Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thinking About... Coffee

"Coffee" by Giuliano Griffante / CC BY NC 2.0
Welcome to the rant of a serious coffee addict who is really missing coffee.

You have been warned.

I mean, coffee is everywhere. Of course it's here in Singapore as well, but it's different than the coffee I'm used to back home. Black coffee is the ubiquitous drink of those of us residing in the US, though it's more associated with Italy and France (after Ethiopia, where it originated). These days, Seattle and coffee are basically BFFs. Ever since Starbucks started to gain popularity, the city's name has been synonymous with it. The thing about Seattle is that, as a city of hippies, liberals, and those who tend to go against the grain, we couldn't accept that our only claim to coffee excellence was a massive cooperate CHAIN. Thus, the popularity of local, independent cafes has seriously increased. Seattleites, these days, endorse these (as well as Starbucks; how can you avoid it when there's one on every block??). We are a group of people highly dependent on coffee, for both it's energizing and mood-boosting properties. You would be too, if it rained all winter in your city.

However. In Seattle, we have a very particular way of thinking about coffee. There's some tension between those who hit Starbucks twice a day for the caffeine drip and those who support their favorite independent and local cafes because they have an obsession with artisanal coffee (though technically Starbucks is local for us). I guess in our own special way, as a city we love Starbucks (whether we admit it or not). We can claim is as our own wherever we go in the world.  It's like Pearl Jam and Macklemore- whether we like the music they create or not, they came from Seattle, and as Seattleites this is something we acknowledge with some degree of pride.Another thing about Starbucks is the memories it provides. Many of us, myself especially, were dragged along as kids whenever our parents needed a caffeine boost, and thus we began to associate the brand with familiarity, family and comfort.

Personally, I have a hard time deciding how I feel about Starbucks... On one hand, I have all these memories associated with the brand that make me happy, and I admire the company for what it's managed to do as a business. I mean, have you ever read Starbucked? It's an insightful, incredibly thought-provoking book that I cannot recommend enough. It'll get you to consider the coffee industry, cafe culture and the power of the Starbucks brand. Also, you'll be able to impress (or annoy) your friends with all sorts of Starbucks trivia! Who doesn't love that? But then, having read the book, I understand that all the memories I have because of the company are kind of how they make money, because these happy associations keep me coming back.

When my sisters and I were very young, we went on a lot of road trips. Whether we were camping or headed to our grandparents' cabin in the Methow Valley, our routine was to stop at the drive-in Starbucks around the corner from our house as soon as we headed out. Usually this was so our parents could wake up for the long drive ahead (my father ordered a "double-tall nonfat mocha" so many times that I can recite his order to this day; putting emphasis on exactly the same syllables he always did), but us kids usually coerced a treat out of our parents. Our favorite thing was to get a hot chocolate and a butterhorn- which, come to think of it, I'm not even sure if Starbucks offers anymore. One of my sisters loved these little pastries so much that she actually dressed up as one for Halloween!

A lot of Starbucks memories I have are due to the location of the cafe (which I'm sure is intentional on the company's part... again, read Starbucked!!!). For instance, the Starbucks at Westwood Village in West Seattle brings me a certain sense of nostalgia because of all the times my friends and I headed there before, after, or even (hehe) during school, dashing in and out of the rain to get mochas and chai lattes. Especially during IB exam week! On the other hand, the Starbucks on Alki reminds me of one particular morning run with my mom. For some reason I wasn't going to school that day and it was a Wednesday or something weird like that, so we got coffee and croissants- warm, of course, they taste indescribably better that way- and sat down on the chilly steps leading to the beach to cool down from our run. It felt completely magical, because first of all it always feels surreal to not be at school when you're supposed to be, and because it was fun to just talk with my mom and enjoy our food.  

I get emotional every year when Starbucks starts putting out holiday stuff, too. For some reason, half the memories I have about hanging out with my extended family revolve around being cold (because of fall/winter weather) and getting coffee. Not always Starbucks... but often Starbucks. Probably because I grew up going to a lot of races in the fall, whether I was running them or watching various members of my family run them. Being runners accustomed to getting up at 5 and 6 am, coffee was always something we'd be interested in! Plus, my aunts and uncles usually went out for coffee more often than my parents, so I always thought it was this huge privilege to get a fancy Starbucks cocoa. These days seeing the red holiday cups and the Christmas decor reminds me of stopping for coffee on the way home from cross country meets (though usually we ate at Red Robin after State for something more substantial, someone always had coffee on the course in the morning). When I took figure skating lessons at Highland back home, my dad would usually hit Starbucks while I had my half hour lesson plus 2 hours of free skate. Afterwards, I would always convince him to let me get a decaf mocha on the way home.

My point in sharing all these memories with you is to prove how much Starbucks has been able to make itself more than a brand to me. It's become part of my history, like candy canes at Christmas and ice cream trucks in the summer. Although it's a little creepy when you really think about it, it's impressive that a company mainly interested in making money has had this kind of effect on me.

On the other hand, I am a huge supporter of the slow food movement; I try to avoid grabbing a coffee to go... it's not meant to be a to-go food! Drink, I guess. What does it say about our culture that it has become such an on-the-go sort of thing? Someone once asked me why I cared what the coffee tasted like as long as I had some caffeine in me, and for a moment I was completely confused. I drink coffee mainly for the flavor. Okay, as a college student with a schedule that has me awake from 8am to 3am (yep, you read that right) every weekday, I have started to depend a little on the caffeine aspect. But back home when I get coffee, I get it for the flavor and the experience, and often so I have a reason to sit down and read a book or people watch. 

