TBE 12 Part 3 :: ART YOU CAN DRINK

9 Apr

THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 12

APRIL 9, 2010 :: Part 3 of BARISTA JAMS & COFFEE STOUTS

How Being Unemployed Got Me Acquainted With Some of Chicago’s Top Roasters, Brewers, and Baristas

::


Part 3. ART YOU CAN DRINK

Thanks to Tim—who connected me to Ipsento, where I met Dave, who introduced me to Jakob—by degrees, I could say I’m either zero or one away from every major owner of a coffee company in Chicago.

Dark Matter, Metropolis, Intelligentsia, Crop to Cup, Coffee Ambassadors. If I don’t know the owners, a lot of my friends do.

Like I said, it’s a big, incestuous, at times pretentious family. I’m at New Wave right now, and I just spotted Jonathan, our roaster at Ipsento. He pulls double duty here behind the bar. He’s looking overly serious, as usual. Jonathan’s an interesting guy. I once mentioned Orson Scott Card to a coworker at the café and Jonathan, from over by the roaster, chimed in, “I’ve read almost every single book he’s ever written.” I thought he was joking, mocking the types of people who shoulder their way into conversations with arrogant assertions and ego-vomit. But no. He was actually doing it. Usurping the conversation, he went on a pseudo-sci-fi binge for the next ten minutes. I went back to work.

At the barista jam, it was hard to know how seriously to take things. It was full of that thick hipster charm—PBR on the back porch, help ourselves. There were clearly identifiable cliques, as if each coffeehouse was its own tribe, tribes that were growing into nation-states as they defined their beliefs and territories with equal gusto.

The impressive thing, though, was that everyone got along—while belonging to different cultures, baristas also were aware of their membership in the larger umbrella culture of coffee.

It was what sports should be. There were teams and stars on each. There was technique and skill and natural talent. Hard work and training. All culminating here, just like any other competition. But here, when people weren’t pouring, they were drinking, talking with people on opposing teams. It was a party atmosphere with a tournament at its center.

And it’s no trivial talent—you can make a career out of being a barista. Kind of like you can with bass fishing.

::

My brother sent me a text one day last winter. The grainy camera-phone picture was of a cup. Inside was what appeared to be a small galaxy: white foam planets with rings and other celestial elements floating in a deep space of silky brown. It was his latte.

The fleeting nature of this kind of art is incredible. The number of micro-masterpieces being created everyday, around the world, and then sipped into oblivion—the design stretching and warping as it sinks slowly to the bottom, coming to rest like a wet canvas laid into a bowl—is amazing.

But art you can drink doesn’t work if no one wants to drink it. Which makes roasters like Jonathan and Jakob and J (from Ipsento, Crop to Cup, and Dark Matter, respectively) the true artisans. When these guys drop green beans into their roasters, it’s as if they too are in a competition, one more serious than one for latte art. They are earning their living by keeping themselves attuned to the intricate details of what’s happening to the coffee inside. A one-degree difference or a few seconds shorter or longer can greatly alter the coffee’s final flavor.

I was at Star Lounge one day, a coffee bar in West Town, working on stuff for Coffee Ambassadors, who’d hired me to write the stories of their farmers around the world. I was fully immersed: coffee was my subject, my livelihood, my drink of choice, and my social network. So my ears perked up when J began telling someone about a new thing he was doing: roasting a single origin to varying degrees and blending them. One bean, from a single region—knowing Star Lounge, a single farm—roasted three different ways, then blended with itself, keeping it a single origin coffee but one with a depth unlike any single origin can usually produce.

I asked him if it made the flavor profile almost schizophrenic. He said the interactions were all symbiotic: the many nuances of a single coffee were multiplied ten fold, each roast level bringing out new flavor notes that combined and collided with the others in myriad ways.

It’s this creativity and innovation that fascinates me. The further I go in the coffee world, the more I pursue it, if just to keep connected to people like this, people who are creating the best coffee and some of the most intriguing, socially responsible business models possible.

One Response to “TBE 12 Part 3 :: ART YOU CAN DRINK”

  1. Tyler R April 9, 2010 at 11:25 pm #

    I’ve really enjoyed these last posts, especially this one. I’ve experimented with roasting my own coffee beans with a hot air popcorn popper. I’m planning on buying an actual home roaster with our wedding money (Tiffany may not know yet 🙂 ).

    Hmm, if I pursue life in coffee more, maybe I’ll use your connections to find my way to Chicago sometime. 🙂

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