It is a point well beyond anecdotal that every subculture has its own set of legitimating practices. Practices that often have a ring of universality in them, such that anyone in the world can identify as part of that subculture. A sort of language if you will, that acts as shorthand for those who are part of the culture. This, of course, is true for coffee. Considering the fact that coffee fuels most of the western world, it would be fair to assume that there exists a rudimentary language for it.
I recall the early iterations of the Seattle Coffee shop ordering counters would often have a small notice board just behind the barista titled “know the lingo.” In it where coffee terms meant to enable the ease of ordering, while simultaneously connecting individuals to the language prevalent in these style of coffee shops. This, of course, was modelled after, if not based on, a similar linguistic code that was championed by Starbucks in America. These were early forms of identifiers within the culture and community, indeed, the initial tendrils connecting numerous coffee shops that were sprawling across city and country lines in the franchising of popular coffee establishments. As more and more people started to get on board with the idea of coffee beyond just as a stimulant, more complex forms of linguistic practices emerged. There was now a way that one could talk about their experience of coffee, Including the various flavour notes that one could pick up from a single cup. Most significantly, though was the increasing grasp of the coffee supply chain and the implications thereof. This could be seen commercially, in the form of the shortening gap between coffee growers and coffee purveyors. And for consumers, a growing concern for the wholesale bean and with it a fascination with what form of extraction would best suit the said beans based on the type of roast. With this, the language for consumers increased and with it a new class of coffee artisan known professionally as baristas. A career in coffee became a place holder for millennial artists and creatives (but this is a discussion for another time).
Also worth noting was the coalescing of a community of coffee enthusiasts. This community brought closer coffee growers, sellers, and consumers in a space that allowed cross-pollination of a variety of expertise. This is not to say that this type of community was the first of its kind. Coffee has had a significant following for centuries. What made this coffee community different was the pervasive dispersion of coffee knowledge. No longer an esoteric practice mastered by a few, anyone with an internet connection would have access to a vast bank of knowledge regarding the best way to extract maximum flavour from a coffee bean. It is this writer’s opinion this unfettered access has meant a lot for the coffee consumers in terms of variety of experience. One of the ways that this has happened is the connection of coffee to personal stories.
I started taking coffee semi-seriously in the late 90s early 2000s. I say semi because I had no clue what I was doing beyond the mere extraction of energy from the shot of caffeine into my body that somehow convinced me that all manner of things were possible. Although to be fair, coffee had been extensively ubiquitous throughout my childhood in a form severely shunned by most coffee enthusiasts, instant. In any case, I would soon develop a taste for coffee in an environment where most establishments had one of three options, espresso-based coffee, filter coffee, and if you were fortunate, French press coffee, colloquially known as Bodum coffee. The name, of course, reflecting the widely available brand of coffee plungers at the time. One of my most enduring coffee memories was buying ground coffee beans at Colombo tea and coffee on Grey street in Durban. The entire experience was multisensorial, the fresh smell of roasted coffee beans heavy in the air from the roastery upstairs. The black and brown burglar guards in front of the coffee counter and of course, the brown paper filled with 250 grams of African coffee. It was the best of times.
As far as home brewing was concerned most working-class homes, including mine, relied heavily on instant coffee. But if you could get past the prohibitive costs, percolators were reasonably ubiquitous, along with plungers and mocha pots. If you had the fiscal depth, you could buy a compact single-cup espresso machine. With the emergence of the specialty coffee market, all of the above individuals would converge on a single preferred establishment to break coffee as it were. Resulting in more and more people developing an understanding of coffee and its potential.
Indeed, coffee has become a meditative experience for most, a type of religious practice if you will. Complete with its own prophetic voices and sacred rituals. Moreover, a litany of legitimating practices held onto with religious fervour.