But I digress. I was talking about the difference between fast food and slow food... In general, I try to stay away from fast food, processed food, and crap. Which, unfortunately, Starbucks tends to serve. Have you ever looked at the ingredients? Vani Hari, AKA the Food Babe has some brilliant insights about this issue, which you can read here.

So what to do when you want the happy ambiance of a Starbucks cafe but coffee that tastes amazing and food that, while not necessarily healthy, at least is made from real ingredients?

Seattle has solved this problem by introducing an abundance of local cafes. Actually, a lot of areas in the US have done the same thing. You can use this handy tool called to find independent, local coffeehouses in whatever zip code you want! I tried using it for Singapore but sadly it's only in the US...

I want to discuss how a true Seattlite feels about these local cafes... For us, finding a favorite haunt is a lifelong mission. You need somewhere that can brew your coffee EXACTLY the way you like it, somewhere that you can go back to so often that eventually they'll know your face and maybe even your name. We obsess about the roasting time, the flavor, the scent of our coffee. We will laugh you out of the building if you try to order a Frappucino anywhere besides Starbucks (and sometimes, even at Starbucks...). We want to know where our coffee came from. Is it free trade? Is it organic? How was it harvested?  As far as adding things to your coffee… if you decide to taint that perfection with anything, you better do it right! Vegan and organic milks are all the rage, and if your local favorite doesn’t offer at least almond milk you might want to suggest they start. We avoid soy like the devil (did you know that the majority of soy in the US is genetically modified?), but appreciate the variety of other options we have, like hazelnut, oat, or hemp milk. I could go on and on about Chaco Canyon's house-made hemp milk, it's perfect. And no, before you ask, you do not get high from it!

When I first got to Singapore I was drinking a lot of Starbucks VIA coffees, and it was tough to find anything better when I went out. It seems to be a thing in Asian countries to add milk to coffee unless you order if from a Western establishment. Being allergic to milk, this does not work so well for me... Some places offer soy milk, but I'm also allergic to soy...  also I don't trust the amount of it that's been genetically modified globally. I really need to do some research about GMO laws in Singapore, I only know the US issues.

Eventually I worked out that I could make coffee a couple of other ways, producing less waste (I hate throwing away dozens of VIA wrappers every month) and usually better tasting coffee. First of all, it is possible to make super weak coffee by buying teabags and filling them with coffee grinds. However, it takes like three of these to get a good caffeine jolt, as it's not super strong. Or flavorful. But it works! Okay, to be honest, this version doesn't taste much better than VIA coffee. VIA coffee at least tastes like coffee. My way it kind of tastes like the water you'd get washing out your coffee pot. And I suppose, thinking about it now, that it actually creates the same amount of waste. 

My second coffee-making option is complex and still creates waste, but makes better tasting coffee. I bought all-natural (does that mean anything here?) non-dyed coffee filters thinking I could pour hot water through them and make coffee... But I guess it might have been better to buy a funnel or something too, because the first time I tried this I just overflowed the filter and got coffee everywhere. However, if I layer two filters, put a spoonful of my lovely Stumptown coffee inside, and use a hair tie to attach it to the hot water spout in the kitchen, I can create a sort of slow-drip coffee! It has to be slow because otherwise the force of the hot water breaks the coffee filters and then I have a mug of grainy black water. So this is time consuming and risky, but it works about 75% of the time.

The best option I've found is to buy Clipper organic, fair-trade instant coffee. I don't like the fact that it's instant, because that feels like an extra step of unnecessary processing, but as a college student I think it's as close as I'm going to get to legitimate coffee every morning. And it's organic, so no pesticides or GMOs.

As far as going out for coffee.... Well, it's expensive, but often worth it.

When I realized there was a Spinelli's at a mall near my campus, I didn't really think much of it. I'd gone to the nearby Starbucks once already and it felt sort of plasticky and gross. Like McDonald's. I'd been going to Delifrance a lot instead, because they had decent coffee, but every time I went I'd end up buying either a croissant or macaroons, and I really needed to STOP.

So one day I ended up going to Spinelli's instead, and I almost started crying out of pure happiness. See, there's a distinct difference between Western coffehouses and Asian coffehouses. Mainly, it's the quality of the coffee and the way it's served, but it's also the setting. At a glance, this particular Spinelli's doesn't look like much, but if you actually go in and order coffee, you'll realize the place is bigger than it looks, filled with cozy green couches and dark wood chairs, all saturated in natural light from the giant floor to ceiling window that looks out over the road and surrounding neighborhood. Needless to say, this is my new favorite haunt!

photo by Mark Daynes
Now that I've filled your mind with all this coffee nonsense, let me send you away with some final thoughts to inspire you to do a little more learning on your own..
  •  I believe it was in Marcus Samuelsson's book Yes, Chef that I read about the way African coffee is made fresh and served with butter and salt. I really, really want to go to Africa purely to experience this. I mean, this is the culture the coffee bean actually comes from! Can you get more real than that?
  • This link about the way a bunch of different health experts make their coffee is a quick but  fascinating read.
  •  What's coffee culture like in other countries across the world? I want to experience coffee in Italy, in France, in Turkey... everywhere! What about you?

As always,  thanks for reading! Leave questions, comments, suggestions or ideas in the box below. See ya soon!

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