On Coffee Snobbery

by Benjamin Domenech on 4:45 pm July 16, 2008

coffee is beautiful

Coffee snobbery: we’ve all experienced it. We’ve all been frustrated by encounters with our own personal Ravens. Few of us know how to respond with anything other than withholding a tip. But Jeff Simmermon’s epic “Hold that espresso between your knees” rant on the subject, following an encounter at Arlington’s Murky Coffee, is now the stuff of legend (bonus points for the Five Easy Pieces pull).

The fame of this isn’t because his post or his situation (Murky refused to serve him an iced espresso, and then castigated him when he ordered an espresso and a cup of ice) is unique – it’s because it inspired this vicious reaction from Murky’s owner. Enjoy, and then come back here (oh, and of course, since this is wifi central, the original conversation was overheard and immediately blogged at WeLoveDC).

Coffee snobs are everywhere these days, and Murky’s owner is just being honest about being one of them. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, my first job was as a Starbucks barista. I worked the morning shift almost exclusively – getting up before 5 AM, driving through the dark and dodging the backroad wildlife, downing a quad shot, setting up the store in time for the first arrivals, who stumbled in like clockwork. I actually chose mornings, because I liked the customers better: fewer snobs. If you worked in the afternoons, you’d get middle aged parents, kids in tow, who thought they knew everything about coffee. They’d ask for shots pulled to ridiculously specific seconds, and temperatures of milk as hot as the fire of the sun.

I remember one customer in particular, a middle aged woman who talked a great deal about her cat, who insisted on 12-13 second shots, and half-skim, half-2% milk heated to exactly 180 degrees in her latte. The first time I worked an afternoon, she came in when I was on bar. I couldn’t believe she would actually want this drink, but I made it anyway, to her specifications. She walked away, took a sip, and immediately turned around.

“You didn’t make this right,” she said. “The shots are wrong.”

“Okay, how about I make it again?”

“The milk tastes bad. I think you’re using bad milk. Throw out that batch and use something else.”

“I’ll make it again.”

I made it again – this time, I pulled the shots to a more normal 18 seconds (thankfully, despite her best efforts, she couldn’t crane her neck around the bar) to see. I heated the milk to 140. I gave her the drink. She tasted it with a scowl.

“Oh, this is much better!” she said. “Yes, I think it was the milk you used before – be careful to check the date!” Then she smiled at me: “You’re lucky you’re new, and I’m a good customer, or I’d be more mad about that.”

Milk, I knew, scalds at 180 degrees.

She would come back again and again, and next time requested that I make her that special drink, since I did it right. Everybody thinks their drink is unique. But she’d just ordered a very simple, standard latte.

I loved mornings because of the absence of this customer type. Nobody is awake enough to complain about seconds or ten degrees one way or the other. They want to wake up, and they want to wake up fast. You are the avenue to them waking up. And here, try a lemon knot. By the end of the first month, I knew everyone’s drinks from open to about 10 AM – I could run bar without asking for orders, making the same drinks before they even called them out. It was excellent. When I left Starbucks after a little more than a year to head off to college, customers brought me going away gifts – including one sweet woman who brought me a lovely book of stories by Turgenev.

These days, I still go back to that Starbucks on occasion – of all the megachains, I still prefer their unground beans the best – and I use French pressed coffee pretty much exclusively. I use this for espresso. But I’m not above stopping in a diner when I’m on the road – even that’s better than nothing.

But even I have limits. I have to confess, I don’t like Murky Coffee. I’ve been there twice – the Arlington shop has a good location, you’ve probably driven past it a hundred times if you’re local – and both times, I found the coffee to be … subpar. As in, filtered through sweaty handmade socks subpar. I get that some people like this stuff. But that’s the whole damn point: it’s okay for them to like it, and okay for me to not like it. This isn’t a debate about something serious, like faith, politics, or game consoles. It’s just coffee. It’s not wine, it’s not cheese, it’s not even bread. Baristas learn their trade in a week of trial and error, not a sommelier school.

The mistake Murky’s owner makes in his response to the customer is referring to what they create at his coffee shop as “art.” Wake up, people: it isn’t. Good coffee is beautiful because its taste is perfect, well-crafted, and memorable – because it reminds you of a place or a feeling, of a conversation with friends, of a time in your life. That’s not art. That’s just good food.

This is America. As Chef Gusteau would say: anyone can make coffee. And they can make it the way they like it. Even if they really do figure out that they want 180 degree lattes, god bless their scorched tastebuds. There are better things to be a snob about.

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