The Soul of Coffee

By Peter Giuliano

There is an academic discipline that studies the way human beings relate to food and the culture we develop around the ways we eat and drink. It’s called foodways and it documents and analyzes what we do in regards to food and why we do it. Foodways looks at our traditions of eating and drinking as a cultural practice—in other words, applying anthropological thinking to food. Thinking about food in this way enriches us but it’s also immensely valuable when developing a food business. Isn’t it a good idea to understand why we eat and drink the things we do so we can understand what actually appeals to people?

Humans have been drinking coffee for more than a thousand years. The Ethiopians did it first, developing a complete ritual around the consumption of coffee. The Ethiopian coffee ritual is all about personal connection—ask any Ethiopian person and they’ll tell you that the coffee ceremony, presided over by a woman of honor, is all about sharing news, stories and information while making personal connections between people.

As coffee consumption crossed the Red Sea into Arabia, coffee kept this flavor of personal interaction and connection. The coffeehouse of the Arabian souk was a place for consumption of delicious coffee along with deep, personal discourse. Meanwhile the home consumption of coffee was closely linked with ideas of hospitality and family, bringing the sense of personal connection home. Mediterranean coffee rituals always emphasize this idea of personal connection.

As coffee made its way to Europe, the coffeehouse kept this sense of personal interaction, although coffee—being an exotic import—now carried with it a sense of luxury. For hundreds of years the coffeehouses of Europe were places of interaction, intellectual stimulation and connection. Coffee was an expensive yet essential component of the coffeehouse experience. Coffee consumption as a luxury and a locus for personal interaction stayed with coffee as it moved to America and Asia.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that coffee became incorporated into the American industrial fast-food scene. Cheap cups of coffee accompanied cheap food and turned the American coffee and dining experience into quick, mindless exercises. Despite that, coffee gave up its connection to personal interaction only with difficulty, and the office coffeepot, though weakened in its effectiveness, remains a place of connection.

In the 21st century, however, commerce has, for the most part, obscured the connection between coffee, luxury and interaction. Specialty coffee’s focus on the to-go coffee, sipped out of a paper cup while walking down an urban street, cannot be a focus for personal interaction. The now-classic specialty coffee bar with its fast-food counter, pastry case and stack of paper cups cannot serve the purpose as a temple of social interaction in an air of luxury. Even when tables and chairs are present, the message to the consumer is one of fuel, and perhaps internet access, instead of interaction, luxury and ritual deliciousness.

We’re sorely in need of rediscovering the soul of coffee. I’m inspired by the way bread has rediscovered its roots in the artisan baking movement and has reinvented itself in the process. I have eaten more pizzas than I can count this year in woodfired pizzerias that are less a restaurant and more a temple to artisan pizza. Can we build temples to coffee, ones that celebrate the human instinct to accompany coffee consumption with personal interaction and information exchange? What will these look like? How will the cups feel? How will the tables be arranged? Will the prices reflect coffee as a fuel or as the exotic, intoxicating foodstuff it is? Will technology have a role? Will we evoke the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, the Arabian souk, the European coffeehouse? Or instead invent something new that taps into the basic human instinct of coffee consumption?

The coffee business must evolve into a temple that not only honors the flavors which can be coaxed from the coffee itself, but also serves as a locus for interaction and community. This isn’t just poetry readings and community bulletin boards. We need design innovation for the tables where we sit and drink our coffee. We need to create coffee places with romance and discussion in mind, not utility and expediency. Most of all, we need to banish the fast-food aesthetic that has dominated the specialty coffeehouse for the past two decades.

Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, NC. He has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the immediate past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.