Slluurrrrrrrpppp. Sllllllluurrrrrppp. Slll-slll-sllluurrrrrpp.
A lot of normally polite people are making some very rude noises as they sip their morning coffee. Here in the dining room of Los Angeles' Campanile restaurant, many of the city's best-known chefs and restaurateurs have gathered to make the sort of loud sucking sounds that get 11-year-olds banished from the dinner table.
Some take hesitant sips-- sppft --and then, embarrassed, quickly set the coffee down and solemnly eye the others' technique.
A few first-time sippers get more into the spirit of things-- ssssslllllluuurrrrrrrrp --drawing the sound out as long as possible, delighted with the public display. Another technique: one slow sbrrattttttt , followed by three quick puckers.
Leading them all, his brisk but emphatic sllurrpp amplified by a microphone, is Dave Olsen, who does this for a living. Olsen is vice president of coffee at Starbucks, the Seattle-based roasting company that this summer set out to change the way Los Angeles drinks coffee. This is the first formal coffee tasting for almost everybody in the room.
"I'm hoping for a dialogue here," Olsen says, in ancient college tradition. "We're here to taste and to learn."
Set in front of each person, on white linen-covered tables, are several squat tumblers, each carefully identified by a cheerful slip of pink paper describing a different Starbucks coffee to be tasted.
"The glassware is perfect ," Olsen says in an aside to Starbucks coffee specialist Kevin Knox, who is seated at a nearby table.
One rogue brew, a commercial supermarket blend, has been tossed in with the other coffees as a control.
"Ugh," says Ken Frank, chef-owner of La Toque, "it tastes like weeds."
"Brown paper bags," Campanile chef-owner Mark Peel insists.
"This is what you eat doughnuts with," says Curtis Buttenheim, manager of the Columbia Bar & Grill. "Pure rubber tires."
Finally, Olsen provides the official pronouncement: "It has an acidic, green-grassy note, what I would characterize as frankly underdeveloped."
The Campanile coffee tasting, held just as Starbucks was opening its first Southland outlet in May, was designed to get Los Angeles talking about coffee. Or at least about Starbucks.
Starbucks now has kiosks in three Vons Pavilions stores (in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles), and two of its own stores. The Beverly Connection shop in Los Angeles has been open a little more than a month; its Main Street location in Santa Monica is not quite three weeks old. Sites have been chosen for Beverly Hills, Brentwood and L.A.'s Larchmont district, and locations are being planned for the South Bay, Orange County and San Diego.
Already, says Starbucks regional manager Dawn Pinaud, the current outlets, which sell whole-bean coffee, coffee-making paraphernalia and several hot and iced coffee drinks, have doubled their projected sales. "We were shocked at how many people were familiar with the Starbucks name," Pinaud says. At the Main Street store, the lines for espresso and cappuccino start to form at 7:30 in the morning.
"We go there all day long and give them tons of money," says Gap store manager Carolyn Crum, who works a few steps from the Main Street outlet. "But it's really sad because we used to go to this little coffeehouse down the street, and we all knew the owner. We got all our coffees and candy and Cokes there, and we swore to her that when Starbucks opened we wouldn't go.
"But then Starbucks gave us some free passes, and you know, we're all poor, obviously, and, well, somebody went over there and bought a coffee. We all had a sip and it was so good. None of us have been to the other place since. I feel horrible. But the fact of the matter is, Starbucks is incredibly better. They're just taking over."
"Twin Peaks" director David Lynch and star Kyle MacLachlan were among the first celebrities to show up at a Starbucks kiosk. "Paula Abdul comes in a lot," confides one Starbucks staffer. "She parks her car illegally to get her tall nonfat latte ."
"They're fanatics about temperature," says Devo drummer David Kendrick, who has taken to calling his local Vons Pavilions "Starbucks," as in, "I'm going to Starbucks to pick up a quart of milk."
Still, there are slip-ups. At the new Beverly Connection Starbucks store one counterperson asked another, "How many shots of espresso go in a grande latte ?" The other responded, "I forgot. I was going to ask you."
Southern California has never been known for its coffee. Less than 10 years ago, chances were better than even that if you ordered a cappuccino in a restaurant, you'd get something alcoholic with cinnamon sprinkles on it. But things started changing here long before Starbucks arrived.
