Ever had a conversation where you think you’re talking about one thing only to realize later the other party in your conversation was talking about something else? This happened to me in the shop last week. In this case, for ‘conversation’ I mean the shop and its esprit de corps. It’s akin to painting an abstract painting of something in psychic anguish and everyone seeing rainbows and care bears. This ‘trigger’ is almost always precipitated by a request for some amount of hot water in an espresso.
Why is it we do what we do or don’t do what we do? This route of thinking and questioning also calls to mind a recent article in STL Today that someone conveyed to me about that author’s best cup of coffee being Folgers from an auto drip pot and that ‘third wave coffee’ wears no clothes. I’m going to address this in three parts. One, why we do what we do at Sump. Two, as a result of the first point, why ‘third wave coffee’ does have new clothes. Three, why Thomas Keller of the French Laundry will cook a well-done steak but I won’t make an Americano.
First, why we do what we do. We’ve touched on this before, and actually, I’m told part of this analogy/reasoning has jumped the shark. We essentially ask what would a hardcore wine bar do? That’s why we don’t have sugar and milk out visibly ready for you to reflexively dose. That’s why we have the to-go cups out of site. That’s why we don’t have decaf. That’s why we don’t have multiple sizes. That’s why we set a menu for each day. So that’s the foundation. Now layer on top of that foundation a desire to make a delicious cup of coffee –a cup of difference. At this point in the analogy we add a dash of Freud and, metaphorically, a father’s love. Without knowing that we are creating something above and beyond the ordinary we don’t have a ‘father’s love’ or ‘approval’ –essentially your ‘love’ and ‘approval’ and thus no business. And it’s not just about a desire to make a delicious cup of coffee –it’s about the craft and art we feel in making that cup or the process of getting closer to that cup. And now we’ve said it, a dirty word –craft. Despite its overuse, craft is where it’s at. For too long people have become too separated from the thing they are doing and the thing that is being made. We believe that there is a fundamental urge in people to create and then to step back and take in the whole of the thing created. For us, it’s coffee. For someone else it’s cooking, food truckin’, urban farming, craft beer making, or furniture making, etc. This desire to create is so strong in us that it led to our decision to begin roasting coffee -the next step toward the creation of a cup of difference. We’ve said it before, if we make you a cup of difference with someone else’s coffee it just means that we didn’t screw up what was set in motion from the roaster-cooling bin. If we make you a ‘cup of difference’ with something we’ve roasted then we’ve really done something. Of course all of this goes back to and begins with the terroir and the processing of the bean –just like wine- but the climate isn’t right for coffee cultivation out back –so that piece will always have to come from another creator and curator. So in summary, we borrow heavily from the wine bar model, add a desire to make a ‘cup of difference’, and blend with a fundamental urge to craft.
Second, ‘third wave coffee’ does have new clothes. This thinking comes about mainly in response to the above-mentioned STL Today article that I’ve never seen or read. We think fresh coffee and fresh brewed coffee is the best coffee –third wave or first wave. We also think there isn’t a right or wrong way in coffee –just styles (and this is provided no one (people, earth, otherwise) is being exploited along the route from bean to cup). So Sump has a style, just like Folgers has a style –etc. We would also however suggest that much like Ace Rothstein from Casino, that “there are three ways of doing things … , the right way, the wrong way, and the way [Sump] does it.” We would further argue that the best way to experience the terroir of the coffee is as a light roasted single origin brew –as is our style and offerings in the shop. So how do you execute wine bar like offerings that are ‘fresh’ and seasonal in a small independent shop? You make each cup –you grind and hand brew to order. A small digression, the best reason we ever heard for ordering an Americano is as follows -you know the cup is fresh and hasn’t been sitting in a brew pot for hours upon hours –that may or may not have been cleaned out the night before. Some shops have multiple offerings –typically based on roast levels- in self-serve brew pots. So wine bar-like, but perhaps not always fresh, and more based on roast level or flavorings than origin; and as a result, not always seasonal or in some cases not always even ‘coffee’. If you brew by the cup, in front of the person ordering the cup it allows for an engagement about the coffee –just like wine, where it came from, farmer, why we do what we do, methodology, etc. It’s also fresh, and broadens the possible offerings of the shop. In part, we believe this is one of the reasons for the increase in the number of multi-roaster coffee shops popping up around the country. So third wave coffee does have new clothes. It’s fresher, it’s more engaged regarding the coffee’s origin and processing, it’s seasonal, and it’s typically lighter roaster. Hopefully, there is a dash of social consciousness in the cup too –where it be organic, fair trade, or bought at auction for what it’s worth. On the seasonal point think single estate Michele Cursel chocolate bars versus a Hershey bar. (A quick aside on seasonal coffee. Coffee is an agricultural product, just like wine, and as such has specific harvest seasons (different for each coffee region) and as such different outcomes each season based on rainfall, etc. One goal of third wave coffee is to capture that seasonal variation in the cup. See the chart from Sweet Maria’s at this linkhttp://www.sweetmarias.com/coffee.prod.timetable.php).
Third, why will Thomas Keller, one of the best chefs in the world, cook you a well-done steak and Sump will no longer make an Americano. We set the menu daily. Cup the coffees as they arrive to decide how to brew them and spend way too much time setting up the espresso bar in the morning. If anyone has seen our red moleskin notebooks you know the tremendous amounts of information we log each day on the coffees. Now this doesn’t make them right all the time or the best, but lots and lots of time is put in everyday setting up our daily menus. Quite honestly we will not make you an Americano because we haven’t made ourselves an Americano. We don’t want to sell you something we haven’t tasted and explored. We also have a pretty reasoned stance against the drink as it stands too. An Americano is like the human appendix. It had a function at one time during the great continental European wars of the 20th century, but in the modern 21st century coffee shop there is espresso and brewed coffee and the twain shall not meet. Also, please forgive the momentary hiccup you may see in the person’s face who takes your order in the shop if you order something off the menu. It’s hard to suppress sometimes after a long day when someone studies the menu for a couple of minutes then looks up and asks for a vanilla latte or an Americano. Not that there is anything wrong with those drinks, we just don’t do them. And it’s at those moments when we feel we’re having two different conversations. We need to do a better job explaining what it is we’re doing. Thanks for being a part of ‘Sump 2012’.
All our best to you in the New Year!