Hot Coffee: The Cult of Cool

By Julie Wolfson

Discovering How Specialty Coffees Are Heating Up in the Foodie Frenzy

How, I wondered, did I find myself standing with coffee growers from around the world watching Charles Babinski do a step-by-step demonstration of the process for making coffee in a siphon? The next day, I experienced my first attempt at cupping, observing a few wry smiles as I misunderstood the unique aromas from a Panama Geisha. A few weeks later, I began to follow the Handsome Coffee team through the construction process of their first coffee bar. Soon after, I flew to Ireland and spent the day with the Irish Barista Champion, Colin Harmon, visiting both 3FE locations in Dublin. So there I was, tumbling headfirst into a coffee Alice in Wonderland-like rabbit hole.

As a new media journalist, I have spent the last several years covering travel, lifestyle, pop culture, events, art, food, cocktails, and even video game stories. When it came to coffee, I was a customer and part of coffee culture, but had not written about it… yet. Then I received a story assignment from Cool Hunting to cover the Intelligentsia’s Extraordinary Coffee Workshop – soon I was meeting award-winning coffee farmers, green coffee buyers, roasters, and barista champions. The Intelligentsia weekend led to me learning about the process and to writing more coffee stories and soon after, an invitation to be part of the media panel at Symposium 2012 to talk about what I was discovering about the coffee world.

The thread that runs though all of the different topics I cover is the love of meeting and writing about talented people who make wonderful things. The more I talk about coffee, the more I realize that with the increasing popularity of single origin coffees, home-brewing techniques, and coffee bars, specialty coffee is having an ‘it girl’ moment. One LA food writer joked that, “Coffee is the new cupcake,” but it is much more than that. I choose what coffee to drink every day- cupcakes I have only on special occasions. The things that the coffee industry have known and worked toward for a long time are catching on and opening up new opportunities in the media and growing consumer culture.

Here are a few things that I have learned so far:

Coffee In Pop Culture

Coffee’s recent infiltration into pop culture has revealed inspired fans and entertaining satire. Coffee aficionado Ben Blake started a blog called Draw Coffee ( to showcase his coffee-loving doodles. These illustrations—often on coffee filters—show the companies, coffee-making products, and even coffee websites. His enthusiasm led him to create not only the website, but to include the offer of making drawings for coffee companies on his contact page. (We took him up on it and aked him to provide illustrations for this story). On Funny or Die, there have been more than 500,000 views of the biting Coffee Snobs by director Eric Appel since it went live last October. Sprudge got in on the action with their “Shit Baristas Say” video. If people are watching and satire is being written, then the pop culture moment has arrived. ThinkGeek now sells coffee-related products from Aeropress, including grow-your-own-coffee kits, and even made a video demonstrating how to use the Bodum Vacuum Brewer. Design websites are obsessed too. From Cool Hunting to Apartment Therapy, between stories about tech products, urban art, interior design, and travel, coffee bars, coffee-making products, and coffee people find their way into the conversation. As specialty coffee appears more often in pop culture, new opportunities are cropping up for everyone involved.

Coffee and the Cult of the Foodie

The number of people who care about what they consume is growing. The words—small batch, handmade, home baked, fresh roasted—once considered quaint, are now part of what is means to be an informed consumer and well, cool—as is waking up early to get the best produce at the farmers market, buying meat from a butcher and fish directly from a fish monger, and looking for the best bites and drinks while traveling—all with an iPhone in hand to document the insatiable cravings.

Some specialty coffee customers come from a community of people who brag about drinking craft cocktails and beer, eating farm-to-table food, and tasting everything from single origin chocolates to bourbon barrel aged soy sauce. A good cup of coffee is one of life’s great pleasures. Now that coffee—along with many artisanal foods and beverages – is seeing a bump in its hipness factor, choice of beans and brew methods have become status items. “Did you taste the Abakunda Kawa from Rwanda at Ritual?” “Have you heard about Tonx? I’m on their subscription list. I read about it on Boing Boing.” “How do you brew at home? I have an Aeropress.” “I brew in a V60.” “I bought a pound of the coffee that won Cup of Excellence.” “Did you read the article on Grub Street about how to order coffee?”

What can be learned from the people I meet who brag about specialty coffee drinking experiences on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Posterous, Viddy, and Instagram? Some of these coffee-drinking fans of “third-wave” coffee bars are becoming experts, while others are not all that knowledgeable about what they are drinking or the specialty coffee supplies that they are buying. Fans may be interested in knowing more, or they may be merely jumping on the ‘coffee is cool’ bandwagon. It all means more customers for the specialty coffee industry. More customers means more places to drink good coffee in my neighborhood and around the world. So go, coffee geeks, go- keep posting, tweeting, and documenting to support everyone from the coffee farmers to the baristas.

