Caracotsios: Coffee shop environment as important as the drink itself

Caracotsios: Coffee shop environment as important as the drink itself

Julian Caracotsios, Assistant Opinion Editor

“Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.”

These are the words of the famous French statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, when someone asked him to describe great coffee.

When he wasn’t driving Napoleon Bonaparte up the wall with his schemes, the silver-tongued Talleyrand was busy enchanting and entertaining the elites of Europe in the salons of Paris. Widely considered to be one of the most skilled diplomats in all of history, Talleyrand knew that good hospitality, good conversation and good drinks were an essential part of his work. The quote may be apocryphal, but either way, Talleyrand has something to tell us about the importance of a good cup o’ Joe.

To say that coffee is ubiquitous is an understatement. “Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation” — and coffee is the primary medium by which this beloved non-prescription stimulant is obtained. This is where our boy Charlie comes in. He knows that one of the keys to “winning friends and influencing people” is not just serving something to eat and drink, but providing an atmosphere in which those things enhance the relationship between one and one’s guests or friends. Coffee can be a crude chemical kick to jumpstart our mornings, or it can become an element of refinement. And since most of us lack mansions befitting eighteenth-century Parisian aristocrats with which to host a regular crowd of guests, coffee shops are the place to go.

If you’ve met me in person, you probably know that Peet’s Coffee & Tea is my home away from home. Were it not for my tutoring jobs, I’d certainly have been bankrupted by my cappuccino habit. Even when I study at the Starbucks downtown, I make sure to first swing by Peet’s and grab a cafe au lait to go. But wait, you say, Peet’s is just another chain! There’s nothing ‘hipster” or “unique” about it, so get off your high horse and pay homage to Emperor Starbucks like the rest of us.

Technically, the haters are right. Peet’s Coffee & Tea is just another chain, and though I will defend the superiority of its cappuccinos until the day I die, there is nothing objectively superior about Peet’s itself. But that was never the point. I think Peet’s has good coffee, but I’m loyal not so much to the brand or the product, but rather the specific Peet’s at 1622 Chicago Ave. There’s something special about a place where the baristas know you by name, where you can have a conversation while your coffee is brewing, where there’s a regular crowd of people and where you can meet your friends and know you’ll feel at home.

So, you can imagine my rage when I heard about the abomination called the Briggo coffee kiosk. For those of you print readers unable to click the online hyperlink, this is no mere glorified Mr. Coffee. It’s a veritable automatic Starbucks, able to make everything that you would find at a conventional coffee shop. What’s more, because it’s a machine, it can keep track of all your personal preferences and specifications and make your coffee exactly the way you like it, every time, with no mistakes.

Okay, so an all-in-one automated coffee shop which can replace the entire staff of the local Starbucks is probably not an existential threat to coffee shop culture. But the gusto with which the coming of this technological marvel has been hailed disturbs me. It’s yet another instance of the incessant drive to mechanize, standardize and accelerate everything which supposedly will deliver out society from the evils of waiting in line, getting a drink not made to exactly the same specifications every time and having to talk to another human being when not absolutely necessary.

Convenient as they may be, the ever-proliferating cornucopia of time-saving devices leads us to the temptation to accelerate everything, which as you all know is often more stressful since once we have the option of going fast, we’re often expected to. When I step into Peet’s, I know it’s not a very efficient means of accomplishing my stated purpose for being there — getting some coffee to wake me up while studying — but I prefer it that way.

These inconveniences and inefficiencies force conversation, human contact and distraction into our lives. If you want to abolish them, then do so by all means, and have someone endorse your “efficiency” and “management skills” on LinkedIn while you’re at it. I think I’ll stick to getting my coffee from a human, with all the imperfections it entails.

Julian Caracotsios is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].