The Comfort of Coffee
It’s winter in Maine, the season that lends itself most to a hot cup of coffee as the gateway to comfort and community. Whether it’s served in your kitchen or local coffee house, with or without foam, coffee is our fluid version of hygge, which, loosely translated, means a feeling of coziness, conviviality, and contentment. Though we currently live in the “third wave” of coffee culture—a confusing orgy of coffee options and preparations—our love of the basic brew hearkens back to our earliest social gatherings, when our ancestors bonded with one another over the warmth of an open fire.
Such is the sociable nature of java. It rarely keeps to itself. It likes to talk to an audience, often in loud tones. If tea is your sweet grandmother, then coffee is your zany aunt who first taught you to drive a stick shift. Sure, it is a beverage well-enjoyed alone, but ever so much more prized when in the company of others, and never more so than during the long days of a Maine winter when the mind—as the day—is prone to darken. Coffee is renowned as the energizing elixir of artists and poets, of mystics and philosophizers, of hipsters and revolutionaries, and it has fueled human endeavor and wild ambition since its first reported use in the ninth century.
The origin stories of the high-growing coffee plant, Coffea arabica, are legendary and all trace to Ethiopia, coffee’s native soil. According to lore, it was possibly first ingested by a young Ethiopian goat-herder, Kaldi, who noticed how plucky his flock became after eating the berries off the plant and decided to follow suit. Another account gives credit to Sheikh Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadhili, a Sufi mystic who observed a flock of rowdy birds feasting on the fruit and decided to try the berries himself, to his everlasting, wakeful joy. In another legend, it was the sheikh’s disciple, Omar, who chewed on the berries and found them bitter. He decided to roast them for flavor, and then boil the berries to soften them, thereby rendering the dark, flavorful liquid that became the original cup of coffee. One can only imagine how this discovery helped fuel future travels of goat herders and disciples alike. A person with a pocket full of coffee beans can go far and talk fast.
From Ethiopia, C. arabica was imported to Yemen and found its way into Egypt and the rest of the Middle East by the 15th century. A mere 100 years later, it had invaded Europe in what might be called the “first wave,” largely thanks to Turkish Muslim slaves. Coffee eventually made inroads across Asia, Indonesia, and into the Netherlands. Wherever the coffee bean emigrated, coffeehouses—those feverish hotbeds of committee work and intellectualism—soon followed. By the 18th century, C. arabica had ventured across the sea with European explorers to the Caribbean and West Indies, where cultivation really hit its stride. Coffee plantations soon spread to Central and South America in a frenzied wave that required the brutal supplantation of indigenous people and lands, and was aided by a horrendous dependence on slave labor and trade. Coffee was good business.
During the American Revolution, the colonialists dumped the tea habit of their oppressors, literally and metaphorically, and turned to coffee with patriotic abandon. Such was the demand in this country, that by the mid-20th century, this aspiring bean had found its way into every roadside diner, gas station, and honky-tonk café in the nation (the “second wave”). Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sang about coffee. J.D. Salinger and Albert Camus were among scads of writers who elegized it, and, that, dear reader, was just the beginning of our enduring love affair.
Thirty years ago, a barista-bonanza of gourmet coffee exploded in Seattle and swept the nation. Today, we have every imaginable permutation of coffee steaming and streaming in every household and American town. We are a nation of caffeinated jitterbugs.
In our state, where people are very spread out, the town’s center may no longer have a hardware store, but it’s more than likely there’s a go-to café. Specialty coffee houses and craft roasters are quickly cementing themselves as the hearts of our villages—including in more rural areas—and growing into small economic and social engines of Maine neighborhoods.
Today’s “local” takes form as the coffee place where you can run into your neighbor, share a conversation or news, read about the goings-on around town on the bulletin board, and maybe hear a local musician or poet share their talents. Remaining true to their bohemian beginnings, coffee houses continue to bring together people of disparate backgrounds, political views, jobs, education, and ambitions. In an era of disconnection and virtual reality, coffee—and coffeeshops—are a source of human connection.
Brian White, co-owner of Southwest Harbor’s Milagro Coffee & Espresso (milagrobrothers.com) with his partner Shawn Robinette, explains it this way: “Coffeehouses are where the community begins its day. They fulfill the role of the local gathering place. Often times, while you are waiting for your order, you end up brushing shoulders and maybe getting to know someone whose path, under any other circumstance, you might never have crossed. You may not know what background or experience that person has had—they could be a first-generation college student or a WWII vet, LGBTQ, or caring for aging parents—but you come together without bias or judgment (hopefully) for a moment each day at the coffee shop. I never knew who I knew or didn’t know in my community until I owned the shop.”
It turns out that more than love, we need coffee, the drink of the masses, where we can look into our cup and find in its liquid brown depth a democratic utopia.
Coffee venues are also ersatz offices of the new, free-ranging “gig” economy in Maine that (along with access to free wi-fi) is helping to shape our future. Coffee is so ubiquitous, with three-fourths of American adults reporting themselves as coffee drinkers, that businesses here in Maine are retooling their spaces into incorporate cafés.
