April 25, 2019 | Feature
more than the morning (coffee) grind
For a long time, I woke up early. My dad, also an early riser, would almost always come to my door when he heard my alarm go off. He’d ask,“Would you like a coffee, CR?” It was too early to talk, but on those mornings we would drink coffee for a few minutes together, finding a quiet solitude in the last moments of night and the first moments of day. It grounded me before a busy day at school; it was my special time with my dad. Our morning ritual.
One of the first things I did when I got to College Hill was scout out—first on Yelp, and later in person—where I’d buy coffee beans. I wanted the kinds of whole beans that people describe as having hints of nuts or chocolate or citrus—not the pre-ground, instant stuff. I was determined to continue my ritual even far away from home.
Luckily for me, there are a lot of options here. Coffee Exchange on Wickenden has many kinds of whole beans, from the barista favorite Fondo Paez blend to the more complex Lake Kivu. Dave’s on South Main has beans that are a little more expensive but absolutely delicious (Quonnie is a favorite). There’s New Harvest Coffee in the Arcade, which is nice but a little too expensive for me and is also patronized by a crowd so hipster I feel like I’m going to melt when I enter the room. Of course, there are always the two Blue State Coffees on Thayer Street. The perpetually busy Starbucks. Malachi’s on Ives Street. Sydney by the State House. Bolt Coffee in the RISD Museum. Each coffeehouse has its own character and whole bean offerings. When I first got to Brown in the fall of 2015, many of these places didn’t even exist. Now, each has become the site of familiar baristas, regulars I almost recognize, memories of long conversations, first dates, paper-writing marathons, shrines of finals past.
Sometimes I feel like coffeeshops are where college happens; spend a few hours in the corner of Dave’s or Blue State and you’ll see what I mean. Students are crammed onto every possible seating apparatus from opening until closing. They’re in the corner chairs on their laptops and cellphones, engrossed in a conversation or novel or Twitter feed. Some students are in a rush. A few have all the time in the world and lounge in the comfy armchairs, gazing out the window. Of course, actual adults are there too, holding their work meetings or picking up their morning usuals before heading off to the office. It’s the perfect place to be a student; just loud enough to count as white noise, just quiet enough to make out what people are saying.
Have you ever seen an AeroPress? It’s a coffee-brewing device made of two plastic cylinders and a filter. After assembling the cylinders in a way that seems complicated until you’ve done it four or five times, you add in your ground coffee beans and hot water, screw on the filter, flip the assemblage over, and use the pressure of air to push the coffee through the filter. It’s among my dad’s preferred coffee-making processes, and for him brewing coffee is a form of art. He weighs out the recommended 17 grams of carefully chosen beans, purchased from our local farmers market, grinds them on the spot, and uses near-boiling water so as not to “insult” the coffee grinds. Right before I left for college, he taught me this sacred process and bought me an AeroPress and a small hand-powered coffee mill so I could make coffee for myself once I moved away.
For four years, I’ve been trying to figure out whether coffee culture is actually a fundamental part of the Brown University experience, or if my sample of friends and acquaintances just happens to be skewed towards coffee-drinkers. When I go to my humanities seminars (where surviving an entire 2.5-hour discussion without something to drink, caffeinated or not, is a universal challenge), everyone seems to have a cup from the nearby Underground or Starbucks or Blue State. On weekends, I struggle to find a single seat in any of the shops within a mile radius of College Hill, where students are hunkered down with their $4 drinks and free wifi all day.
Other days, I meet students who can “wake up just fine without coffee” or “prefer tea.” They don’t feel the need to engage in the delicious indulgence that is my favorite beverage. Some don’t like the taste. Others can’t metabolize caffeine or don’t like how the “drug” makes them feel. A few drink coffee only when they need to pull an all-nighter, an experience that couldn’t be more different from my highly methodical, deeply personal, and semi-religious morning ritual.
