Seattle - Separate state of mind
No, he’s not really surprised. In fact, it’s what he expected. It has something to do with the taste buds, like when tasting wine, cheese or chocolate. “It takes practise,” says Chris Sharp. His guests look helpless and confused. They have just tasted a new variety from the Kenyan highlands: sniffed it, put a spoonful in their mouth, slurped, sloshed it around and even gargled a bit, but, if they’re honest, it just tasted like ... coffee! Not like Rwanda Premium or Ethiopia III. Nor can anyone say whether it’s different from or even the same as what they started out with. Mr. Sharp isn’t surprised.
This group of tourists comes from a small town in the American Midwest and he guesses that the choice of coffees there isn’t exactly overwhelming. “Just stay aware over the next few days,” he says, softening their disappointment, “and think about what you’re drinking, savor it before you swallow! I guarantee that by the end of the week, you will be able to distinguish between at least seven kinds.” Where are we? We’re at a public coffee tasting in the Victrola Cafe and Roastery owned by Chris Sharp. Chris is a caffeine fan and an “independent coffee roaster” according to his business card. And he’s in business in Seattle, naturally.
Nowhere else in the United States do people seek the ultimate caffeine kick like they do here. Close to 100 small roasting companies have made Seattle the country’s unsung coffee capital, and there’s naturally a Starbucks on every third corner (this is where the chain was founded). Tourists no longer visit Seattle just to explore Pike Place Market, to cheer on the SuperSonics or ride the elevator to the top of the 184-meter Space Needle.
These days, they also come for the coffee. A lot has changed on Lake Washington. Right up to the early 1990s, people tended to, well, overlook Seattle, an in-
dustrial port stricken by recession and tucked away in Washington State. It’s over 800 miles to San Francisco and almost a six-hour flight to Miami; New York and LA seem light years away.
But when a local software developer called Microsoft mush- roomed into a mighty market leader and a booming travel industry brought aircraft maker Boeing one jumbo contract after another; when what started as a small online bookseller called Amazon turned into the world’s biggest Internet seller, Seattle stepped into the limelight. Suddenly, people started moving there from Boston and Tucson and Fort Lauderdale. Rents went up and property prices skyrocketed.
Before Seattle became the caffeine capital, the only coffee available throughout the United States was a semitransparent brew that tasted like something meant for waterproofing shingles. The moment you swallowed a couple of mouthfuls a waitress rushed up to refill your cup. But once Starbucks began its triumphal procession you could even order a “double skinny dolce latte decaf, no milk, no chocolate, with a shot of caramel syrup” in a place like Wilmerton, Kansas.
Ever since, Starbucks has stood for Seattle although in Seattle itself, hardly anyone goes to Starbucks. Asian tourists may storm the very first outlet of the chain on Pike Place Market, but Seattlites drink their coffee elsewhere. Not at a multinational coffeehouse but at one of the small ones.
Cafés in Seattle are what coffeehouses used to be, long ago, in Vienna and Bu- dapest: a place where people come to debate, to meet, to read and to write. Their popularity is probably also linked to the fact that, for long months of the year, the weather in Seattle forces peopled to seek refuge indoors. People often feel the need for something warm because to say that it rains here frequently is a nasty euphemism – it rains practically all of the time.
And usually in such a way that you know when you get up that it will do so all day long. On days like this, the city feels like it’s been caught under a gray lid and the sky is a gray streak that masquerades as dawn or dusk, or even as noontime – you often cannot tell the difference.
But when the skies clear, the snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains rise up on the horizon, the Pacific glittering at their feet like beaten silver. Look the other way and you can see Mount Rainier beyond the skyline looking like someone had painted it against the sky with the scale all wrong.
“The mountain is out!” people will say, and anyone who can will spend the day outdoors. Cafes like the Victrola are prepared for such eventualities and serve iced coffee despite Chris Sharp’s personal view that the cold obscures the typical nuances of flavor that distinguish the different beans.