I’ve written about some of my coffee-related struggles as a Seattlite before; they’re stories that I repeat often, and I’d be surprised if they aren’t already posted somewhere here in this blog.
So Praxis Language used to supply coffee beans to it’s employees; there were whole beans delivered periodically from City Shop in Shanghai. I didn’t touch the stuff except in cases of extreme need; the beans from City Shop were roasted unevenly, some beans were dark brown, some were light brown, some were golden yellow. The result was a drip that tasted like someone had soaked their feet in it.
One day the management announced some stunning cuts; some people in another department were “made redundant.” For those of you who, like me, did not understand this term “to make redundant” and “a redundancy,” it is the British word for “to lay off,” “to downsize,” “to let go.” To American ears this term “to make redundant” is at first unfamiliar; we don’t use this expression. But then when it is explained to us, it sounds horribly industrial and fascist; to make someone redundant. British people often have a talent for sounding evil. Say what you mean, boss; you fired that kid.
Anyway, that day the boss announced a number of cuts, not just the “redundancies.” The company would no longer pay for a yearly physical for each employee, which annoyed the local staff. They would also no longer be giving us a daily $1.50 lunch allowance, which had been the incentive for clocking in on time. (Yes, we had to clock in like factory workers. When I asked the boss if the loss of the $1.50 lunch allowance meant I could quit clocking in like a factory worker, the boss sent a series of apoplectic, irrational, completely hilarious email responses to me that I’d be happy to share).
Anyway, the local staff was annoyed at the loss of lunch allowance and yearly physical; the foreign staff was annoyed that management cut the coffee supply. The first week of a coffeeless office was tough; my coworkers made snippy remarks with each breath, this is how they save the company, by making us hate them? Mind you, it’s Wanhangdu Road, there is no coffee anywhere near the office.
One of my Canadian colleagues (not Amber or Dave) decided to take matters into her own hands, and sent out an email to the whole office offering to start a coffee club; she had brought a drip coffee maker from home and stationed it at EnglishPod, near ItalianPod. She also had what she considered a special treat: a big can of Tim Horton’s grounds from Canada. To participate in the club, it was 20 or so kuai per month to split the price of coffee.
(At one point, the boss, the man who had cut employee coffee from the budget, took the donation box around to ask for donations. From the employees. For coffee. It takes a special brand of jackass to ask employees in withdrawal to fund a service which he himself had cut. How embarrassing.)
Aussie Matt wasn’t into the club; he soon had his own drip coffee maker stationed at the ChinesePod desk.
Needless to say, as a Seattlite I wasn’t going anywhere near a can of Tim Horton’s grounds. Instead, I brought my stainless steel, insulated French press, and a bag of beans brought back lovingly from Seattle from either Caffe Umbria or Espresso Vivace. I felt it my duty as a Seattlite to make sure there was good coffee for my team, and all the Europeans in the office knew that SpanishPod coffee was the best cup of coffee in the office. Brewing it in the press created a rich schiuma. This, of course was, was lost on the Mexicans; those two prefer weak, sour coffee with a lot of milk. For all their high society pretenses, the Mexicans wouldn’t know a good cup of coffee if it jumped up and kicked them in the neck.
Anyway, we only made it back to our home countries a couple of times a year, so eventually, EnglishPod reached the bottom of the Tim Horton’s can. Aussie Matt ran out of his stash. And then the sad day came when SpanishPod ran out of beans as well. When friends came to visit from Seattle, I asked them to bring beans. At one point, a listener from Hawaii sent us some kona coffee after hearing a particularly pathetic podcast.
But one day it happened; there were no beans in the office. The sun was streaming brightly through the floor-to-ceiling windows; the local staff went about their business, but the foreign staff all had throbbing crania, due to caffeine withdrawal and probably a couple hangovers.
Then cPod John says, oh yah, I forgot, a friend of mine brought me these beans. And he reached into a drawer or a bag or something and pulled out a five pound bag of beans. 10 seconds later the grinder was running and the water pot was frantically getting filled. The first few cups were poured out a few minutes later. cPod John to the rescue.
