The Travel section of today’s New York Times featured an article on the burgeoning cocktail scene in San Francisco’s bars: Journeys – In San Francisco Bars, a Cocktail Is Not Just a Drink – NYTimes.com. What does any of this have to do with coffee? A bit more than you might think, actually.
The cocktail may no longer capture the sophistication and elegance it once had in the 1940s and 50s, but there are those today who are committed to its comeback. This renewed appreciation for quality cocktails bears a striking resemblance to the more recent public interest in quality coffee.
Of course, the word barista is derived from the Italian word for bartender. And among many high quality cafés in Europe, you’re likely to find great cocktails at the same watering holes where you find great espresso. In America, it’s extremely rare to find them together. But what we do find here is a regional artisan approach to quality drinks.
“The West Coast does liquids well,” the article quotes an SF bar owner. Which is why, as a complement to my wife’s culinary exploits, I only half-jokingly refer to myself as The Beverage Guy of the family. Once while accompanying my wife on a screen test for the PBS cooking show, Joanne Weir’s Cooking Class, Joanne asked me on camera from her Pacific Heights kitchen, “So, Greg, do you like to cook?” To which I replied, “I’m more of a beverage guy” — eliciting audible laughter from the TV crew. Though, for the record, my wife eventually made two appearances on the program — despite my obvious on-screen chemistry with the host.
And while the Bay Area has a rich coffee history, it is no stranger to the history of good cocktails either. Just take the martini, where the article notes Martinez, Calif. as “one of the drink’s putative birthplaces”. “Martinez” being a suitable origin for the drink’s name — explaining why Roberto Cauda, upon visiting us with several kilos of Caffè Mokabar from Torino, Italy, puzzlingly stated, “Why do you call it a martini when it contains absolutely no Martini?!” (i.e., with or without Rossi)
And yet is coffee at its nadir of sophistication?
As coffee lovers, we are encouraged by the parallel, Bay Area interest in elevating the art of the cocktail. But we close with the last words of the article: “It’s so sophisticated.”
Ah, sophistication. Unlike the cocktail renaissance, it is the one thing that, for the most part, is completely lacking from any West Coast espresso-drinking experience. The continued use of taste-altering paper cups, back-alley kiosks lacking any amenities, and the ironically conformist uniform that seems to equate the so-called Third Wave barista with looking like you woke up behind the bar — sleeping in the same clothes, in a pool of your own vomit, following an all-night bender at some of the Bay Area’s “less sophisticated” alcoholic establishments.
Perhaps James Bond isn’t going to your café to order an espresso, but there’s something to be said about the appearance of pride and self-respect in the craft and the role of a barista. And about treating the beverage with respect by serving it in an “adult” cup … and about treating customers with respect by offering them a place to sit, if not also a functional restroom. One can only hope that everything about the experience of drinking good coffee won’t be reduced to the worst common denominators. Could it get any worse?
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