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Coffee, Cafés, and Community: A Chat with Liz Clayton

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Fig. 2 – Liz Clayton

If you run across anything written by Liz Clayton, you should read it. It would probably be on coffee, possibly on Sprudge (where she’s an Associate Editor), or on sites like Thrillist and Serious Eats. Or it could be a coffee-themed book she authored (Nice Coffee Time, Press Pop, 2013). Or even, another book she co-authored more recently (Where To Drink Coffee, Phaidon, 2017).

For all she knows about beverages, Clayton’s own personal journey goes much deeper than that—she’s been writing from within subcultures for more than 25 years, going back to her Wind-Up Toy fanzine that focused on indie music, food, and travel in the early Nineties.

She’s a talented storyteller, knows a ton about awesome things, and is agreeably enthusiastic—in other words, the kind of person with whom you’d want to go out of your way to have a sit down and chat. With the publication of her latest book, I thought it’d be a good reason to catch up and get her thoughts about coffee, community, experiences, and the universal ties that bind us. 

Liz and I met at El Rey, a café in New York City that’s featured in her latest book (page 298). One note, this conversation happened some time ago, so if your eyebrow twitches at something that’s old news now, put that on me.

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Fig. 3 – El Rey

First, I wanted to learn about how she became a coffee writer. This story goes back to Toronto, circa the early 2000s.

At that time, I was a freelance journalist and my life circumstances kind of changed… so suddenly I was both working alone and living alone. And I was getting a little buggy, as one will. And I found out from a friend who was living on the West Coast, that there was this new kind of coffee that was really fancy and looked really cool. So I started checking out what we had in Toronto, which was not lots at that time.

There were places that were popular for lattes with etching on the top, if you know what that is. You take whatever you’ve done with the free pour and then you take a screwdriver or something or a pick of some kind and you pull lines through it, and then you drizzle it with chocolate and you make some kind of crazy snowflake, which is super awesome if it’s 2005 in Toronto’s Gay Village and you want something really awesomely froofy. But the coffee behind it isn’t necessarily great.

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Fig. 4- Latte Art (via sky bound coffee + dessert)

So I started learning about both sides of that equation—both the presentation of the coffee, and why people that want to present coffee in a way that beautiful, might care fundamentally, at further levels back—[about] sourcing really nice coffee, roasting really nice coffee, caring about its provenance. And as that movement was taking shape, more of those coffee shops showed up where I lived. I started going to them, and I started making friends in them, because people that work in coffee shops are really friendly. More than any other subculture I’ve hung out next to, which is a lot.

The movement that she was witnessing unfold has been called the “Third Wave,” in a term coined by Trish Rothgeb. She’s been in coffee for decades, and is a roaster and co-owner of a shop in San Francisco called Wrecking Ball.

There are a few hallmarks of third wave, which Liz helped me orient to (and for the record, she likes the term “fancy coffee”). There’s presentation, and also equipment. And, possibly above all, a focus on telling the story of the coffee. 

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Fig. 5 – Equipment and Barista, Go Get Em Tiger, Arts District, Los Angeles

Storytelling is very much at the heart of that first book of hers, Nice Coffee Time, which was published on a subsidiary of Press Pop—as Clayton describes, a Japanese imprint for “collectable toys, art books, and basically things that are really awesome.”

The book is based on Clayton’s travel to 30 different cities. She would photograph a café in each city, then shoot someone in their home making coffee in that city. The publisher pitched it to her as a road movie of sorts. And in that format, what emerges reminds me a lot of what I imagine going on tour with a band would be like: a combination of public spaces, and then just chilling at someone’s place who was kind enough to offer a couch for you to sleep on; those friends (or friends of friends) that play a part in making a stop memorable.

This conversation steered towards that American rite of passage—the road trip:

It was certainly a thing for me in my twenties. I did a lot of them going across the country, and I found just as much enjoyment in the spaces between. Obviously, “the journey is the thing and getting there is half the fun.” I’m not the first person to come up with that idea. But linking places together in a way like that is definitely a richer experience to me than flying in and out of a city.

The journey can include many unexpected opportunities for discovery as well, and Clayton relays the unique experience that the coffee community helped enable for her:

I would go find these coffee shops, and through the coffee shops—those places unlike anywhere else—they really unfolded into a menu of other things that I would find pleasing if I liked the shop I was in.

It was partly because the food movement spring-boarded in a way that there was a community among coffee people, bar people, and restaurant people that hadn’t been as synthesized before. Suddenly, if you went to the great coffee shop, they knew about the great restaurants, and the great bars, and everything else. But they also knew about the great record store and the great yarn store. I found that a really short conversation with somebody working in a coffee shop usually yielded more tips than anything else—more authentic tips—on other cool stuff to see near where I was.

