Coffeehouse Culture

Back when I was a greenhorn journalist struggling to break into the profession, I took a job in a local coffeehouse. Now that I'm a rich writer, I spend my copious free time dallying in all the best restaurants, snapping my fingers and summoning waitstaff with an authoritative "Garcon!" and generally enjoying the fruits of my hard labor. But lest I seem vain, let me assure you that I'm well-acquainted with the bottom rung-and friends, it is harrowing down there.

But I digress. Naturally my employment served other purposes than the mere acquisition of lucre. It was a front for a sociological study, a probing inquiry into the culture surrounding coffea arabica. I found a distinct hierarchy among the clientele, many of whom were addicted regulars, based on the strength and purity of the beverage ordered. In this synopsis of my findings I have changed names to protect everyone involved, especially myself.


The Untouchables of the coffee world, members of this caste usually order with apologetic body language such as shifty or lowered eyes. Often bullied at the cream-and-sugar station by clerks and members of higher java classes, decaf drinkers tend never to incorporate fully into coffee society. Susan P., one such decaf drinker, eventually stopped coming to the shop altogether after several months of outsider status.


These represent the next lowest echelon of aficionado, since the milky, chocolatey concoction disguises the espresso flavor. A typical order for the beginning caffeine freak, the mocha is rather like the wine cooler of the coffee world. One can elevate one's status by ordering a double or even a triple mocha, but the addition of a flavored syrup is the novice's hallmark and must be avoided by those with hardcore aspirations. In several cases of arrested development that I observed, patrons like Jeff A. remained content with single mochas for six months or longer. But this was the exception and not the rule. Mocha drinkers nearly always defer to Daily Cups and Silverbacks (see below) in cream-and-sugar confrontations.


Barely eking out a niche above Mocha Drinkers are members of this group, who are particularly subject to delusional feelings of caffeine-induced elation due to their low tolerance levels. Often glimpsed sketching, writing or feigning study.


Occupying the next rung on the coffeehouse ladder, this group comprises aspiring javaheads taking the incremental route to a seven-cup-a-day habit, as well as a particular subgroup I've labeled the "Weekend Users." The latter group enjoys the favorable effects of caffeine in a social situation -- increased feelings of happiness and cleverness along with greater ease in conversation -- without the deadly "crash" so familiar to Silverbacks. Interestingly, the Weekend Users' demographics roughly match those of imported beer drinkers: 25-45 years of age, with a better-than-average chance that the subject drives a Toyota or is employed as a member of middle management.

Researcher's Note: I submit that the Oedipal implications of warm, frothy milk in a stimulating beverage are a key to the power of cappuccinos and lattes, but space prevents me from expounding further on this theory.


As they approach the pinnacle of the subculture, subjects who drink single or double espressos may fall into one of two categories. One group includes Europeans and those who wish to emulate Europeans. A select group of these espresso drinkers can approach the rank of the lordly Silverbacks by specifying "light," "short" or, best of all, "North Beach." Many a male E.I. on the prowl has impressed a juvenile female Mocha Drinker with this formidable display of savoir faire, but the majority of Espresso Imbibers are more desperate than cunning. Espresso is the proving ground for the more serious acolytes, who compose the rest of the E.I.s, and competition is fierce. Any person able to drink this bitter brew without wincing is ready to advance to the next stage of caffeination. Espresso Imbibers may mingle socially with junior Daily Cups (see below) and Weekend Users, but risk humiliation if seen too often in the company of Mocha Drinkers.

Note that con pannas don't count, since whipped cream undermines espresso's macho appeal. Note also that one of the most egregious errors a novice can commit, and one that can wreck a budding reputation, is mispronunciation of "espresso" by saying "expresso."


We now move into the realm of the Betas of the coffee troupe, those javaheads subordinate only to the Silverbacks. These are the Daily Cups, the men and women who keep a low profile and drink a cup or two of strong coffee every day. I liken them to Scotch drinkers -- experienced enough to know that coffee is stronger than espresso and sophisticated enough to enjoy it quietly. Junior Daily Cups consume dark roasts, whereas those who prefer light roasts or who drink three to seven cups each day are senior Daily Cups. Daily Cups may add cream and sugar to their drinks without loss of status, as long as the drink is not au lait. While not hostile to lower castes, Daily Cups are nonetheless reserved and typically limit their contact to laconic conversation at tables with other Daily Cups.


At the top of the heap, enjoying unconditional Alpha status and automatic prestige, are the Silverbacks, the Everclear martini crowd. Like mountain gorillas, this group's physical traits set them apart from their inferiors, namely dark circles around the eyes, sweating palms and constant movement. To become a Silverback, one must drink either three Depth Charges or two quadruple espressos daily without significant disorientation. These men and women train vigorously each day, risking heartburn and dehydration. They must learn to weather treacherous caffeine crashes with aplomb while maintaining high aesthetic standards. One female, Paula M., the envy of all the Silverback women, claimed the secret to her sallow complexion and yellow teeth was a Double Depth Charge twice a day, without cream.

Even as a researcher, I had to doff my hat to this group. Their commitment to extreme behavior, their inability to maintain a line of thought, and their sheer resilience to health reports stirred even my cold journalist's heart.

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