I’ve practically grown up in coffee shops, both as an employee and as a customer, and the din of conversation and the clatter of cups isn’t a sound I realized I would miss until it went quiet. The laughter, the low murmurs of conversation, the creaking of chairs, all coalesce together, and like a symphony, each sound elevates the others, and it creates a tangible sort of energy that can’t be replicated. Call me crazy, but I miss you guys. I’m not going to write some dramatic nonsense about lockdown and COVID and all the bullshit we’ve all had to deal with because that story has been told ad nauseam. Instead, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to reminisce about coffee shop culture as a whole, because I’m feeling sentimental.
For me, coffee has always been a social thing. Whenever I travel to a new city the first thing I do is seek out coffee shops. Like a man dying of thirst stumbling upon an oasis in a desert, finding an amazing shop in an unknown city feels like some kind of minor salvation. I purposely don’t look up restaurants, bars, or cool things to check out ahead of time because I’d rather talk to the experts, in this case, the baristas. As a rule, baristas typically know their cities pretty well, and just by asking them for recommendations on what to do I’ve gotten turned on to places I never would have found by looking at stars on Yelp. Try it sometime. Not when it’s busy though, no one wants to be a tour guide when they have a line out the door.
It goes both ways because by working as a Barista, my coffee shop has always been my social hub, my second home. I moved from San Francisco to Bozeman on an impulsive whim almost 6 years ago. I didn’t know anyone here, and winter was quickly approaching. Instead of hunkering down and eventually going all Jack Torrance in ‘The Shining’ and losing my mind due to social isolation, I instead got a job here and started making people coffee. A pretty simple thing, but all the friends I have in Bozeman, all the great people I’ve met, all the things I’ve been able to do, all started with making people coffee. The number of friends I have that I didn’t meet through coffee can be counted on one hand, a hand with a few missing fingers. I honestly don’t know how I’d make friends if I worked a normal job. Would I have to take a salsa dancing class? Learn to knit? I don’t want to do either of those things.
Coffeehouse culture as we know it began in the Arab World in the 16th century. In addition to being a place to catch a nice caffeine buzz, they quickly became social meeting places, sometimes referred to as "Schools of the Wise'' because they developed into centers of intellectual discussion. Slightly different from the dude posted up at Starbucks writing his screenplay that’s going nowhere (there’s already been like a hundred movies made about robots rising up and taking over the world, come up with a better idea, Jason). It wasn’t all serious discussion though, people also played games and hit the shisha pretty hard. Note to self: create Treeline branded hookahs.
In Austria, the world-famous Viennese coffeehouses were described by author Stefan Zweig as “a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee” and I love that description because it emphasizes the level playing field that a coffee shop naturally provides. Everyone is equal in the line. I don’t care if you’re the Queen of England or Hulk Hogan, everyone is getting the same quality of coffee from us. Actually, we might do something special for Hulk Hogan, because Hulkamania never dies, brother.
In Ethiopia (the birthplace of coffee), coffee consumption is a deeply cultural experience, where the ceremony of producing is as important as the imbibing itself. It will typically take over an hour to roast, and brew. People will gather and catch up around the fire. None of this is rushed, instead, the process is appreciated as much as the end result, which runs counter to our western sensibilities of doing everything as quickly as possible, where waiting 5 minutes for a latte is an agonizing affair.
In Italy, instead of breast milk or formula, babies are given shots of espresso. If they make a face or ask for milk or sugar, they are ostracized from their community for life.
So, aside from the nonsense I just wrote about Italy, which is completely fabricated, I think you can see the common thread running through all coffee culture. It’s not the coffee, so much as the people. As much as I love messing around with perfecting espresso, making drinks, teaching people about coffee, and wrenching on espresso machines, what keeps me in this industry is you guys. I’ve always known that, but this global pandemic has definitely driven that home. I miss having all of you in the shop, I miss chatting you up at the bar when I’m bored, I miss asking you ridiculous questions, like “do you think I could defeat a baboon in hand to hand combat?” (Spoiler alert: I absolutely could, that baboon has no chance). I miss seeing your kids grow up, well-behaved or otherwise. Hell, I even miss witnessing the awkward Tinder dates. As a quick aside, showing up to a date at 10 am in a suit is weird. Don’t do that.
For those of you who’ve stuck with us through all this nonsense, I salute you. Times are tight for a lot of us, and coffee isn’t cheap. I look forward to the day when we can have you all back in the cafe. I still get to see a lot of you on a day-to-day basis, but it’s just not quite the same. When you’re only in the shop for the time it takes to make your drink, I barely have enough time to make fun of your shoes, and you barely have time to make fun of the music we’re playing. Until the day comes when we have indoor seating again, and Treeline once again becomes a place where time, space, and conversation are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill, your support does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
You guys are the reason I get up at 5 in the morning when it’s below zero outside when every human instinct is telling me to stay in bed. As much as I am single-mindedly obsessed with the craft of specialty coffee, and the pursuit of perfection, it doesn’t mean a damn if no one is around to enjoy it. If a barista pulls a perfect shot of espresso, and no one is around to drink it, did they actually pull the shot? The coffee version of that old philosophical query about trees falling in forests,
Because, as I said before: it’s not about the coffee, it’s about the people. It’s about the conversations, the jokes, the rushes, and the hum of energy and community that reverberates through a packed cafe. And that’s not an empty platitude, that’s the god’s honest truth.