On an intercontinental level, for the past five-hundred years, the cultural centre of humankind has been the coffeehouse.
16th Century – The first coffeehouses began operation in Mecca and Constantinople.
17th Century – This new social model built on popularity in cities like Venice, London, Amsterdam, Boston, Paris, New York, Hamburg and Vienna.
18th Century – Reaffirming their importance in several cities and spreading to new ones, Philadelphia, Prague and Berlin got their own.
19th Century – It became self-evident that this was the best social frame for the world to gather, as even more spread further into all continents.
20th Century – During the first decades one of the most important coffeehouse cultures of the world was flourishing in Vienna and its vicinity. However, towards the middle of the century, the dynamic had subsided. I am not aware of any coffeehouses that opened after the Second World War. This is the time where coffee became the motor for a much faster and disconnected society than for those where the coffeehouse had served as a homogeneous, multi-cultural and multi-class nucleus. At this point the coffee shop model became commercialized and spread rapidly throughout the world.
As we evolve in various areas of our society, the functionality of the coffeehouse has kept its main attraction – Coffee. One needs not wonder. But, while our understanding and appreciation for coffee has increased immensely in the past thirty years, our understanding and attention for our social and intellectual needs have diminished. Today the coffeehouse is not so much competing with other coffee spots, but with the changes in our society and their difficulties finding a model Continue reading “Coffeehouses ban smoking / Coffeehouses ban the house”→
My father was a pastor. He was never a true traveling pastor, although he was moved around several times, but he was never a missionary in the classical sense of the term. What I genetically got from him is the latent necessity to convey whatever passion vibrates inside. On top of that, they got me travelling from age one, increased it a bit by the age of ten and I took it several notches higher once I left the church.
Around the time I started travelling more, I started drinking coffee and began doing it with a fairly watchful tongue. I do not understand why. It seems to me that most individuals start doing something out of necessity, out of influence or out of accidents, but seldom it is began with a critical mind. For some reason I did with coffee. It was perhaps the drastic difference I could not help noticing between a coffee in some US-American coffee spot and the coffee at a Mexican restaurant at Harvard Square. Mexicans do not have any image of being particularly attentive to the quality of a coffee and the nuances one could bring out through careful brewing, but they do have a high culture in the mixing of spices – especially when it comes to the usage of cacao and cinnamon. Either way, they have impressed me – back then in Cambridge, as well as now in Soho. And I might as well be thankful to them for having pushed me to pay attention to coffee from early on.
Year after year I have shifted, started, stopped, varied. I have experimented, have paid attention from various sides, always looking to improve my coffee tasting experience. I have done it at home – always! – and I have done it wherever I find myself in the myriads of shops available and in the many cultures that have ever influenced the way we drink coffee. It has gotten to the point that I have done some extensive traveling for coffee. And visiting Japan is a perfect example. I learned of Yukio Mishima in the early 80s, and even before knowing of him I had been very attentive to the work of Akira Kurosawa. But shortly after the turn of the century I learned from Sekiguchi Ichiro.
As the Germans left Japan in a hurry towards the end of the second world war, the coffee they had bought from Indonesia was left behind, and Sekiguchi was the man to acquire the abandoned coffee. The Café de L’Ambre was born. Sekiguchi roasted daily the coffee he needed and stored for years his raw material. He began buying older harvests from various countries, becoming a collector of old coffee and gaining later recognition for giving way to a new culture – the one of brewing vintage coffee.
Through an article of Ken Belson in the New York times in July 12th 2009, I learned for the first time of Sekiguchi. As a result I contacted Michael Kleindl, who had moved to Japan around the same time I had moved to Boston, and had acquired a taste and experience for good food and coffee in Tokyo. He assured me that old coffee was good. My German colleagues were very skeptical. I had to find out for myself, but the fact that the Japanese master was already ninety-five years of age at this point, made me very nervous about reaching my goal.
Just a couple of months ago I made my decision – I bought a ticket to Japan. I arrived on November 7th at Narita Airport. At 1:00 pm on the following day I met Michael in front of Wako. We stood side by side for about 10 minutes, before I gently called his name, for I thought to recognize his face, but found him to be much taller than the man I had seen in the pictures. Minutes later we exercised my long-awaited entrance, and to the right, quiet with himself, sitting in front of the heated drum and waiting for the right color and the right sound, I clearly recognized Ichiro Sekiguchi.
My friends and many of the individuals I have encountered in my life will clearly testify to my passion around coffee. This manifested itself once more, as I noticed that even my Japanese host, Kyoko, barely 30 hours after knowing me, showed clear interest in coming along with me to Café de L’Ambre. She had never heard of Sekiguchi, she had probably never visited a Kissaten in her mature life, and, on top of that, seemed to know only the usage of hot water on top of instant coffee powder.
It appears to be common practice at Café de L’Ambre that when Sekiguchi and his assistant, Maki Uchida, start roasting, an interested guest might be informed and invited to witness the process. This made the experience sweeter – for Kyoko and for me, too.
There are plenty of possibilities to compare coffees. Coffeehouses, Shops and Roasters offer tastings with regularity. A tasting would probably surprise you, as to what you have been drinking until now. It is in comparison that one sees truly what one has and has been missing.
“Things here go just as they did with me and my physician. I complained about being out of sorts. He replied, ‘You probably drink too much coffee and walk too little.’ Three weeks later I spoke with him again and said, ‘I really do not feel very well, but now it cannot be because of drinking coffee, for I do not drink coffee at all, nor because of lack of exercise, for I walk all day long.’ He replied, ‘Well, then the reason must be that you do not drink coffee and that you walk too much.’ And so my infirmity was and remains the same, but if I drink coffee the cause of my infirmity is that I drink coffee, and if I do not drink coffee, then my infirmity is caused by my not drinking coffee. And that is how it is with us human beings. All of earthly existence is a sort of infirmity.”
Excerpt from “Remarks by a Humorous Individual”, a journal entry from Søren Kierkegaard in 1845.