I’ve been in coffee shops where I was told to go take a certain hike to the top of the mountain, where there used to be a fortress; or to the best comic store where the books are piled so high, they’re going to fall on you; or to someone’s birthday party that night. It could be anything, because it’s sort of like—if you’re into what they’re into, it unlocks something.

Coffee people are just warm and enthusiastic. And unlike, say, a record store (where if someone identifies you as very interested in what they’re interested in, they may try to embarrass you), people in a coffee shop want to connect with you, because they think it’s awesome that you’re a nerd about that. They don’t generally, for whatever reason, have the same things to prove.

I feel like especially within the coffee and restaurant communities, there is such an appreciation for others who do good work that what they share with you is their respect for other people operating on a certain level. And that doesn’t mean they’re snooty, and it doesn’t mean that the places are super expensive or that they’re at a certain echelon, but it just means those people do a fucking good job.

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Fig. 6 – Where To Drink Coffee (via Liz Clayton)

In a way, Where To Drink Coffee is connected to this theme, although not particularly directly. The book is an international listing of exactly what you’d think from its title, featuring commentary from coffee experts and people who work in the industry. It’s published by Phaidon, and is part of a series of books about Where Bartenders Drink, Where Chefs Eat… you get the picture. It came about from happenstance involving the book’s co-author, Avidan Ross. As Clayton describes him:

Avidan is a West Coaster who is an inventor and venture capitalist. He’s also greatly enthusiastic about specialty coffee. He splits his time between LA and San Francisco, two cities with absolutely wonderful coffee scenes. He also had a very momentous road trip, to bring that theme back, going from California to the East Coast, having the same experience that I’d been having in my coffee travels, stopping at a place he’d never been before, getting advice on the next place to go. He was even bringing coffee bags from point A to point B as a calling card of sorts.

Phaidon (which is London-based) had recently established a presence in the U.S., and knew Ross. He convinced them that coffee deserved its own guidebook and they brought Clayton on board.

The book spotlights different cafés across the world, organized by regions. It includes input from some of the leaders of the coffee industry, including many in roles that might be obscure to someone outside the industry: roasters, green buyers, cuppers, coffee graders… as Clayton puts it, “a wide swath of the end product of coffee as we know it.” There’s also a helpful “author’s index” if you find a person’s voice you really connect to.

This diversity of perspective informs the book as a whole. Rather than solely focusing on the perspective of its authors or consumers, you’ll get a sense of how other people in the industry perceive coffee shops. It makes for fascinating reading, and not only when you’re traveling. For instance, here is part of the entry for G&B Coffee (page 225). G&B is the flagship of the expanding Go Get Em Tiger mini-empire in Los Angeles, and was founded by Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski; the quote comes from Ben Kaminsky (more on him in a sec).

[G&B are] at the forefront of what’s being done with coffee service, which I think you can say about any business doing anything innovative or new in food… The service is casual. You come as you are, they meet you halfway. They somehow manage this dance while maintaining really high quality in the cup, which no one else had really cracked the code to until G&B. They seem to want to rewrite the way everything has been done in coffee to this point, including how much a barista can produce… as a customer, all they ask is that you approach the bar instead of queueing in line—the rest is really seamless.

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Fig. 7 – G&B Coffee, Grand Central Market, Los Angeles

This gets to the heart of what makes G&B special within the broader spectrum of coffee—they’ve somehow figured out a faster way to make high-quality made-to-order coffee. And when Kaminsky says they have really high quality, that’s coming from someone who’s a three-time US Cup Tasters champion (a cupping competition, referring to the practice for testing batches of roasted coffee for quality).

The book is also useful for finding, say, a café worth going out of the way for. The entry for Proof Bakery (in the Atwater Village section of LA, page 224) concludes: “If you were to order a croissant and coffee together anywhere in the world, pick here.”

For all its potential use as an “on the go” guide, it’s notable that there’s no accompanying website to the book, which begs the question: why a book? Clayton offers her take:

I think people want this book because they want to imagine where to go. I can tell you of a roadtrip story from the late / mid Nineties. You may be familiar with a book called Roadfood? It was a book that listed places like the restaurant in St. Louis where they throw the rolls across the store, or places that have exceptional pie, or places that have exceptional hot chicken. What we would now probably blame Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain for ruining for everybody else [by putting them on TV].

I remember taking a cross-country trip with someone and I would say, “Oh, we’re going through this state. Read to me what’s coming up in this state.” And half the time—I swear to God—he would read what was in a state we were not going to be anywhere near, just because it was exciting. And I think that people do still like armchair travel. Obviously, they do even when they’re using the Internet—people browse things for places they’re not going to go all the time. They look through listicles of places that they’re not going to go, as stimulation. 

