This coffee visit reminded me of coffee-houses in Vienna and served to underline what I view as perhaps the central roles behind coffee-houses as institutions, their essence and importance. At least there, everywhere where this role finds its clear and best expression, coffee-houses are a place to dwell and a center for social and cultural interaction. The to-go service may be there as well wherever needed or wanted, but it will take nothing away from this deep-seeded tradition and even greater human need of dwelling and interacting. This magnificent institution and its social offer have not developed much since the beginnings around the 16th century. It was the same for the Sufis with their meditation and studies back then, as it is today for us with a more secular but just as much needed frequency. I know of no wine cellar, of no tea house, no pub, which plays this role that well.
That coffee visit was at the 27 Monmouth Street, the birthplace of the Monmouth Coffee Company in 1978. In simple notes hanging on the walls next to each table one is informed that these are “communal tables”. Thus I was taken to a table with a middle-aged couple and asked if I would like to join them. They were involved in their conversation, from which topics I gathered they are very active actors or directors – perhaps very well-known – in theater. After they left, a man and an older woman (both likely Japanese) joined me. They did not stay very long and a man joined me, through whom I realised a different use of the word ‘cheers’ and who verified than in London (and East London) the word is also used instead of ‘thanks’.
He had his coffee to go with his lunch while reading the newspaper, then said good-bye. My next company gave me only a greeting eye contact and read in her thick book – not very long – before leaving. Another woman was clearly a regular, ordered a coffee and a truffle and worked on what seemed to be a test or questionnaire.
By the time the next customers came to share this table, I had jotted down a few notes and observations about this visit, but this next customers attracted my attention too much to be able to continue my writing.
And so, the fifth company arrived – a man and a woman. The regular woman slid closer to the wall, giving more place to the man and the two joined us. Two writing guests next to two conversing, intensively and joyfully. Out of their conversation I could neither help registering the womans mention of Benjamin Britten and his vocal composition “Les Illuminations”, nor commenting on my admiration for his works and for the fantastic singer Ian Bostridge, who has also recorded that piece. The conversation took really off as the lady who had been drawing crosses for her answers on that sheet joined us by sharing the very personal experience of her face to face meeting with the acclaimed British composer back in the 1970’s.
We conversed and discussed extensively – about Mozart, Wagner, subjective and objective perception, the differences between tea and coffee, about the effects of caffeine, about my Ancestry, Americans and Americanism, the English and the Germans, and about Coffee. We spoke about big social tables, about conversing and planned a meeting at another Monmouth table – some Saturday, soon, after midday, for coffee.
And coffee I drank.
While I drank it was not possible to follow every conversation in the lips of the staff but several conversations were triggered by the questions about the coffee a colleague had tasted the day before or at some other time in some other place, followed by an answer in form of a brief description.
Monmouth Coffee is a demanding gourmet café where the coffee menu is headed by ‘filter coffee’. The window to the street clearly gives account of the drip methods relevance here as opposed to the espresso based drinks building the business core of many other gourmet cafés. In chosing this brewing method the greatest advantage might be the possibility to offer a variety of coffees with a wider spectrum of taste which no espresso equipment would be able to deliver. They change the coffee for the filter system on a weekly cycle. The guest could however make his own choice every day, be it just to taste other coffees or to order one which is not been served that particular week. This weeks coffee – the one in my cup – was from the Finca Los Manantiales, in Naranjo, Costa Rica.
Here I dared once more order a filter coffee, after the disappointment several weeks ago, and a world of a difference it was. In Monmouth they obviously know about the coffees they serve, many times serving coffee from growers they know personally and their expectation on what they sell and towards their role in the coffee industry are all highest standard. Nothing difficult to gather from their newsletter no. 9:
“What we do”
“We roast coffee from single farms, estates and cooperatives. When we taste a coffee that we like, we want to know where it comes from and who grows, picks and processes it. We travel extensively throughout the year, visiting the producers and cooperatives with whom we currently work and looking for interesting varietals of coffee and new farms from which to buy. During these visits we talk to farmers and cooperative members, learning more about the coffee they grow and process and the challenges that they face. We then look to establish a relationship with the grower and exporter of that coffee. We believe that where such a relationship exists, quality, quantity and price requirements can be discussed in an open and equal way. We see this as sustainable, fair and equal trade.”
In my view, that is one of the important aspects which makes a café part of the third wave coffee movement. Not only does the barista and personnel in general know more about the raw product, about the whole process and about the machine they are using, but there is also a great effort in this cafés to share this information and knowledge with the customer, thus contributing to something I highly value: making the customer increasingly aware of what comes in each cup of coffee, help them to trust their palate more and to be demanding with what they are being served under the name ‘coffee’.