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In Northwest, specialty coffee is the hot drink : Seattle residents line up for exotic beverages at stores and offices. The craze may spill over to L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a curious ritual, and it is practiced here with cheery determination.

People go to the supermarkets. But before they load their carts, they stand in line. They go to a garden nursery. Before looking at plants and bulbs, however, they line up. It’s the same at medical centers and department stores. And of course they line up outside office buildings before heading up the elevators to their jobs.

They are lining up for coffee. Not just ordinary coffee, but specialty coffee, designer coffee drinks, all kinds of exotic coffee.

“Two double lattes, light, and a mocha, a short drip and a tall red eye. Oh, and throw in a decaf Americano.”

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That’s the way they talk. Honest.

Coffee is king in Seattle.

After a boom more than a decade in the making, Seattle residents now believe they consume more coffee per capita than anyone else in America.

Chances are they also consume more types of coffee drinks in more different places than anywhere else in America.

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On downtown street corners the espresso cart has become a fixture. There are about 150 here in King County. Coffee counters are everywhere, at the big shopping malls, at sporting goods co-ops, at bookstores and movie theaters. There is even a combination drug store/espresso shop. And, of course, there is the drive-through coffee stand. One coffee company operates 10 stores in a single square mile of the downtown area.

Still there are the lines of the thirsty wanting more.

Laid back and easy-going, that’s supposed to be the Northwest image. But judging from the caffeine consumption, Northwesterners are also, deep inside, wired as tight as Madonna’s bustier.

Ron Wallach thought it uninspiring to hang out his shingle: Dr. Ron Wallach, dentist. So in September, he opened his practice as Espresso Dental.

He wore out his first espresso machine by Christmas. Patients find that a dentist who will make them a cappuccino is more approachable and easier to talk to than someone wearing only a mask and gloves, Wallach says.

Seattle’s 10,000-circulation Cafe Ole started this autumn as the nation’s first monthly magazine for coffee drinkers, profiling people and products, offering recipes and answering questions.

Why Seattle and why coffee?

Like most questions about life here, the answer seems to be rooted in the weather. Cool, wet, gray, gloomy--these are perfect year-round conditions for a warm pick-me-up.

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Entrepreneurs like Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, a Seattle-based specialty coffee company, thinks there is an added reason: Give somebody a luxury for $1.50 and they will quite literally lap it up.

A lousy cup of coffee might cost 60 cents. But double the price, grind the beans fresh, add steamed milk and a tiny dollop of milk foam, call it a latte (LA-tay), like the Italians do, and pretty soon you’ve got a beverage to shape the culture of a city.

Coffee experts say the craze is spreading. Starbucks announced it is opening shops, offering coffee by the cup as well as beans and all kinds of brewing paraphernalia, inside Pavilions supermarkets on the West Side of Los Angeles in 1991.

So you don’t hold up the line, here is a quick primer on ordering by the cup:

Espresso is the foundation--a shot-glass measure of concentrate made by forcing pressurized steam through fine grounds. Cappuccino calls for the addition of a floating spoonful of foamed milk. Lattes are the No. 1 selling coffee drink among Seattle coffee consumers. For the health conscious, it is fashionable to specify decaf and skim milk. Chocolate turns a latte into a mocha. You can also call for vanilla or almond extracts. Add a shot of espresso to a cup of drip coffee and it’s a red eye. An Americano is espresso watered down to the strength of a cup of drip coffee.

Oh, and forget ordering either small or large cups; the choices are short or tall.

Careful readers may wonder next, exactly how does one lift the 20-pound turkey out of the grocery freezer compartment without spilling one’s piping hot double mocha? Or how do you sip your cappuccino while Dr. Wallach is fitting a crown on your tooth?

But that’s for the advanced class, later. . . .

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