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December 09, 2008

Coffee and Seattle -- Why?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I never could figure it out. This business about Seattle being coffee-crazed, Seattle being the coffee capital of the Solar System, if not beyond.

The first rumblings in the press way back in -- I don't remember exactly when -- the late 80s or early 90s or thereabouts took me by surprise. "Huh? Seattle and coffee? I never noticed that." And I had spent much of my life in the Seattle area.

Given that Starbucks, the world's largest and best-known coffee chain, is Seattle-based, the connection between Seattle and coffee is now taken for granted. But back in those early days, Starbucks was pretty much local and reporters were wrinkling their brows about whether the company could successfully transmit their friendly, laid-back Seattle ambiance if they expanded to surly places such as New York City.

Before that connection was taken for granted, there were articles in the press dealing with the subject. Sadly, lacking the skill and tenacity of a librarian, I can't quickly locate any such pieces. Nor, alas, can I remember any of their conclusions.

That self-inflicted ignorance and uncertainty was swept aside this morning.

I dropped off my wife at her tennis club in a suburban city on Puget Sound and had an hour and a half to kill. Rainy day. Mid-40s temperature (call it 6 or 7 Centigrade). Certainly not a nice day, but not so awful that many people would never want to venture out. I parked the car and wandered over to a Tully's coffee place. It was packed; no place to sit and I definitely needed to sit if my time-killing project was going to work as planned.

So I hiked a couple of blocks over to the downtown's other coffee place, a Starbucks. Same story. Then back to Tully's where I ordered The Usual ("tall drip with a little room") and stood around until I could grab a chair.

There you have it, my newly-hatched theory of why Seattle folks became known as great coffee drinkers: the weather.

Betcha no one ever thought of that before.



posted by Donald at December 9, 2008


No. My wife beat you to that theory years ago.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 10, 2008 12:35 AM

I think you guys are right -- the overcast weather must have a lot to do with it. The Wife and I used to get to the NW pretty regularly back in the '90s, at around the time of the cafe explosion. Not just Starbuck's but many others too. We marveled at the way coffee outlets were everywhere , at how good and strong much of the coffee was, and at what connoisseurs of coffee many Seattleites seemed to be. Varoom. It was fun drinking so much coffee.

Needless to say, we didn't have the sense to buy a few shares of that little startup Starbuck's outfit, darn it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 10, 2008 9:21 AM

But what explains why every Seattle coffee chain over-roasts their beans?

Posted by: CyndiF on December 10, 2008 12:01 PM

I second the weather theory. I live in upstate NY and my coffee consumption definitely ramps up this time of year. Tea, too. Also, if everyone huddles together in the coffee shop, it's warmer (and cheaper) than staying home with the heat on.

Posted by: Ann on December 10, 2008 1:21 PM

I've been wondering about this for years, too -- albeit from the opposite angle: why did this happen in Seattle and not in New York City (i.e., Manhattan) -- which was, arguably, the previous capital of coffee culture?

When I first began reading about Seattle becoming the center of coffee drinking culture and the coffee trade -- I believe it was being written about in the "New York Times" (?) in the early 1980s -- I was both skeptical and "annoyed." What kind of center of coffee drinking culture could Seattle really be when "everyone knows" that New York City (i.e., Manhattan) is the "true" center of coffee culture (at least in the U.S.)? Not only was coffee the unofficial drink of fast-paced NYC, but it was where coffee was glorified in song (e.g., Irving Berlin's "Let's have another cup of coffee," etc.) and where coffee / "foodie" trends, both mass market and gourmet, seemed (at least to me) to begin: Horn & Hardart's (1930s?), Chock Full O'Nuts, bohemian coffee houses serving expresso, etc. (1950s?), premium Columbian coffee (served, for instance, in art movie houses like the Beekman in the 1960s), drip coffee (instead of percolated), etc.

Plus NYC had already had, for many years, such specialty coffee stores as McNulty's and Porto (sic) Rico (and Zabar's [?], Balducci's [?]) and was seeing the development of new (in the 1970s) establishments like "Food" (a gourmet upscale cafeteria in SoHo) and Dean and DeLuca's (a gourmet food store, down the block,) that also served coffee) that appeared to be pointing the way to a new kind of upscale "foodie" version of the bohemian coffee house. When I had first seen saw "Food" and "Dean and DeLuca's," and some other similar establishments, I had hoped that they would become NYC, and then national, chain stores -- NYC's own entries" into the McDonald's "sweepstakes." And when I saw my first Starbuck's, it seemed so New York / SoHo -like to me, that I thought my wish had come true. (Alas, only the founder of the chain, Howard Schultz, is from NYC (Brooklyn)!)

So what happened? I guess it's a little like Detroit eventually being surpassed by foreign upstarts (like the Japanese).

Why did it happen? In part it may be because of the same reasons that Detroit lost its hold on car culture -- new things get developed in new places and in the old places people get too attached to the established traditions that don't really leave enough economic room for new the ways to take hold.

But I wonder if it may also be due, at least in part, to an anti-commerce, anti-chain store and anti-city mentality (e.g., anti-street / storefront and pro-economically sterile plaza and open space) mentality of so many New Yorkers (including those who like to think of themselves as being pro-urban). After all, New Yorkers were open-minded enough to jump onto the Starbuck's bandwagon once it did appear in New York -- therefore the market to this kind of establishment is, obviously, here. So one wonders what would have happened if Manhattan had more viable retail locations at lower rents (i.e., more streets, smaller blocks, and more street-level retail space) and if New Yorkers had less of a anti-commerce mentality? Would a local Starbuck's-like establishment have arisen out of New York's very rich coffee loving heritage?

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 10, 2008 2:17 PM


Pupu has a pet theory on that! Let us call it the Second Law of Thermal Dynamics of the Coffee market.

With competition, the strength of coffee served cannot go down because once someone is used to drinking strong coffee, she won't get enough kick out of a weaker cup so she will leave for a stronger cup. In order to deter competition, coffee shops have to keep their coffee strong. Over roasting is a part of the game. It would be fun to check whether the coffee served in restaurants in Seattle is weaker because they do not compete on the quality/strength of their coffee.

Posted by: Pupu on December 10, 2008 2:27 PM

can I be the contrarian here? I live in Atlanta where it's mild to extremely hot and it never rains. we had a constant draught here for the last 5 years. I think we have the same number of coffee shops as other cities I think. The question we were asking ourselves Sunday is "do you think Starbucks has peaked"? One of my friends argued that a $4 cup of coffee is not the first thing people will buy in a recession. the other guy said he wanted to open up a Starbucks franchise since he is having a hard time finding a job.

Posted by: michael on December 10, 2008 10:48 PM

Sounds like whisky weather to me.

Posted by: dearieme on December 11, 2008 7:52 AM

Was your wife actually playing tennis in that miserable weather?

Posted by: buster1 on December 11, 2008 11:21 AM

"With competition, the strength of coffee served cannot go down because once someone is used to drinking strong coffee, she won't get enough kick out of a weaker cup so she will leave for a stronger cup. In order to deter competition, coffee shops have to keep their coffee strong."

This is the triumph of perception over reality then, because the more you roast coffee beans, the lower the caffeine content!

Posted by: CyndiF on December 11, 2008 12:36 PM

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