Validating Every Stereotype About Seattle and Coffee

After moving to Seattle in 2006, I quickly developed a coffee addiction.

It started innocently enough with cappuccino. I picked up a taste for it during my short trip to Israel just a few weeks before my move to Seattle. I ordered a “cap” at the old Elliott Bay Café and the barista asked whether I wanted it dry or wet, leading to an impromptu lesson on what those terms meant. As the year went on I found myself trying many other combinations of espresso and dairy, but after realizing how calorie-dense coffee shops can be, I switched to black coffee and americanos.

My coffee-drinking days stretch back to an internship in New York in 2001 where there was free Starbucks coffee in the cafeteria every day. That became a daily ritual for me and many other bored, cheap, undercaffeinated interns. Back at school, I would stop by the on-campus Entropy convenience store for late-night coding fuel: one liter of Mountain Dew or 20 ounces of coffee cost just a dollar. Choosing the coffee gave me more than double the caffeine. My coffee IQ went up a few points when I lived and worked in Pittsburgh’s eclectic Strip District, but I didn’t even own a coffeemaker of my own until my parents bought me a drip brewer after my move to Seattle.

Coffee is truly everywhere in Seattle, the place where Starbucks turned an Italian coffeehouse concept into a worldwide cliche. Espresso is available at hundreds of walk-up and drive-through coffee shops and also at such unusual locations as the Home Depot, several ice cream parlors, the Seattle Public Library, and a defunct knife shop called “Da Relm.” Four of the five Amazon offices where I worked had espresso bars in the building; three of those bars sold drinks to Amazon employees exclusively. So much coffee is consumed in the Northwest that the region’s coastal waters are caffeinated.

For the most part, coffee in Seattle is still an unpretentious and relaxed experience. Even if a person’s order is a long string of pidgin Italian, it’s placed directly and respectfully. There’s still some local slang, though. Regular coffee is “drip.” A double espresso is a “doppio” and some baristas shorten espresso to “spro.” “Short” and “tall” are 8 and 12 ounces respectively, and even though it’s not usually listed on the menu, Starbucks will sell you a short drink for less money. Most shops will sell a 16-ounce drink but rarely anything bigger.

Those in the market for a more upmarket drink have plenty of options as well. Coffee beans can cost less than 50 cents an ounce at supermarkets, but at Stumptown, some of the world-leading Cup of Excellence beans cost $5 an ounce. (One ounce of beans makes a mug of coffee.) Occasionally an espresso bar will only have an espresso machine and not a drip brewer, meaning that if you want regular drip-brew coffee you’re out of luck. Seattle Coffee Works brews using the siphon pot, a neat device for those who enjoyed Bunsen burners in chemistry class, at its “Slow Bar.” I’ve also taken a very helpful tasting class at the Victrola Coffee roasting room to learn more about the different qualities of the world’s coffee beans.

It’s not just drinking coffee that’s addictive. I now have seven different devices for making it: two drip-brew machines, two pour-over drippers, an AeroPress, a Moka pot, and a Toddy cold-brew system. I have a pour-over dripper, a hand grinder, and a box of filters in my desk drawer at the office. I’m not the only one with a Jordan Schlansky-style fixation about coffee either; a couple of people even have electric grinders at their desks.

Coffee culture provides great opportunities when traveling. In Hawaii I’ve been to a few plantations and tried a lot of beans, including Kauai Coffee Blue Mountain, my personal favorite. New York’s coffee culture is also an interesting blend of many nations’ traditions with a significant Seattle influence. The San Francisco Bay Area has its own local chains that raise the bar on quality and snootiness, including Philz and Blue Bottle.

Lastly, most coffee shops are social venues without alcohol. On a non-drinking coworker’s last day, we held a happy hour for him at a local coffee shop instead of at a bar. The staff didn’t even bat an eye about running a tab for a coffee happy hour. That says a lot about the pervasiveness and the welcoming spirit of coffee shop culture, and I love that about my adopted hometown.

This is part 3 of 10 Years, 10 Things to Love, a yearlong series commemorating my 10th anniversary of moving to Seattle.