In Biddeford, Elements offers books, live music, and all measure of coffee delights—and beer (elementsbookscoffeebeer.com). Recently, the music school 317 Main St., in Yarmouth, welcomed Sky’s Café (317main.org/visit-us/skyscafe) so students can learn to fiddle or pluck a banjo, cruise the internet, and grab a latte. Capital One bank (capitalone.com) just announced a partnership with Peet’s coffee and a redesign that includes in-branch cafés where you can “bank, plan your financial journey, and engage with your community.” You know you’ve gone platinum when even the bankers have figured out that the relationship-building magic of coffee is a good investment, and not bad for foot traffic, either. But with all this growth, one factor cannot be forgotten: Coffee is a plant that must be seeded, tended, picked, packed, and exported by people. Its rise in popularity is anchored in a history of hideous exploitation, horrific working conditions, and environmental degradation.
Most of the coffee we drink today is grown in South and Central America (Brazil being the largest exporter), Asia (Vietnam), and Africa, countries that have long struggled for economic parity with the nations that down their product by the gallon. It is an agricultural product, which means that every cup contains the physical efforts of a pipeline of people who must be fed, housed, and clothed.
For a long time, the health and wealth of the people behind the barista was an afterthought, but growing awareness of the plight of small farmers who produce coffee has led to a global effort to stabilize the market and improve the lives of growers.
Inspiring as well is what may very well be the start of coffee’s fourth wave: a commitment to sustainable, environmentally protective cultivation, and ethical importing of coffee products—and the folks leading the way are the independent coffee shops and local craft roasteries who have raised coffee service to an art form.
Craft roasting, like that practiced by, among many others, Tandem Café and Roastery in Portland, Carrabassett Coffee Company in Kingfield, and Rooster Brother in Ellsworth, means the retailer responsibly imports green coffee beans (most often C. arabica, though espresso is derived from the Robusta variety) from the grower and roasts them with their own proprietary flavors and techniques. Often folks will talk about Fair Trade when it comes to coffee, which is a global certification established in 1988 meant to stabilize market prices and protect small-scale farmers. Fair Trade has come under a lot of scrutiny lately as it is difficult to regulate, leaving roasteries to rely more heavily on real relationships with growers and exporters rather than the sticker on the bag.
To understand this shift, think about the difference between buying food at the farmers’ market compared to Hannaford or IGA. One easy way to know if your coffee is being responsibly sourced? Ask the roaster who they buy their beans from. Don’t be surprised if they respond with first names of the farmers and their farms—and if they don’t, it’s a hint that your coffee may be more corporate than you want it to be.
No one in our state has done more to lead the way in sustainable, local business practices than Coffee by Design (CBD), Maine’s largest local roasting company. Founded in Portland in 1994, when Congress Street had as many shuttered storefronts as occupants, co-owners Mary Allen Lindemann and Alan Spear had a vision to invest in their local economy by creating a coffee company where everyone was welcome at the table. Twenty-four years later, CBD remains a progressive company focused on supporting sustainable market practices and social responsibility.
“Our goal,” says Lindemann, “has and always will be to promote sustainable and just practices for ALL of our partners, including our company, our employees, our farmers, and our customers.”
She describes how they have “walked the talk in terms of building social equality and community,” from the beginning. One of the ways they’ve done this is through CBD’s Rebel Blend Fund which donates $1 to the arts in Maine for every Rebel Blend pound sold. CBD has achieved B Corp status, a rigorous national certification, which makes them “legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on all their stakeholders, including workers, suppliers, community, consumers, and the environment.” This far-sighted move makes them a beacon for newer arrivals in Maine and explains why a gourmet cup of coffee costs more than a cup at 7-11.
“If you look at the price of a cup of our coffee,” says Spear, as he sketches out a coffee cup, “let’s say for math’s sake it costs $1. By the time you pay for the ingredients, the farmers, the importing, the roasting, brewing, and service equipment, the employees (CBD has 65, and offers great benefits and competitive pay), the actual profit in that cup is like two cents...and then you have to go get a new espresso machine.”
It’s not profit that drives the folks at CBD, but commitment, quality, and a dedication to making the world less alienating and hellish—a vision they share with the very first mystics who discovered the brew.
When asked about the future of coffee, Lindemann shrugs. “They say we could never grow coffee in Maine, but who knows? With global warming, we aren’t ruling anything out.”
How many of these coffeeshop terms do you know?
Tall: usually 12 ounces., comes with one shot of espresso
Grande: usually 16 ounces., comes with two shots of espresso
Viente or Vente: usually 20 ounces., comes with two shots of espresso
Shot: a one-ounce portion
Double Shot or Doppio: two shots of espresso
Triple shot: three shots of espresso to the ordered drink
Quad: four shots of espresso
Cappuccino: espresso with a little steamed milk and foam on top
Americano: a shot of espresso and hot water Espresso: a highly concentrated shot of coffee topped with a natural creme that is formed during the brewing process
Latte: espresso blended with more steamed milk than foam
Skinny: non-fat and/or sugar free version of the drink
Espresso Con Panna: espresso with a small serving of whipped cream on top. Macchiato: espresso with a small amount of milk foam
Genevieve Morgan is a Maine-based writer and editor and host of the Spectrum Cable TV show, “The Writer’s Zone." She is also an author, most recently of The Kinfolk (Islandport Press/2016), book three of The Five Stones Trilogy.