Stephen Grimwade Copyright 1998
Coffee's precarious place in culture parallels the sex, lies and scandal which have enlivened coffee's history. Much like alcohol, it has enjoyed the adoration of the masses as well as the close attention of both the religious and the political fraternities.
Coffee has posed a threat to those in power not only in its physiological ability to spark thought, but because it has provided the modern fire around which thinkers could congregate. The use of it has often faced bans and has been thought to start civil wars. Coffee has even received pontifical valediction.
Late in the sixteenth century, a number of priests approached Pope Clement VIII in the hope that he would ban the use of coffee. They presumed that since the Moslems had substituted the holiest of drinks, wine, with coffee, it was obviously the work of the Devil.
They wanted its use forbidden, but the Pope was a fair man, and he ordered a cup of this concoction so he could inspect it himself. After drinking and contemplating the cup he was said to have exclaimed, "Why, this Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptising it, and making it a truly Christian beverage.
No matter what the political weather, cafés have long been seen as a hot-bed of intellectual activity. Now it seems that this trend is being watered down. Rabid insurrection is far from the mind of present day face-goers with their umbilical ties to consumerism. Like the Brunswick St. graffiti cliché goes: "Action speaks louder than coffee chats." The development of our café culture has seen us embrace coffee as a commodity and the café as a trend. We have bypassed its history, its culture, and even its enjoyment, in exchange for its capacity as a pretension and an economic end.
The capacity for our café society to exist at all has its roots in our culture of the pub. That said, there seems to be little doubt that coffee in Australia owes its cultural gratitude to those post-war immigrants of the 1940s and 1950s. The true seeds of our addiction were planted by those new Australians who couldn't live without their espresso machines, their coffee and its mystique. Their influence was to give birth to a new way of appreciating Australian society - sober, albeit on a caffeine high.
What began with the Temperance movement's dissatisfaction with alcohol, was distilled through coffee houses and infused with the essence of cosmopolitan appeal (For more information on this development see Marie Cook's forthcoming book Café Culture - Public Places, Private Spaces.) This evolution has progressed even further, and now people do business, meet friends, surprise lovers, study philosophy, read newspapers, wake up and fall asleep in cafés. We conduct much of our lives in cafés, and willingly so. It seems we love the theatre it provides for us as actors and as audience.
In the short period of time since the 1950s cafés have become an essential truth of our multicultural experience. Unfortunately they now tread close to parody. Community shopping strips have become tourist precincts, spawning innumerable cafés whose goal is to entice customers with bright lights and flashy tricks. We breed a café culture which teeters on the brink of the ridiculous.
My personal rules on judging cafés are a little unpredictable. You could simply rate cafés on: (a) their coffee, (b) their service, and (c) their environment. Unfortunately, I find my favourite choices are usually a bastardised mixture of the best or worst of these characteristics. This seems to reflect the totally subjective nature of such a choice, as well as how the modern crop of cafés can offer a variety of environs to house a variety of moods.
My love of great coffee use to be serviced by a connoisseur's café. They served the best coffee I have ever tasted but their decor was only rivalled by McDonalds and the staff preferred a kind of "disservice". This doesn't prove much, except that like great coffee and a café's environment, friendly staff are only "kind of" important. As any American will attest, Australians have a most peculiar service manner. Sometimes we just don't care, and sometimes this works for me. I appreciate the "this is only my part-time job" style, but I also have a morbid fascination with the number of cafés which prosper with the worst service possible. These places are invariably "cool", and I reckon the wait for my coffee is usually a cruel test of my consumerism. The last major consideration in judging cafés is their environment, and such a subjective factor should be left to the vagaries of personal taste. But unfortunately, hand-in-hand with the proliferation of cafés (all serving pretty much the same thing), "style" has become the major point of difference, leading to a design blow-out which parallels the economic and social trends of the times.
This seriousness that we afford cafés definitely has coffee as its driving force. There are countless levels with which people step in and out of favour with coffee. I hope much of this seriousness with which we drink our coffee is mock; but sometimes I don't think this is so. I have too often seen people draw lines in the sand, beat their breasts and exclaim that they "Could not drink that", or that they "Will not go there". But this never seems to be totally consistent. When it comes to coffee, there are no clear lines of demarcation. People readily switch their attitudes with regards to coffee, cafés and their culture, depending on where they are and who they're with. People adopt a variety of attitudes when partaking of a cup: they swill, they contemplate, they gloat. How we drink is related to the place coffee is drunk, and the experience of drinking feeds back into itself. With no ill-intent, we've found ourselves in a coffee-whirlpool, so what's in the centre?
Without any doubt it is that sublime cup of coffee, that experience which removes us from reality, helps close our eyes, and speed our heartrate. The idea of this perfect cup seems simple enough. The ads tell us that this reverie is just a second away, but far from enlightenment resides coffee's anti-Christ... coffee made in an instant.
After peeling a commercially-pressed piece of foil off a glass tomb, a wholly-manufactured smell embraces your nostrils. What you are now smelling is so far from coffee-truth. In their suits, ties and sanitary white coats the coffee-scientists have teamed with the marketing department to bring the aroma back. For by the fact of the industrial process alone, there cannot be an aroma to instant. When dehydrated to make your life easier, all the volatile oils and smells are expelled. So, to make up for such a faux pas, they concoct something similar to the smell of coffee and add it back in. From little cells to big smells we get the big sell; and faithful to our fast-food inheritance we glug it down with little regard for quality.
Don't get me wrong, I used to drink instant. I'd pile equally large amounts of granulised brown crap and refined sugar into my large student mug, add a large dash of milk to settle my stomach (already queasy and uneasy) and swill it down. The desired effect was achieved and my essays got in just before the bell, but soon after I'd be breaking down with severe acid cramps.
So now I reside "over the river"; I am, unflinchingly, a "coffee snob"; and, for the most part, I've foregone my reticence for shunning this title. I have no desire to promote the misguided snobbery of coffee's middle classes. But I do want to enjoy the process of making my cup of coffee, my cup of joe itself, and if I'm lucky, both. My lack of desire for an "ordinary cup of coffee" should need no further explanation, but even now, my insecurities feel the need to try.
I must meditate with a cup which speaks to me personally, one whose journey calmly and karmically foreshadows that which I would like to take; one which allows a dialogue of interplay rather than the bland forthrightness of "You want fries with that?"
I like coffee beneath my fingernails, those personal creases of my hand feel comfortable holding rivulets of fine coffee dust-turned-oil. I reckon you should be able to play with your coffee. Feel it. Touch it. Commune with it, if you will. The more you respect it the more will it love you back. It may even hold you a little too tightly, unexpectedly pressing hard when you thought its strength benign.
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