Tom Kaplan first started roasting coffee beans in 1982 for his father's West Hollywood restaurant and tiny grocery, Hugo's. He says he learned most of what he knows about coffee by hanging around and pestering West Los Angeles-based coffee broker Tim Castle, who is one of the most prominent brokers on the West Coast. Slowly, Kaplan's roasting abilities improved, and in 1988, he opened his own restaurant, Caffe Latte. At Caffe Latte, customers walk around a large, working roasting machine to get to the dining room, which is often perfumed with the lightly roasted Guatemalan and Costa Rican estate coffees Kaplan specializes in. He is also a partner in Highland Grounds, one of the very few of the new wave of high-style coffeehouses that actually serves a decent cup of joe.
For many, a major turning point in the coffee revolution was the 1986 arrival of Graffeo Coffee, a well-known San Francisco roasting company whose caramelly, extremely dark-roasted blends had a huge Southland following of mail-order customers, and who pioneered the notion locally that coffee should be bought fresh, like bread. The Beverly Hills store's Sivetz roaster, seen through a glass wall, gave many of Graffeo's early customers their first glimpse of the coffee-roasting process.
There are other Southland coffee roasters: Piacere, in Glendale, which roasts its own beans and manufactures a patented espresso-making system; F. Gavina & Sons, begun by a Cuban national and used in many restaurants; Coffee Emporium in Marina del Rey, one of the first retail roasters in L.A. County; The Coffee Roaster in Sherman Oaks; Diedrich Coffee in Tustin; Alta Coffee in Newport Beach; See's Coffee in Riverside. Illy Caffe, acknowledged by many to be Italy's best large-scale roaster, powers the espresso machines of many of Los Angeles' best restaurants. And the list of specialty coffee roasters gets larger in Southern California every month.
Even as overall coffee consumption steadily drops--Barron's magazine reported that in 1988, the number of coffee drinkers in the U.S. dropped to 52.5%, from 74.7% in 1962--the specialty coffee market is constantly growing.
Last month the New York Times reported that in each of the past three years the specialty coffee market has grown more than 30%. The market has more than tripled in the past six years. And in dollar volume, specialty coffee now accounts for nearly 10% of the $6.5-billion coffee market. Other sources place the figure as high as 20%.
Even as we witness the collapse of '80s-style consumerism, as people cut back on extras--fancy restaurant meals, expensive clothes, brand-new cars--there is a growing group of the caffeine-obsessed willing to pay $300 for a Bosch burr coffee grinder. They worry about the quality of coffee left on a burner too long and buy sleek Nissan vacuum flasks to hold their morning brew. Horizon Air, bucking the trend of corporate expense cutting, boasts that it increased its coffee costs to get Starbucks coffee on its planes.
Even still, it's often pointed out that considering the labor involved, coffee is one of the last affordable luxuries, a much less expensive hobby, as coffee connoisseurs often point out, than collecting wine--even the most expensive coffee works out to about 20 cents a cup, where it's hard to think of even a modestly drinkable wine for less than a dollar.
And with the sobering up of America, we might as well have fun with our coffee.
Nowhere is the new coffee culture more ingrained than Seattle, known locally as Coffeetown, U.S.A. . . . or the city that never sleeps.
If you spend any time in Seattle, you'll notice inhabitants walking with a briefcase or purse in one hand and a tall paper cup full of latte in the other; truckdrivers balancing latte cups on their steering wheels; lumberjack-looking guys sipping lattes at Seahawks games. Anywhere you walk, there are espresso outlets to feed thirsty Seattleites' latte obsession. Visitors to the city are often so entranced by the easy availability of great coffee that they go into kind of a caffeine-induced psychosis, fueled by something like the equivalent of 13 shots of espresso in a day.
Consider downtown Seattle's famous caffeine epicenter around the intersection of Fifth and Pine, where a freshly made caffe latte --the city's drink of choice--is never more than a few steps away. The department stores Frederick & Nelson and Nordstrom have espresso carts out front, across the street from each other. A Starbucks shop is down the block in one direction, a Seattle's Best Coffee stand in another. Bulldog News and Fast Espresso is close by. None of these places ever seem to lack for business.
There are espresso push-carts, there are drive-up espresso stands in converted Fotomat booths, there are mobile espresso mini-vans. There are high-tech-looking coffee bars, funky-chic coffee hangs and neo-hippie coffeehouses. At Sir Real, a groovy '60s flashback of a coffeebar, you can sip a latte under the glow of black light and contemplate psychedelic rock posters. Every major supermarket seems to have its own espresso kiosk.