Getting familiar with the unique environment and unspoken expectations of campus adjacent coffee shops has been part of the fun of caffeinating away from home. A fellow Brown student pointed out to me that “Coffee Exchange is off-campus, so it feels like a different world.” The older crowd there, according to her, loves to “give their hot takes on . . . their marital problems,” engaging in the kinds of discussions that could not feel further from the collegiate talk around campus. It’s fun to listen to, she says. By contrast, “Blue State is where you go on Sunday, and people talk about who they hooked up with.” She refuses to go to the Shop just a few blocks up Wickenden, because she “feels like a stereotype of [herself]” there. Plus, they barely have any tables, and it can be hard to get a place to sit.
Every coffee shop has its own character. The Underground—the weekday, student-run coffee house in the basement of Faunce—was nothing more than an idea and a coffee machine during my first year. Now, it was described to me by barista Olivia Hinch ’20 as “the anti-Blue Room experience.” The mood-lit basement of Faunce features cheap coffee drinks, Knead donuts, and a fancy espresso machine, not to mention familiar faces standing behind the counter and ringing you up. At Bolt coffee, you have to specifically request milk in your coffee, showing your cards as a non-black-coffee-drinking peasant. At Starbucks, you wait in the wings while people smart enough to take advantage of mobile orders stroll in and out. At Sydney, a coffee shop I patronized while working at the State House over the summer, the fancier downtown corporate people choose espresso drinks and Perriers and summer salads that look delicious but are not quite filling enough given how expensive they are. At Bagel Gourmet, when they ask if you want cream and sugar, you should always say “yes.”
I’ve found it’s possible to combine coffee culture with other interests. My friend Julia Bleier ‘18 and I, who are running buddies as well as close friends, have together invented lots of training routes that end at different coffee shops near College Hill. When I have boy problems or a lot of papers due, we end at Dave’s (my favorite). When she has a lot of lab work, we run to Malachi’s (her favorite). We roll into the coffee shop sweaty, feeling superior to the people in line because it’s 7:30 a.m., having already burned a million calories, imagining ourselves justified in ordering a whole milk latte, which is closer to a cup of steamed milk than anything else. If we feel adventurous, we run to Borealis Coffee Company in Riverside, Rhode Island, and take the bus back. That hipster coffee shop is the type with minimalist wood tables and industrial metal stools and succulents in fishbowls on the tables, patronized by people with ambiguously ironic facial hair. In our running clothes, you can bet we don’t fit in there.
As much as I love the Providence coffee scene, most of my caffeination still occurs in the quiet solitude of the early hours; it’s become a morning ritual all my own. I wake up a little after dawn and make coffee for myself—with whatever beans I’ve been onto lately—the way my dad taught me all those years ago. Then, I go running or concentrate on work while most students are still asleep. I need to take advantage of those morning hours because I can’t focus in the afternoon or evening, and I like the loneliness and the silence and the way I can hear my thoughts so clearly.
As I boil water, grind beans, and brew coffee, I imagine that in a few hours my dad will wake up in California and make coffee for himself. I look back on how hard it was to adjust to life in college, to make friends, to take care of myself, and to get used to working all the time. I remember all the friends, courses, interests, and workout routines that have come and gone, and the ways that my morning ritual has anchored me through the more difficult or lonely or painful moments at Brown. I wonder about moving away and moving on. I think about which of my habits I might hold onto and others that will evolve into something unrecognizable in support of my new job and my new life. I contemplate what coffeehouses I will get to explore in a new city with new friends I haven’t even met. I map out where I will buy my beans during this next chapter and how I might avoid waking up a future roommate with the deafening sound of grinding coffee. I consider all the places that the AeroPress has come with me so far—every dorm, sublease, and apartment—and I envision where it might go next. I visualize myself in the apartment I haven’t even found yet, drinking coffee by myself in the early morning, preparing for the kind of adult life I don’t know anything about. I’m scared for graduation, but excited, too. I’m drinking coffee in anticipation.