The Coffee Boss: There’s no such thing as ‘just a coffee’


By Jared Rutledge

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.


Bill July 20, 2014 - 4:26 pm

Ok, I’m not a coffee nerd but I am pretty attentive to details.

I like the awesome coffee but have other minor complaints….most not worth bothering you with.

But can you explain why you offer a stick of starch (pasta) to stir the coffee? Seems likely to melt a little into a hot beverage and ruin the high class experience.

Plastic sucks but wouldn’t a wooden stick, or a real spoon, make more sense?

And not offering honey seems lame (cheap). Sometimes I used to go with a friend who wanted your coffee, but I am only up for tea. But no honey.

I could give constructive criticism on aesthetics, layout, menu/presentation, and other things that add to a cafés charm, but it’s not my job.

Now I just go to Odd’s.


smytty July 20, 2014 - 10:25 pm

Maybe don’t complain about tea condiments at a self-professed coffee specialty cafe?

I checked it out after this entry and had a really good cup of joe and a nice chat with the owner. Pride in what you do is great.

I enjoy the decor. Cleaner and neater than most Wavl digs. I wish them the best.

jc July 5, 2014 - 1:11 am

I stood in line at Waking Life while the barista took her sweet time ignoring me. She never acknowledged me, never offered me any service but had a great conversation with her co-worker. I don’t care how good the coffee is, if the service sucks I’m not going back.

jaredrutledge July 17, 2014 - 4:01 pm

Sorry to hear that bud. I’m working this Saturday morning until 1:30pm, come in and I’ll hook you up and make it right.

diana July 1, 2014 - 10:16 am


Lance C June 30, 2014 - 7:20 pm

Excellent article, Jared. I have become a Waking Life evangelist, sharing the good news of excellent coffee (the best I’ve ever had) and friendly baristas. I’ve started many mornings with the wondrous sensory experience at Waking Life and plan to enjoy many more. Thanks!

Matt June 28, 2014 - 7:44 pm

Nice! Some actual grammar-checked writing skills on the ashevegas blog.

Thanks for schoolin’, Waking Life is a fave of mine.

I have to stay away from coffee, which wouldn’t be so bad but I LOVE the taste and smell of good beans… But every blue moon I’ll indulge…mmm.

Frieda Peale June 27, 2014 - 10:49 pm

If I want to drink something that tastes like tomato soup then I’ll order tomato soup, thank you.
It’s an apt comparison made to the beer or wine scenes. Those also range from overwrought to phoney as well. How many articles have you seen where wine experts can’t tell cheap wines from expensive ones when the labels are hidden. That article appears every two years it seems.
Pass the sugar, please.

jared rutledge June 30, 2014 - 12:27 pm

I promise you, I can tell Folgers from a well-roasted washed coffee from Yirgacheffe. Every time. And those generally taste like white grape juice or tangerines. Delicious.

The point isn’t that you aren’t allowed to put a bunch of sugar or cream in your coffee. It’s that a knowledgeable consumer base will know WHICH coffee to put sugar and cream in, and which coffee not to. They’ll be aware of the nuance in coffee, which contains 1500 unique flavor compounds and aromatics compared to the 200 in wine. They’ll know which coffees to pay $10 a cup for, and which to pay $0.99 for. They’ll know they don’t like washed Bourbons from Rwanda because they taste like tomato soup, but they do like SL-28s from Kenya because they taste like blackcurrant.

You’re absolutely allowed to be ignorant on the subject, but don’t scoff at folks who aren’t.

Matt July 1, 2014 - 9:59 am

Do you genuinely feel wronged by this article? I just don’t get it. Jared is a great resource for those of us in avl who choose to care about coffee. In fact, it is hard for me to find fault in his ways. Think about it. Is Jared getting filthy rich by taking the money of those poor suckers who fall for his phony rhetoric? I don’t think so. The artisan coffee industry which he is part of provides a fair, sustainable living for folks in developing nations. Even if it leverages human vanity to this end, how is this reprehensible? Personally, I love it when free market forces work to elevate the people who care about quality. I am convinced that these same forces are our best chance to discredit those who would perpetuate sameness and homogeneity. As for you, I have a label for people who would take the time to disparage others for merely offering their perspective on a beverage: hater. Petty hater.

Hi-Fi Cafe June 27, 2014 - 5:28 pm

Very well written my friend. Will have to stop by next time we are in west asheville for more of the fantastic brews you all do over there!

gh June 27, 2014 - 3:05 pm

So… um… can I get that cup of coffee?

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