And then there is the Espresso Dental Clinic, a cheerful red brick office with lace curtains and white wicker furniture where Dr. Ronald Wallach will clean your teeth, even as you stain them up again with an inky ristretto (short shot) between rinses. A licensed massage therapist will give you a foot rub during treatment, if you'd like. The doctor's advertising slogan: ". . . very new, very Seattle--dentistry with care, respect, gentility and latte ."
Much of the credit (or blame) for this flowering of coffee culture goes to Starbucks and SBC (formerly known as Stewart Brothers and now called Seattle's Best Coffee). Both companies were started in 1971; both worked to turn Seattleites on to fresh-roasted whole coffee beans. Other than the beans themselves, the best asset of each company was its staff, which preached the gospel of fine coffee-making like religious zealots. Instead of providing one house brew like commercial roasters, Starbucks and SBC educated their customers about the varietal characteristics of coffee beans found in different growing regions throughout the world. And each company came up with its own signature roasting style--Starbucks went for a darker style, while SBC generally went for a medium roast.
Through the '70s and much of the '80s the companies remained about the same size. But in 1987, Starbucks was bought by Howard Schultz (the three founders originally picked up their taste for fresh-roasted coffee at Peet's in Berkeley, which at the time was the quality-coffee center of the West Coast). In 1988, Schultz instituted a five-year expansion plan, which is just about on track. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Starbucks has grown from 11 stores and less than 100 employees in 1987 to a projected 125 stores and 1,500 employees by the end of 1991. The only misstep the company seems to have made was when it acquired Peet's and tried to turn its stores into Starbucks outlets. Loyal Peet's fans rebelled and the Peet's name--and its dark, dark roast--remains.
SBC, meanwhile, has remained small. It still has about 100 employees and has no major expansion plans. At first glance, the SBC downtown Seattle tasting room looks like any suburban office break room--acoustic tile ceiling, prefab wood veneer cabinets, industrial carpeting--except that there are an awful lot of coffee bags around . . . and a fancy espresso machine . . . and quite a few drip coffee makers. Spilled coffee grounds are all over the place. You realize there is some serious coffee drinking going on here.
A ferry ride away, at the SBC roasting facility on Vashon Island--the main businesses on the island are SBC, the K-2 ski factory and a place that manufactures artificial limbs--things are homier, so casual that you are surprised to notice roast-plant manager Peter Larsen wears a tie. "I had to go to a meeting this morning," Larsen explains.
David Wickberg, who has worked at SBC for most of his adult life and is now in his early thirties, can discuss coffee with Talmudic subtlety for hours at a time, and he likes to show visitors slides of different coffee plantations the way other people show you snapshots of their grandchildren. "Coffee's always a great way of talking to people," he says as he pulls his third espresso of the afternoon. "It's like when you talk about food . . . coffee is something people have real strong opinions about. Some people drink only dark roasts because they think they're going to miss that coffee bite, other people think dark roasts take away the character of the bean. And I know the Germans think the Swedes are crazy because they like their coffee strong."
The Italians have some of the strongest opinions of all. Perugia native Umberto Bizzarri, for instance, owner of Seattle's Torrefazione Italia, refuses to sell specific varietal beans. Where SBC will custom-roast and even-- grudgingly --sell flavored coffee, Torrefazione sells only company blends. And unlike many roasters, Bizzarri blends his beans before they are roasted. Bizzarri even commits a coffee-snob heresy when he suggests that he would use robusta coffee beans along with the de rigueur arabica beans--if he could get good robusta in America. "All the best robusta goes to Italy," he shrugs.
One other thing: Bizzarri is not thrilled with Seattle's love of latte . "Cappuccino, caffe latte, cappuccino, caffe latte, " Bizzarri says. "When I first opened the shop (in 1986) I was the only one who drank espresso." As it happens, Torrefazione's Pioneer Square shop makes what might be the best ristretto in Seattle.
"It's an art," says Dawn Zervas, co-founder of the Seattle company and Bizzarri's wife.
"It's a science," says David Barron, the company's marketing director.
"It's a joke,' Bizzarri says. "Everyone in Seattle wants to make the very long espresso--they give it too much water."
Soon Bizzarri's coffee blends, and maybe even his short shots of espresso, might be available in Los Angeles. The company is looking to expand.
"You have a lot of Italian restaurants there, no?"