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Caffeination fascination

From Java junkies to coffeehouse crowds, brew begets new cultures

Posted: Sunday, November 06, 2005

 

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  Countless drinks sprout from tiny roasted coffee beans. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Countless drinks sprout from tiny roasted coffee beans.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

From its humble beginning as an Arab elixir in Yemen more than 1,000 years ago, coffee has come a long way, crossing oceans and infiltrating cultures and currently seems to be percolating its way into every area of American — and Alaskan — life.

Specialty coffee has become one of the fastest-growing food service markets in the world, netting an estimated $9.6 billion in the United States alone in 2004, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

There are those who wake up and brew their own mug of black gold to start the day. Others prefer to breeze by to one of the dozens of tiny drive-through espresso shacks on the side of the road.

Still others go to coffeehouses and other establishments that specialize specifically in gourmet coffee so they can find some common ground with other patrons while sipping some uncommon grounds.

 

Amirah Marey shares a laugh with a customer as she gives him his espresso drink at Kaladi Bros. in Soldotna.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

It's clear we have an infatuation with caffeination. To truly understand the culture of coffee, one can look at the rituals associated with each of these different consumer groups.

The average joe

Jeremy Malloy of Sterling takes a long pull from a steaming mug, followed by another, then another. Malloy downs the cup's remaining contents, wipes the back of his hand across his mouth and long, scraggly beard and then lets out a satisfying, "Ahhh."

Coffee is a part of Malloy's life. This tall, thin auto mechanic could barely open his eyes or stand up straight, much less rebuild an engine at work, if it weren't for the caffeine surging through his veins.

"I'm majorly addicted. I'll admit it. I need it to function," Malloy said.

 

Motorists wait their turn on a cold November morning as Carol Calvert gets on her bicycle with a hot cup of coffee from The Grind in Soldotna. I always wondered why people paid so much for this stuff, she said. Then I stopped once and I havent been able to stop since.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Malloy is not alone in his vice. Americans drink more than 300 million cups of coffee a day, according to the SCAA. Seventy-five percent of those cups are home-brewed.

Without coffee, Malloy said he gets blinding headaches. His dependency on coffee is so great that he has to prepare his drip coffee maker the night before and sets the timer on the machine for the next morning, because without the aromatic smell filling the air, he can't bring himself to get out of bed.

"I'll get up and drink four cups before leaving the house, then one on the way to work and then have a refill when I get there," he said.

These aren't the usual 8-ounce cups he's talking about, either. Malloy's morning mugs are nothing short of 20 ounces each.

He also doesn't go for Hills Brothers, Folgers, Maxwell House or other basic canned coffees which he describes negatively as "shwag." Like a true junky, Malloy gets his fix by having his product smuggled.

 

Flavorings line a shelf at The Espresso Barn. There is a seemingly endless list of syrups and flavorings that can be added to coffee.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"When my girlfriend's mother visited from North Carolina, we had her bring an entire suitcase — 35 pounds — of Carolina pecan-flavored coffee," he said.

This nut flavored nectar is high test, of course. Anything less would be a waste or Malloy's time.

"Decaf is like smoking an unlit cigarette. Why bother?" he said.

Motoring to a mocha

While Malloy's focus is on making a big, bold-flavored cup of coffee. Kehau Thompson — a petite teen with long dark hair, braces and an unusually dark tan for this time of year — has a different focus while making drinks at Amore Mocha, an espresso shack on the corner of Kalifornsky Beach Road and Poppy Lane.

She doesn't just have to make coffee concoctions that are good and strong, she needs to be able to do it quickly, too.

"Most of the people that come through are in a hurry. They're either on their way to work or dropping off their kids at school and they want a cup of coffee on the way," she said.

 

Laura Garcia, Michelle Roberts and Emily Jessal enjoy coffee over lunch at Veronicas Cafe in Kenai. For some, coffee is a picker-upper. For others it is a beverage to enjoy with friends.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Barbara Sanders of Nikiski is one of those people.

"I'm an impatient person. I prefer not to stand in line and wait. Going to the drive-throughs is quick and convenient. I can see how many cars are there and if there's too many I'll go to a different stand," Sanders said.

Sanders said she frequently stops at drive-through coffee stands on her way to work in Kenai, and even pops out during the day for a refill from time to time.

"I go as often as possible. I go for a bean freeze (coffee milkshake) every day, sometimes twice a day in summer, but I slack off a little bit in winter," she said.

As to why Sanders doesn't just make her own, she said the reasons are many.

"I'm the only one at home that drinks coffee. I'm also not a good coffee maker. Plus, you can't make some of the drinks at home the same," Sanders said.

 

Erik Borass sips a cup of coffee while working on a writing project at Kaladi Bros. in Soldotna under the watchful gaze of masks by Homer artist Gail S. Baker.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I prefer good coffee, which they definitely have at the coffee stands I go to, so it's always a treat to go out and get something special," she added.

Jumping to make Java for people like Sanders isn't easy. There are a lot of different drinks to know and more than 100 flavors of syrup that can be added, Thompson said. This can be tough on a barista (espresso bartender) like herself, but also on customers who aren't in the know in regard to specialty coffee options.

"Some people that come through have no idea what a mocha is. They're just coming through to find out what it is and then try it," she said.

Thompson said there is an equal number of die-hards who come by.

