Suddenly, walking the streets of New York, mentally preparing for what is to become the first article under a new category, projected to be named “Coffeum for a Day”, just as I was about to enter the Chelsea locality of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company, a question was planted in my mind: What do workers and owners at Blue Bottle Coffee call their working space?
After I had entered and found myself well in the midst of culinary impressions for mouth, mind and soul, I found a moment to place Grace the question: What do you see yourself as being part of? A Coffeehouse? A Coffee Shop?
Firstly she smiled a seemingly auto-directed smile, then she proceeded to answer: “A Café.”
Although I do appreciate her answer and she obviously knows that words mean concrete things, even when they are often used far from concretely, based on her answer, I reckon she might be unaware of her extended role and that of the Blue Bottle Coffee.
Humans always achieve well beyond what they intend to with their actions, be these the result of long-term dedication and thought-out concepts, or just product of a sudden mood. Not only the intention of the giver has the power to affect and multiply, but the ability, sensitivity and openness of the taker will at times add great dimensions to a possibly simple action.
I like to differentiate rigidly between the tradition of Coffeehouses and the new model of the New World, known as Coffee Shop. I keep the two terms strictly separate, because I find there to be simple and essential ways by which to keep them apart. One is a house, the other a shop. In a House one is served, in a shop one finds service. A gas station has a shop, while Harrods is a House. Never do we expect the same from both.
Then there is the word café, which is simply the French term for a place offering coffee in a certain gastronomical frame. It is a somewhat neutral term used in different languages, countries and cultures, without paying much attention to differentiations, besides the fact, coffee and other hot beverages are available.
Something Grace might oversee, is that this Siphon Bar concept, combined with her knowledge and her individual manner to exercise her role, have no space in a Café, not even in a Coffeehouse of the common sort and certainly not in a coffee shop. This Siphon Bar could be best named a Coffee Laboratory or something along that line. It is an elevated idea of serving coffee and serving guests, as well as a constant experiment, for it seems to be a constant search for the best coffee and the highest possible assimilation of the drink and the fruit by the drinker. It might be called Caffeum, pertaining to the name of the fruit, combined with a feeling for scientific terminology, while connecting with the elevated dedication expected from a museum. And judging by places I have been visiting and the coffees I have been drinking the passed couple of years, I see a new form of coffeehouse on the verge of emergence. The third wave will not die (and neither will the previous forms we have experienced over the centuries). However, this concept goes much farther than anything before it and encompasses much more than to be a coffee geek or an expert with a stable hand, producing God-shots with regularity and one who has dozens of latte designs mastered to go on the froth.
The repercussions to coffee preparation and offering, as it is done at the Siphon Bar of the Blue Bottle Coffee in Chelsea, might lead to a different stage in the evolution of the way humans intake and experience coffee. Call it a hedonist, wallower, savourer, gourmet, or – as I like to call it – the Aristipposian, if we are not careful enough, we will stop drinking coffee, others will stop drinking whiskey, rum, red wines and several other drinkable pleasure products. We will no longer swallow, following the natural instinct of the tongue, but might just be busy for hours on end with the oral and mental joys of whatever occupies the attention of our palate. This practice is already common amongst tasters of wine or coffee, where the drink is swirled in the mouth for perception and subsequently spitted out. It is also common for some smokers to refrain from inhaling – or so they say – and only the oral pleasure is the goal. But this thought is just a little intellectual game. For now, once finished with the degustation process in the mouth, we are very much still drinking.
Well beyond the elevated practices at places like the Siphon Bar, at the coffee stations of most coffee places elsewhere and vibrant in the minds of their servicing personnel, there is a sense of self-evidence, based on which I am forced to depict a particular train of thought. They seem to be led by the thought that, if it is evident that a coffee machine is on and thus hot, what could ever go wrong?
Nothing we intake ought to be produced or taken in with an attitude of self-evidence. Nothing we digest should be ever taken for granted. Nothing Grace did pointed away from dedication, interest, passion, responsibility, highest attention and sense of purpose.
The frame we give our actions is highly influential. Aesthetics are pure influence. The chosen frame does not only give decorating beauty to the core, but it helps provide a more effective assimilation of the work done. Much of the quality of the products offered at the Siphon Bar are carried by professionalism, passion and knowledge. This is at least what I witnessed my first two visits, during which the barista on duty was Grace. Professionalism, passion and knowledge I consider to be the three pillars sustaining the world of those who serve. But in this context, the name of the barista becomes redundant. A Grace that knows to serve with grace needs her name not – not really. The movements sit, none are pretentious or artificial. Natural precision. Elegance. Each time her left arm drives the upper half of the siphon to be reachable for the guest for an olfactory perception, her right hand rests on her left arm, as to not have it hang useless from her side. Each time she serves from a coffee server with one hand into the glass, the other is hidden behind her back. These are clear and very proper connotations to the world of the prolific (wine) sommelier, whenever the guest becomes the opportunity to inspect the cork with the nose and the wine is served from the bottle into the glass.
Evidently the preparation level of a coffee is the most relevant factor, while the mannerisms are merely the decoration and could be seen as of secondary importance. They are, however, highly important.
The coffee siphons and the heating system used here are much in the tradition of Japanese aesthetics. A Siphon is an old (not only coffee and not only brewing) system – as well as a function – that has experienced a revival or rediscovery in coffee circles for the open western public in the last decade or two. This awakening comes along with the increasing number of aristipposians worldwide, thanks to whiskey, rum, cigars, coffee, tea and even sausages and chocolate, the products we have been using to learn more about our palate and the importance and joys of alchemy, possible in any kitchen or bar.
But what happened, really? What awaits the palate with a siphon coffee?
An individual coffee serving will consist of about 250 ml drinking brew. Between 16 and 18 gm of coffee powder are brewed in the siphon with 250 ml water, reaching the temperature of 190-195°. From this result – using a Cerro Gaucho coffee seed – the first olfactory sign for me was about lightly roasted hazelnuts in their shells. The taste is about strength, sharpness, clear body of bitterness without being uncomfortably bitter. It is a very round and full taste. Precisely what I love about well-balanced intense taste in some products, which I will compare with a well toned human body, moving along lightly, instead of heavily.
Two things surprised me. We have come to expect that the strongest coffee is an espresso. I have yet to compare a siphon brew to an espresso one to one in one seating, but suspect that the espresso will not be much stronger, if at all. Also the hues usually tell us what to expect. Lightness in color suggests lightness in taste, but the taste of this siphon coffee was not at all related to the strength I had expected from looking at the brew being served.
It is a complex taste of coffee and invites clearly to stick to just coffee. The classical habit of coffee drinkers to use sugar, milk or both is here out-of-place, just as it is common in some Japanese Coffee bars – partly known as Kissaten – and was also the ‘rule’ used at the unfortunately short-lived Penny Universityin London. Avoiding any sweeteners and milk conduces to an attentive concentration on coffee – as a taste, as a drink and as a culture. At this bar you are invited to dwell precisely upon all these, much thanks to the quality of the preparation, but also to the given setting. Here the guest will also (re)learn of the importance and joys of drinking out of glass and china, accompanied by cloth napkins.
This publication is a contribution to Coffee and the City, the category through which the reader should be inspired to travel for the sake of coffee or simply have some information traveling. It serves simultaneously as the pilot article in the a new category. On a given day I might take the streets for a day dedicated to everything I might be able to find or connect with the coffee universe – Coffeum for a Day.