The world in a cup
Travel from Ethiopia to Java Beach in San Francisco’s coffeehouses
A CAFE is a place where people in the neighbourhood gather; a cup of coffee is where pieces of the world gather. A cup of coffee from Java Beach at the end of Judah Street at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, is itself a remarkable map of regional and global economies.
It contains water from Hetch Hetchy, the reservoir that concentrates Sierra snowmelt and feeds it downhill more than 270km to the faucets of San Francisco. It includes milk from the Clover Stornetta dairies in West Marin and Sonoma, and organic fairtrade coffee distributed by Due Torri which could be from Sumatra, Ethiopia, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica or elsewhere, or a combination of any of these.
Which is to say that a cup of coffee from Java Beach — or indeed from any cafe — holds three major landscapes and economies: pastoral, alpine and tropical. And that combination is drunk in San Francisco hundreds of thousands of times a day (though some take their coffee black). If you figure half a million cups every morning among the 800,000 inhabitants, you’re picturing production on a vast scale. And then there’s plumbing: the story that begins in Hetch Hetchy’s dammed valley inside Yosemite National Park ends with the two wastewater treatment plants that outflow into the bay and the Pacific, and with the composting of coffee and filters in the city’s industrial-scale composting facilities in Vacaville.
Learning to see those people and landscapes in your cup is among the demands of the world we live in, where we are constantly using, wearing, relying on and consuming products created by forces far beyond the horizon. The Industrial Revolution has been about alienation — not only of producers from their work but of consumers from the source of the products they use. Much of the work of the environmental and social justice movements during the past few decades has been to make these forces visible: to see sweatshop workers when you see cheap clothes; to see child labour in some brands of chocolate; to see toil and geography, just or unjust, ugly or beautiful, in everything you touch.
This knowledge brings demands that can also be pleasures. You can get to Ethiopia from Java Beach if you learn to read your coffee; and one of the big questions about fair-trade versus commercial coffee, independent cafes versus chain stores, is about drinking in meaning, or meaninglessness.
San Francisco once was, and Oakland now is, the port through which a huge portion of the nation’s coffee flows. Years ago, when Folgers and MJB were still south of the Bay Bridge, everyone driving by smelled roasting coffee at all hours; you can still sometimes travel through that aroma on 880 in East Oakland near where the coffee is now unloaded and roasted both by big plants and by small places like Due Torri Organic Coffee Roaster, a distributor of organic fair-trade coffee.
Vincent, the proprietor of Due Torri’s two-person roasting, blending and distributing operation in a concrete bunker in a small East Oakland industrial park, tells us one rainy morning he estimates the beans have been handled by 100 people by the time they reach your cup. In the 22.5kg sacks of coffee he receives raw from the Oakland docks, he’s found many things, including jewellery, bullets and teeth. The people behind the coffee are real to him. His family owns a finca — a coffee plantation — in Guatemala, and he grew up spending summers there.
For me, a cup of coffee is an ingathering of worlds: coffee growing in tropical highlands, dairy farming in the surrounding countryside, and hydraulic engineering that gets the water from the mountains to the plumbing and then cleans it for the sea. For Bob Dawson, the photographer working with me, the same cup of coffee, bought and drunk in a neighbourhood cafe, is a sort of communion with the people and place around you.
A cup of coffee is both, and the way that dual identity works models many other situations. In the mid-17th century, London coffeehouses were intellectual and political hotbeds, so much so that Charles II considered suppressing them. But even then the coffee itself was a globalised product, coming in from the Arab world and the subtropics, part of the same colonial landscape as tea, cotton, rum, sugar, slaves and plantations; and businessmen were conducting their deals in the coffeehouses, too. So the material coffee was most likely about exploitation and oppression, whereas the social space was about the free exchange of ideas and the growth of urban public life; early newspapers were read and passed around in these places.
San Francisco has always been a coffee town: Tadich Grill, the oldest restaurant in the city, began as a wharfside coffee stand in 1849, at the beginning of the gold rush, when sacks of coffee were as much a part of the wharves as the coffee factories were of the old industrial city, now lost. But the cafes that freckle the city are a relatively new phenomenon. My friend Jesse Drew reminded me that he’d lived in the Mission in the days when there were two cafes: the Picaro on 16th Street and Cafe La Boheme on 24th — both still open daily, but now with dozens of other coffeehouses in between.
I also remember the hippie-ish Cafe Clarion at Mission and Clarion Alley back in the early 1980s, but Jesse was right that there had once been few cafes outside North Beach. They sprang up like mushrooms after a rain in the 1980s and became a way of passing time, of visiting and working and reading and meeting. Perhaps because so many people live in small apartments, the cafes are their other living rooms; perhaps because so many lead eccentric, freelance, unsettled lives, they pass through these places all the time like migratory birds. It can be astonishing how many people seem to be at everything and anything but work on a weekday mid-morning. This is an edited extract from Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit (University of California Press; distributed by Inbooks, $34.95).
Enjoying a coffee in North Beach, San Francisco