Where There’s Coffee, There is…
I’m from a small town, Athens, Georgia. Despite its size and largely due to the University, Athens had a lot of character and a lot to offer: art, culture, lectures, presentations and exciting events but more than that, a community to which such things matter. Local businesses, historical preservation, musical venues, and more were all integral to town-life and part of the common experience of the people who dwelled there. When I moved from my micropolis to the rolling foothills of metro Atlanta I found myself surrounded by strip malls, chain-stores and franchises. Experiences and places often weren’t organic, but instead manufactured, fabricated, with suburbia giving the clear and distinctive feeling of life as simulation rather than life as life lived.
But it’s okay to love where you live. And given the chance, adventures can evoke themselves. All you have to do is look. I resolved that while I lived in the Atl I was going to find what was out there rather than allow myself to drift in some sort of self-imposed foggy limbo of gated communities and golf television. So-where to start? Well, with coffee of course. Coffee culture has boomed in the United States over the past thirty years. I remember a time when most people just got their caffeine fix from the coffee maker at work, or a burned old pot of the stuff at the gas station. Since then, Starbucks has invaded and built its empire across the country and gotten folks used to the idea of spending money on coffee and introducing coffee jargon into common lexicon: cappuccino, espresso, latte. But let’s face it, at the end of the day, despite its convenience and wifi, Starbucks is just another chain and just another franchise, as much a part of the disposable strip mall culture as Subway.
I start my day with coffee, and a life without it is inconceivable to me. It’s not just the caffeine, it’s the taste, the body, the smell, the history behind what I’m drinking that gives me a sense of order in an uncertain world. Even when I was at my most broke and most desperate during my starving student days I still made sure I had money for coffee. Coffee is important: as much a part of creating community as a campfire. People talk shop, think out loud, philosophize when they drink coffee together. Coffee houses used to be called penny universities because of the intellectual discourses that took place within them. So to begin my search for the good life in Atlanta, coffee was where I had to start.
But where to find the best cup of coffee in my area? I did what everyone in the modern age does. I just Googled the term ‘best cup of coffee’ near me. A number of results came up (including Starbucks, of course). As I searched through the listings I came upon a nearby coffee house named, innocuously enough, Coffee Nut Cafe. Expecting the same standard menu offerings of Starbucks inspired drinks with re-branded names I was amazingly and happily surprised. Listed on the menu, but also written on chalkboards were items such as Cortado, Breve, Ristretto, Cafe Bombon. The java offered was a far cry from the standard hum drum affairs of contemporary bourgeois suburban coffee slurped down by millions of soccer moms across the nation as they exit a drive-thru. These were drinks that were almost certainly new to the people who entered the doors, myself included. I thought I knew my coffee, but had no idea what a Ristretto or a Cafe Bombon was. I resolved to go to Coffee Nut Cafe as soon as possible.
The owner, Marcelo Castro, greeted me when I came in. I got a Cortado. Cortado is a Spanish word for a beverage that consists of espresso mixed with an equal amount of warm milk; the milk is steamed but not frothy as in many Italian drinks. I sat down, sipped on the Cortado and took it all in. Coffee Nut Cafe is a family owned coffee house. Marcelo is from Costa Rica; because of its rainfall, volcanic soil, elevation and sunshine Costa Rica has been called the perfect region for growing coffee. Like wine, coffee is very susceptible to its local climate, and like wine, the taste, body and aroma are all affected. While I sat and drank, Marcelo chatted and ground coffee. He told me that changes to barometric pressure will affect the taste (the weather was changing that day) and he adjusted the grind ever so minutely to compensate. Marcelo is academically certified in coffee, but watching him work at his craft, it became plain that just as with anyone who takes great pride in their work, he was an artist at what he did, an artist that used all scientific tools available to enhance the outcomes of his efforts.
Careful attention is paid to the grind of the coffee, but also many other elements of the brewing process. I watched Marcelo use a scale and an i-Pad timing app to measure the amount and time of a pour, doing it in stages to produce a finely tuned cup of the most distinctive coffee one can be served.
People came and went as I sat there and in the easy comfort of the coffee house atmosphere I found myself engaged in some of the best casual conversation I’ve had in recent memory. Discussions about literature, art, poetry but also business, economics and politics. I met Italians from Columbia, a young woman about to leave the country for organic farming in Peru, people from all over. The coffee was like a heady potion, made alchemical by Marcelo’s art, that induced all this, and as people were met and new friends were made, community was engendered by local people who weren’t strangers at all but neighbors.