Dearest Ashvegas readers, I’d like to take you to coffee school, but before I do so, let me establish my credentials as a coffee geek. I’ve worked in the industry since I was 16. I’ve worked in corporate shops (Starbucks), and mom-n-pop shops, including the Dripolator and Mountain Java here in Asheville, as well as Forsyth Coffee in Australia. Currently I’m an owner of Waking Life Espresso in West Asheville. I know coffee, and I’m here to help.
I’ve encountered a few typical problems in my coffee career by the way of how most folks perceive and discuss the beautiful bean. It’s helpful to understand and overcome these hurdles to better enjoy your beverage. Ashevillians are mostly educated consumers of quality goods, but coffee lags behind.
First, it’s the morning. Nobody goes to a restaurant craving spherified bacon and eggs at 7 a.m. Breakfast and molecular gastronomy seem mutually incompatible. Thus, when baristas attempt to nerd out, we’re often received with a frustrated sigh and a mumbled “I just want a coffee, bro.” The truth is that we’re excited about the coffee we’re serving, and we’d like you to be excited, too. We know you’re tired, and that you may not be as nerdy about your morning cuppa as the seven microbrews you had last night. Kindly trust your baristas to deliver a wondrous sensory experience to begin your day, even if you don’t want to talk about it.
Second, as an industry, we’ve been terrible with customer service for a long time. We’re trying to correct it. I can’t speak for other cafés, but at Waking Life, we’ve focused on creating a collaborative experience in which you’re invited into our coffee lab to experiment with us. That said, we understand if you’ve been on the receiving end of your fair share of barista snark. We’re sorry for that.
Third, there is no such thing as “just a coffee.” I know you’re trying to keep it simple. I get it. But that’s like saying “just a beer” or “just a glass of wine.” Coffee has an infinite variation of sensory experience to offer, based on variety, terroir, processing, shipment, roasting and extraction. Even if your barista gives you “just a coffee,” its taste will change according to those variables. So to begin discussing coffee, it must be seen as capable of nuance and distinctiveness.
Fourth, what you say you like and what you actually like are often two very different things. Coffee terms (“acidity” and “strength” being common examples) are often conflated with other food or scientific terms and lose meaning. So throw away your preconceived notions about what you like and don’t like, and sip blind. You might be surprised at what tastes good and what doesn’t. I truly believe most people are capable, with practice, of tasting the exact same things in a cup that experienced baristas taste. I’ve told folks that a coffee from Rwanda tastes like tomato soup, and I love the look on their faces when they get it. “Oh my god, it DOES taste like that! That’s incredible!” That’s music to a barista’s ears. We love seeing your tastebuds and your brain harmonize.
Finally, compared to other beverages, good coffee is really inexpensive. A few months back, we served a coffee grown by a gentleman named Jose Encalada for $8 a cup. It was the best coffee in Ecuador in 2013. Imagine getting a glass of the best Scotch whisky or a bottle of the rarest Belgian beer for $8. Comparatively, the coffee was an absolute bargain. I’ve paid $8 for truly mediocre cocktails in Asheville without a complaint. Why should an astoundingly good coffee be cheaper than those ill-balanced cocktails? In fact, many folks pay $10 for an 18-pack of K-Cups. The immense environmental impact notwithstanding, that’s $10 for 205g of very weakly brewed coffee. You can buy a pound (453g) of locally roasted Dynamite for $13. Or snag a four pack (800g-1,000g) of locally roasted Mountain Air for $30. That’s 60 to 85 cents for a perfectly brewed cup of wonderful coffee. It’s like the 1920’s all over again – don’t spend that dollar all in one place, champ.
So are you ready to get nerdy, be treated like a human being, trust your tastebuds, save some money, and delve into what this wild little roasted fruit-seed has to offer? Stay tuned.
Jared Rutletdge is the owner of Waking Life Espresso at 976 Haywood Road in West Asheville.