Coffee Menu Inspiration 

Visiting a coffee bar where the staff is friendly and the menu is easy to figure out, I may want to ask questions and learn more, while other are there for just a cup of coffee. How to get the message across and to serve beverages to the customers who just want a coffee and to share passion and more detailed information with the ones who want to geek out with a knowledgeable barista? Colin Harmon at 3FE in Dublin makes a clear distinction on his menus. The 3FE Drinking Menu is for those who want to grab an espresso or coffee drink in the café, or to go. The Tasting Menu is for side-by-side filter coffees, single origin beans prepared three ways: pour over, espresso and cappuccino, and other coffee flight options. At James Hoffmann’s SCAA Expo presentation, one coffee bar owner asked how to counsel a particularly enthusiastic young barista to not hold up the lines expounding a myriad of details about each cup of coffee. Hoffmann’s advice: make a rule to only give extra information to customers who ask. Do not impose facts about roasts, altitude, tasting notes or any other detailed information to a customer in line who is grabbing a coffee on their way to the office or other commitments. There is a time and place for learning, and it is not with every cup.

Coffee Images and Branding

What is cool about coffee right now is that it goes far beyond just what is in the cup and becomes part of the whole experience. In the case of Tierra Mia Coffee, what’s in the cup can be a single origin coffee roasted in house or a horchata latte. The whole experience is visiting one of the four cafes and meeting some of the Tierra Mia staff. So far this four-year-old company has expanded to a employ a staff of sixty.

After spending the day in Pico Rivera with Tierra Mia owner Ulysses Romero at the newest Tierra Mia location, the circular landscape logo on the sleeve of Tierra Mia Coffee that wraps around each to go cup makes perfect sense. At his Tierra Mia shops in Southern California, Romero hangs vibrant images of Central and South American coffee farms. He recently transformed a run-down Kentucky Fried Chicken location into a beautiful new Tierra Mia café; complete with granite countertops, comfortable seating, and a giant new coffee mug out front that was originally a nine-foot-tall KFC chicken bucket. Now his shop has a landmark to light the way to the best coffee in Pico Rivera.

From the best example of good Irish bootstrapping, Colin Harmon of 3FE sold his car to buy his first Nuova Simonelli competition model machine. He later asked a friend to design the company logo; he then opened his first coffee bar in the front porch of the Twisted Pepper Building in Dublin. His hard work and multiple barista competition wins have paid off. 3FE now sets up inside the Twisted Pepper bar by day and also has a location on Lower Grand Canal Street with modern interiors that are the result of some creative collaboration, help from a local design collective, and 3FE’s DIY spirit.

Cool Coffee Bar Architecture and Design 

At Sight Glass and now Handsome, large investments in state-of-the-art design result in a feeling of entering an almost utopian-like coffee installation space. Watching the story unfold first-hand while following the evolution of the Handsome project reveals some helpful insights. Once Tyler Wells and Chris Owens had found their dream location, they teamed up with the design company Woodsmithe to create their version of the ultimate coffee bar in the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District neighborhood. During construction, you could find Michael Phillips and the Handsome baristas all over town- having events at coffee bars, like Tiago, who were already stocking their beans, at Poketo’s holiday sale, and setting up a pop-up espresso bar at nearby Apolis Common Gallery. The investment of money and manpower garnered significant attention in the media and beyond. Coffee was served throughout construction from the Handsome back alley to encourage neighbors to come by and take a peek at the evolution of the space and witness milestones, like the day the vintage Probat was being installed into the roasting room. What can be learned from the Handsome philosophy? Get involved in the community and meet your neighbors. Just about everyone wants a new friend who can make him or her a fantastic cup of coffee.

A stylish bag or great looking product can drive up value, but is worth little if the quality of the coffee or functionality of the design does not deliver.

All three plans: Tierra Mia’s transformation of a space, 3FE’s DIY spirit, and Handsome’s architectural investment, give customers the feeling that they are entering an authentic place to have a good cup of coffee made by people who truly love coffee.

Customers respond to the images they see, the people they meet, and the feeling they get when they think about a company. When people tell me that Dublin must be a sad place to visit because of the economic challenges there, I tell them about meeting the incredibly talented and enthusiastic Colin Harmon and the baristas at 3FE. When I read about the challenging unemployment rates in South Los Angeles, I tell people about Ulysses Romero’s sixty employees learning to roast and prepare excellent cups of coffee. When I am asked, “What is the coolest new place in Los Angeles?” I now respond that with all of the new stores, restaurants, and other businesses opening all over the city, the coolest new place serves coffee.

Exploit your love of coffee in your own way. Loving coffee is what it is all about. No wonder everyone debates about their favorite beans and brags about great cups of coffee to their friends on social media sites. I fill my Instagram with my coffee drinking experiences. Now I am ready to start planning visits to coffee farms. First stop…Colombia!

Julie is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She covers travel, lifestyle, art, design, pop culture, food, cocktails, and coffee for Cool Hunting, Tasting Table, KCET, CBSLA, Spenser Magazine and several other media outlets. In addition she mentors kids and teaches classes for the Virginia Avenue Project at the Police Activities League in Santa Monica.