But I think having an actual, physical, paper book that you can page through that’s grouped by regions, you can get a sensibility of what those cities and regions are like, and I think that’s really interesting … It’s almost like browsing in a library or book store versus going on Amazon. It’s the way things are collected together, and you have to see what’s proximal. It gives you a totally different sense of the topic than a specific search.

This is a good point, because as a physical book, it risks being out of date. This was sadly highlighted when one of its listings was destroyed by a gas leak explosion in the middle of the night and had to be removed before publication. But being up to date isn’t necessarily the point, as Clayton explains:

Anything with real staying power is still in the book for good reason, and I think the places and people that are called out as among the most important to people, like Proud Mary, and G&B, and Coffee Collective, and Tim Wendelboe—those people aren’t going anywhere. And it’s really quite joyful, I think, to read other people’s experiences and accolades, and see all the different dimensions they take away from what makes that shop great. It’s a really nice way to visit, even as an armchair traveler. And that doesn’t expire.

Fig. 8 – Tandem Coffee, Congress St, Portland, ME (page 282)

She then tied it all back how coffee lends itself to this way of thinking about physical places:

That’s what coffee is. It’s one of the few places where we step back from our constant Internet experience, even if we are looking at our phones the whole time. We physically go to that place so that we can physically be in a different place than our office or our house. We go to that place so we can talk to somebody that’s not someone we work with.

You could stay at home and make great coffee. It’s not that complicated to make a great drip coffee. I think the resources are out there now. The barrier to entry to do that correctly is not very high. Espresso, sure, but you can make a nice cup of filter coffee without having to talk to a stranger. But people don’t choose to do that exclusively. They choose to go to these new spaces. They want something to touch.

This powerful connection and a general interest in beverage has made coffee a thriving business, and it’s not a secret that big corporations are pouring money into fancy coffee. Stumptown, Blue Bottle, etc. have all been acquired by companies with larger resources—in some cases, some of the biggest companies in food and beverage. I wanted to know, what will this mean for all those considerate coffee professionals who built this sector from their passion and care? She took a moment to formulate a response. 

Everybody’s best case scenario is that farmers get more money… it would mean better options for farmers to sustain their crops against what currently are pretty bad climactic conditions, and against pests and plant disease that are really difficult to combat without the proper resources…

But do big companies actually care if farmers get more money? I’m not sure about that. If you spoke to someone who works for Blue Bottle [bought by Nestle], or Stumptown, or Intelligentsia [both bought by Peet’s], I assure you each one of them would have told you in the first year that nothing felt like it’s really changed. “We still operate independently, we still make our decisions,” blah, blah, blah. But you and I know that there’s a board above them, and you and I know that there are a bunch of rich German guys that do have a bottom line, and this will shake out over time.

I think this is one of the things we have to watch the long game, and I don’t really know what’s going to happen as a movement or as the next movement with these large investments having taken over what were the small players that became the big players in the small pond. But on a café level, you go into Stumptown now and you’ll see eleven kinds of ready-to-drink and, like, five taps.

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Fig. 9 – Stumptown, 8th St, New York City (Stumptown, via the Village Voice)

Stumptown has led with a thriving ready-to-drink sector, which is sort of the thing that everybody feels they should get a piece of. If you want something out of the case, there’s more options than you can fathom. So almost anyone that I know that’s trying to grow their coffee business to be medium / large is considering, “Okay, we have to bottle cold brew, we have to do these kinds of things.” And that’s a pretty mainstreamization, that’s like “We’re getting into Whole Foods.” Slingshot Coffee out of the Triangle in North Carolina is in Target now. You can’t be successful without going into the mainstream. Are really awesome little places like this still going to be here? Yeah, but they’re also going to close.

I wrote a piece in the Village Voice, in one of their last print editions, where we touched on that point, that in cities like New York, neighborhoods are starting to sit vacant because people are waiting for big chains. Small shops are going away because realtors are holding out for Chipotle to come in.

As inexorable a force as real estate can be, Clayton doesn’t see this as the end of the kinds of cafés her book celebrates, that the question of “where to drink coffee” will continue to lead to a good cup of coffee, and maybe a conversation that starts a journey of discovery.

I think there’s always going to be dreamers, to put it in a really ridiculous way. I think there’s always going to be people that think they can have a really cool coffee shop. And they’re going to do it whether that’s a great financial decision or a stupid financial decision. So yes, I think I have a lot of hope in that regard.

Epilogue

Our conversation called to mind the first time I met Liz, a long time ago. We had come to know each other through an online community focused around independent and underground music, and learned that we lived about a half mile away from each other. We met in person to trade cassettes, and have kept in touch over the years.

After we talked, we had dinner and then Liz took me around the corner on a hunt for an obscure flavor of seltzer water that was causing a buzz in one of the online communities she’s part of. I hopped on the train home with a couple of bottles, mentally chalking one up for shared experiences and proximal discoveries.