I'll say, 'Why don't you try a double shot latte?' I'll tell them they don't have to pay for it if they don't like it." Since he opened, he reports, he's moved from a 1 to 1 1/2-ounce, 20-second pull to a 3/4-ounce, 25-second pull, and he now sells a lot of straight shots.
Holt says he owes a debt to several Seattle-area roasters who shared their roasting knowledge when he was getting started, including Gary Smith of Mukilteo Coffee Co., Eric Stone of Queen Ann Thriftway in Tacoma, and Ed Leebrick of Lighthouse Coffee. "Coffee roasters don't share their secrets, but we were fortunate enough to find three Seattle-area roasters who were generous enough to do just that," says Holt. Today, he supplies more than 100 Southern California businesses with his beans.
About the same time Holt was moving to San Diego, George and Susan Krug left Seattle for Madison, Wis., where they opened Ancora Coffee. The Krugs spent the year before their move learning the business, and, like Holt, they found Seattle-area roasters surprisingly generous with their secrets. In addition to seeking advice from Leebrick, the Krugs sought mentorship from Lindsey Bolger, who at the time roasted for Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters in Olympia, Washington. The Krugs' mantra, George says, was "to bring the fresh-roasted taste of specialty coffee to the Midwest." When they arrived in Madison, people told George and Susan that they wouldn't make it unless they offered flavored coffees. "We put a stake in the ground and said we're not gong to do that," George declares. He says another challenge was serving one-ounce espresso shots when everybody else was doing two, three and four ounces. "We also did five-ounce cappuccinos with a shot of espresso, and people thought that was odd," he says. The Krugs have four retail stores in Madison, and they roast six different espresso blends.
As Starbucks spreads the gospel of lattes throughout America, the dream of opening an espresso bar and roasting your own continues to attract coffee lovers to the business, and Seattle remains a mecca for many of them. Neil Edwards, who runs La Tazzina, a Kansas City espresso cart, grew up in Prairie Grove, Ark., and has never set foot in Seattle. But when it came to choosing an espresso blend for his business, he turned to the emerald city and quickly narrowed his search to Espresso Vivace and Caffe D'arte. In the end, he chose D'arte's Firenze, the lightest of their four standard blends. Edwards says it isn't easy to get his customers to drink straight shots, but he notes that on this particular day he has gone through every demitasse he placed on top of his espresso machine. He's especially pleased when local baristi stop by for an espresso. "I can't tell you how happy that makes me," he exclaims.
When Andy Barnett of Santa Rosa, Calif., decided to open an espresso bar, he headed for a coffee trade show in Seattle. "In the midst of this marathon madness I stumbled into Espresso Vivace's booth," he recalls. "I had been drinking espresso for more than 20 years, and that was the best espresso beverage I had tasted in my life."
When Barnett opened Santa Rosa's Western Caffe, he featured Vivace coffee and became a student of Schomer's exacting espresso preparation methodology. "Four hundred thousand shots of espresso later," he opened his own coffee-roasting operation, Ecco Caffe, where he produces a Northern Italian-style roast. His espresso bar, Centro Espresso, is located in Sawyer's Newsstand in downtown Santa Rosa, and upscale Napa County retailers carry his beans.
Of course, not everyone in the coffee business believes Seattle should get all the credit for the espresso revolution. Portland, Ore.-based coffee consultant Sherri Johns bristles at the notion that Seattle is an espresso mecca. "Most of the old souls know that the American espresso scene started in the Italian neighborhoods of San Francisco and New York," she counters. "People in Seattle needed something to hang on to, and milk-based drinks and Starbucks were there for them. Starbucks brought the attention and the media and provided a larger platform for other retailers."
Many coffee retailers feel the same way as Johns about Seattle's influence. Take Barry Jarrett of Riley's Coffee and Fudge in Fairview Heights, Illinois. Jarrett began selling fudge in 1988, with coffee as a secondary product. A problem with his coffee supply led him to begin roasting his own within a few months, and coffee soon became his primary focus. "I pretty much taught myself to roast," he says, adding that Seattle had little influence over him. "We've always done a decent espresso trade," he reports. "We're only five miles from a major Air Force installation, and it's not uncommon to have customers who are quite literally just off the plane from Naples."
George Howell established The Coffee Connection in Boston after getting the coffee bug in Berkeley, Calif., birthplace of Peet's Coffee & Tea. Both Howell and Andrew Frank—who worked for The Coffee Connection before opening Sirius Coffee in Washington, D.C.—point out that while Seattle popularized milk-based espresso drinks, the city did not play a significant role in the spread of the single-origin coffees favored by drip coffee fans such as themselves. Frank goes so far as to suggest that the Seattle-inspired latte craze will fade when "people realize that they're drinking milk and sugar and a little coffee flavoring."
Frank raises an issue that goes to the future of espresso drinks in this country: Will American consumers ever graduate from the oversized milk-based drinks popularized in Seattle to an appreciation for straight crema-laden espresso? Milletto is outspoken on the subject. "Americans think bigger is better," he says. "Many coffee bars are even getting rid of the eight-ounce cup. A single 12-ounce cappuccino is insane—an Italian cappuccino should be served in a four- to six-ounce cup. The recipe has been bastardized."
And, of course, this "big is better" mentality doesn't stop at the 12-ounce cup. Nearly all of the cafe owners interviewed for this article lament the fact that customer demand has forced them to add 20-ounce cups. Even Caffe D'arte, which is about as close to the Italian tradition as you can get in this country, has given in. ("We had to corner Mauro in a room," reports general manager Joe Mancuso.)
But if cafe owners say that customer demand has forced them to offer 20-ounce cups, they quickly add that as they enlighten customers' palates, these customers begin to gravitate toward a macchiato or straight espresso. Unfortunately, this positive note is offset by the fact that serious, committed rosters and cafe owners remain a minority in the world of coffee retailing. "It's a slow process of education," says Milletto. "I won't say I've seen the light at the end of the tunnel, but I've seen people begin to understand that they need to spend more on training their Baristi." Schomer is less optimistic. "There is a movement to create gourmet espresso in the U.S.," he observes, "but it is still very hit or miss. Outside of a handful of spots, the chances of getting a decent espresso in this country are zero. Really, you must be in the hands of the Italians in most cities of the world to get a true espresso."
Seattle and Starbucks can take credit for popularizing espresso drinks in America, but unfortunately, the job was accomplished by delivering this remarkable beverage in double grande cups of steamed milk. Now it's up to cafes and roasters around the country to convert consumers from super-sized lattes to quality espresso beverages. It should also be noted that most restaurant critics, who wax poetic over wine lists, remain woefully ignorant on the subject of espresso. Until cafe owners and food critics begin to enlighten consumers and those consumers begin to demand quality espresso, milk and sugar—if not raspberry flavoring—will remain the dominant elements in most American espresso drinks.
Richard Reynolds is communications director of Mother Jones Magazine and has been obsessing over espresso for the past 20 years.
This article is a reprint of an article found in the June, 2002 issue of Fresh Cup Magazine (part of their special 2002 Coffee Almanac Issue). A subscription to Fresh Cup is $38 and highly recommended for any serious coffee aficionado.