He Said, He Said: Coffee Talk
Here, we continue with the beloved FLOOD column, in which the titular “He” converses/argues with the titular…additional “He,” in this case, about a pressing cultural issue in the preferred forum of cultural enthusiasts everywhere: the Gmail G-chat.
Today’s subject: Coffee culture, hipster cafés, and The State of the Caffeinated Union.
Messrs. Koons and Rogers—two members of FLOOD’s editorial staff—lead the charge on the es-steamed topic, setting out to address what’s at stake when walking into a bougie establishment and the baggage that comes with being a 21st century java connoisseur (read: addict). Channeling their inner Linda Richman and Liz Rosenberg, our two hosts speak behind different, but complementary coffee backgrounds: Christian Koons, a recently retired barista veteran, fresh from the front lines of Intelligentsia, one of LA’s premier specialty cafés; and Nate Rogers, a recent returnee to LA—the land of children who drink Frappucinos—after spending a few years living within the trenches of boutique coffee warfare (the Mission District in San Francisco). Grab a $12 cup and let us introduce you to the world of babyccinos, Philz, and tie-clip server mandates. Commence the Cwoffee Twalk!
Nate: I think we can both agree that having this discussion not over a cup of coffee is a small crime.
Christian: Haha, true. I’ve already had mine. So Nate, you just moved back here from San Francisco, which is a pretty big coffee town. What was your experience with coffee there?
Nate: Coffee in SF is more controversial than The 49ers. What you drink and where you drink it is always this big ordeal.
Christian: Are there turf-wars? Factions?
Nate: You think Phil set up his empire without any blood-loss? Please.
Christian: I’m actually not familiar with Phil’s [sic]. A colleague of ours was making fun of it earlier and you defended it. She mentioned something about a fedora shop? That seems a bit much.
Nate: First of all, it’s “Philz” with a “z.” Very important. And second off, I’m pretty sure Phil was rocking fedoras before it was cool. Dude’s from like, the Lebowski era of ’90s dad style. He’s a proto-hipster.
Christian: Nice. Somehow I still know nothing about Philz. Is it like the Starbucks of the Bay Area? Or perhaps the Peet’s?
Nate: Probably Phil thinks that Philz is the Starbucks of the Bay Area, but I’d say that title still belongs to…Starbucks. Philz is a drip-coffee joint where every barista wears a beanie at all times, and all orders are custom made on the other side of the counter. They make you taste it before you take it away like at a bar. Just got their first LA location. You should check it out so you know Intelligentsia’s new competition.
Christian: Sounds intense, and not too dissimilar to my time at Intelligentsia. We didn’t have to wear beanies per se, but we did have to wear ties, which was annoying. Especially when the tip of your tie accidentally dips into the pour-over coffee you just spent 4 minutes making right in front of the customer. Needless to say, I didn’t force him to try it in front of me.
Nate: Well, personally I think they should get rid of the tasting process. Who the hell is gonna send back a cup of coffee? And ties were required for you guys? Unless it’s 1920, that’s cruel and unusual.
Christian: We literally had cups of coffee given back to us everyday. I remember one lady who forced us to remake a fictional drink she called a “babyccino” three times before she deemed it acceptable for her infant. It was basically steamed milk she made us scoop out with a spoon into a mug for her. We didn’t even know what to charge her. I think she ended up getting it for free.
And not only ties, but tie clips were required. They were all about presentation. I guess the idea is that it gives people a strange sense of satisfaction if their coffee is being made by what appears to be a young but eager entrepreneur. Which was a bummer because most of my nice shirts now have espresso stains.
But I will say, bells and whistles aside, the coffee we made there really was quite good. It’s a quality product. Sounds like you liked this Philz place, despite its supposed corniness or snootiness. Where do you draw the line between a good product and a silly experience?
Nate: (Dibs on “Babyccino” as a band name.) I dunno, the fact that the quality of the coffee hasn’t come up until right now is really at the crux of the issue, right? Like, I think Philz coffee is good, but no one talks about that on its own, because it’s such a scene there that it’s distracting.
Christian: Good point. I’d say about half the customers we had at Intelligentsia were regulars who were there for the product, glitz and glam aside; the other half were there for the scene, or the experience of a boutique coffee shop—basically to Instagram their latte art.
Right before I left we were selling a $12 cup of black coffee. It was some super special bean that was grown at a perfect climate or something. That’s a dollar per ounce of coffee.
Nate: I’m…I’m kinda down… But only if Walter White prepared it. Did you ever try it? I’d be curious to see what would happen if someone took the Pepsi Challenge with a regular cup.
Christian: I’m no Heisenberg, but I did sometimes feel like I was in the drug business. Just watching the moods of our regulars fluctuate was pretty solid evidence of our product’s effect. I was pretty affected myself. After some shifts I would just go home and crash immediately, feeling sick and wanting nothing to do with coffee, but by the next morning I couldn’t operate until I got some.
A Pepsi Challenge is a great idea. I did try the $12 cup. It was pretty dang good, but I’m saying that as someone who could drink as much as I wanted for free. No way I’d pony up if I were on the other end of the counter. We had plenty of customers who did, though. I guess if you’re used to paying around $5 for a cup of coffee every day, paying roughly twice as much for a supposed special coffee isn’t too crazy. You could tell some customers would buy it purely as some kind of status symbol, like the dudes who get four appetizers to impress their table.
Nate: Great, now I feel like a junkie. It seems weird to me that you had “regulars” at Intelligentsia… I’m imagining a scene where you have to throw out a wildly over-caffeinated addict out onto the street like in a Western.
Christian: We did have an older dude who would come in two to three times a day and buy two Cokes at a time. I found out later it’s because he was diabetic and his wife wouldn’t let him drink soda, so he came to our shop to do it. He put me in an ethical dilemma every day. Every time he came in after that, I would just think, “This could be it. This could be the day.” And I would have been an accomplice in his death.
Well, we’re not talking about coffee anymore. I guess that’s a good sign we should wrap this up. Any last thoughts?
Nate: Not really, but I do want to note how glad this conversation has made me for making the switch to Four Loko. So after this talk, could you ever be persuaded to return to the tie-pinned, beanie-wearing babyccino market?
Christian: I’ll drink coffee for the rest of my life, but I hope to never work in coffee again. The phrase that comes to mind is “I’ve done my time.” FL