"Some of the people are like, 'I need coffee,' and we'll see them two to three times a day," she said. Others are folks who order the same drink every day or even multiple times a day, according to Thompson.

"We have a lot of regulars that we're pretty personal with and know their names and what they drink. When we see their car pull up we just start making their drink before they even get to the window," she said.

Thompson said most of the people who come through the espresso shack she works at do so for the product. However, it's hard to deny that it is largely — if not exclusively — young, attractive women who are employed at drive-through coffee stands. Thompson said it's even harder to explain why that is.

 

Espresso streams from a machine at The Espresso Barn in Kenai. Espresso - coffee made by forcing boiling water through finely ground beans - is the base for many favorite drinks.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I don't know if guys don't want to be served coffee by another guy, or if it's just that guys don't want to serve coffee, but I don't think we've ever had any guys fill out an application," she said.

Tasteful environment

Some people need a turbo tonic to start the day or rely on grab-and-go coffee, but not everyone gulps down their coffee on the run.

Walking into Kaladi Brothers Coffee Company in Soldotna is a full sensory experience. From the minute a person walks through the door they are enveloped in the thick aroma of coffee, the sound of beans being freshly ground intermittently interrupted by the strong hiss of an espresso machine, and almost everyone has in hand a cup frothing with creamy, white foam.

Many of the people with these drinks aren't alone or off in a corner hastily throwing back breves or pounding multiple mochas like it was some kind of competition to see who can drink the most.

The Kaladi crowd often lingers. Many are in groups of two, three, four or more. They talk, laugh and take their time with their coffee.

"It's very much more a social event than about a caffeine fix," said Robert Ruffner of Soldotna.

Ruffner said he is a regular at Kaladi, but even if not apparent from his modest order — a small latte, hold the fancy flavors — he admitted he doesn't go solely for the brewed beverages.

"I go two to three times a week and I really look forward to it. A big part of the enjoyment is meeting with the other regulars to talk, find out what's coming down the pipe and keep up with what's going on in the community. It's fun to sit and discuss news, and local and state politics," Ruffner said.

"It started out as just a couple of people and grew from there, sort of developing it's own synergy. No one ever says, 'Let's meet on this day or at this time.' It just sort of works out that we all meet, and at $2.50 a cup — it's cheap entertainment to sit and chat," Ruffner added.

Rebecca Lambourn, owner of Veronica's Cafe in Kenai, has noticed a similar trend among their clientele.

"We realized early on that people aren't going to wind their way through Old Town to get a coffee to go. We have a regular crowd that comes to socialize, listen to music and have a cup of coffee in a mug while sitting in a cozy atmosphere like by a gas fire on a log deck," she said.

From high school students to senior citizens, artists and journalists to doctors and lawyers, Veronica's is a mix of people. The common thread sewing them together is conversation, often flowing fast and furious, about everything from local gossip to detailed discussions on political problems gripping the nation and world.

Like their ages and professions, the drinks these customers order run the gamut. Lambourn said that learning the lexicon of coffee is one of the most unusual, and often challenging, aspects of serving it.

"There's a real lingo that goes on," she said. At times, understanding orders is like knowing a special password to enter an exclusive club or secret society, she added.

This lingo can be confusing since coffee can share a name with other foods and beverages. For example, a steamer may mean an espresso in some locals, but may mean a plate of oysters in the South or a pot of crabs in the Northeast.

Some drinks are named for locations.

"We've got drinks that are uniquely Alaskan," Lambourn said.

She cited the "bipolar bear" as one example. Outside Kenai a barista may scratch their head at the order, but asking for one at Veronica's will bring a chai tea with white chocolate in it.

"It's one of our more popular drinks," Lambourn said.

Lambourn speculated that part of this coffee language also may stem from a culture that is obsessed with cutting corners and attempting to make things easier.

"Our culture is always in a hurry and it's easier to order a drink with minimal words," she said.

For example, ordering a "thunder thighs" is quicker and easier than saying a double-tall mocha made with whole milk and topped with extra whipped cream.

This isn't true of all coffee monikers. Some drink names appear to be just a hip way to request a hot cup, particularly for the young crowd or those who are young at heart. For example, saying "on a leash" means ordering a drink to go.

As opposed to other coffeehouses that do a bulk of their business before noon, Lambourn said a unique aspect of Veronica's is customers come in continuously throughout the afternoon and evening.

"We're not just a coffeehouse. We also serve dinner and have musicians and open mic nights in the evening, so people will come in at 6 and stay until 10, making a whole evening of it," she said.

"It's a safe, friendly environment that's smoke- and alcohol-free, so a lot of people come not just for coffee, but as a substitute for the bar culture," she added.

Getting their fill

Coffee is second only to oil as the most valuable (legally) traded good in the world, according to the National Coffee Association. Whether for caffeine, convenience or so companions and colleagues can meet socially, coffee serves many purposes in society.

It should come as a wake-up call to no one that coffee is more than just a brewed beverage. It's a morning ritual for millions and an integral part of Alaska, as well as American culture —one that doesn't appear to be headed for the back burner anytime soon.

As Malloy put it, "A Pepsi always tastes like a Pepsi, but with coffee, every cup is different." And once a coffee connoisseur finds that magical blend, "Mmmmmm. It just tastes so good."



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