I had a hunch from the smell of the coffee as I poured it out, but my first taste confirmed it, without a doubt… “Alto,” I asked, trying not to sound ungrateful, “Is this Starbucks?”
John was puzzled and I think a little bit spooked. “How did you know?” he asked.
“Uh, I know the taste of Starbucks.”
It’s weird to think of myself as some kind of connoisseur, I certainly don’t feel like I’ve trained for it. To me the taste of Starbucks is as recognizable as the color neon orange. And equally as subtle.
The coffee situation in Manhattan was slightly better than in Shanghai. Slightly. Regular breakfast delis always asked “how do you want your coffee?” or, just as likely, “cream and sugar?” when I ordered a cup of coffee to go in the morning.
I’d say, “black, please.”
They would always stop, puzzled, and ask, “… sugar?”
And I would have to say, “no, no cream, no sugar. Black coffee.”
I always got a shrug and a funny look when I asked for black coffee in a deli, and sometimes my black coffee would come with a layer of sugar at the bottom. I’m pretty sure I confused them. My New York friends assure me that everyone knows what black coffee is, but I’m not entirely sure. Maybe in a restaurant?
I don’t know. In any case, I stopped getting coffee altogether, because it was so nasty. I remember meeting S at Penn Station to get the train to Princeton for a Samba New York gig, and complaining to S that I needed a cup of coffee. S of course said, so do I, let’s go, and we went to a Penn Station deli.
I’ll wait outside, I said. She answered, “but I thought you wanted coffee!” It was embarrassing to have to explain to her, as much as I want coffee I cannot spend money on that foot soak that passes for coffee in Manhattan delis. I would rather be groggy that drink that.
The best I could do near work was Seattle’s Best at Penn Station. I can’t say it was good, but for a many months I accepted it; it was better, after all, than the break room coffee. I must have been groggy or something because I confused poor Derek by asking for my americano “short.” He asked if that was Starbucks language and went into a shrugging attack. I just shook my head and translated, “8 oz cup.” I felt like knowing what I know about coffee was a curse sometimes.
Was there a memo?
There was one place in Manhattan that served kick-ass coffee; I’ve gone on the record many times about Kaffe 1668 in Tribeca. All the buzzwords are in play (i.e., single origin, ristretto, etc.), they use regional organic milk, and as is de rigeur in Manhattan, they have a some rules intended to shock Manhattanites; for example, they refuse to do a certain bean as a latte, because the subtleties are lost. Note that I said “refuse.” It’s not that they’re educating their customers, recommending something else; they refuse to steam milk for a certain roast. Yuppies love that shit.
The coffee? It’s good, very smooth… it’s as good as or better than a lot of coffee in Seattle. But of course, you can’t just pull good espresso and serve it to people in Manhattan; you can wait 20 minutes for your macchiato in Kaffe 1668. In fact, I would say that’s an average. The first time I went, I thought, boy, are they fussy. There was a rumor that they keep pulling until the pour is perfect, maybe throwing out an attempt or two. And when you finally get your drink, the design is…. heart. It’s always heart. Never leaf or fern or abstract, doesn’t matter who’s pulling; at 1668 it’s always heart. Did that really take you 20 minutes to pull a lousy heart?
In any case, it’s high quality coffee that doesn’t go sour as it gets cold. To me, it’s a very Central American taste, but what do I know; I’m pretty sure it’s a blend. In any case, it’s perfectly smooth and mainstream and lacking any challenge or adventure; in terms of taste, it’s delicious straight down the middle. Actually, I got the same impression of the microbrew beer scene in New York; tasty but not bold, not a lot of character. For my beerhead friends in NYC, Sierra Nevada was considered a respected craft beer.
Anyway, for all it’s pretentiousness, Kaffe 1668 is where I took other Seattlites when they came to visit. They’d always say, ooh, let’s go get a cup of coffee, and thank goodness it was right there in my neighborhood, and they were always impressed (except for the 20 minute wait). I think the most striking thing, though, was when I showed up to 1668 with Seattlites, I would run into other Seattle transplants who were also there with their own visiting Seattlites. There must have been a memo.