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Hanna Neuschwander on pulling all-nighters, cloud failure, and what coffee says about us

by Timber Press on August 28, 2012

in Gardening

Hanna Neuschwander at Coava Coffee in Portland, Oregon.

Hanna Neuschwander wants people who care about food and where it comes from to think about coffee in the same way. “People love coffee,” she tells Sprudge.com, “and this book is meant as a way to hold their hand toward loving it even more.” Left Coast Roast: A Guide to the Best Coffee and Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle is part guidebook and part love letter, and according to Llewellyn Sinclair of Sprudge, “a playground of information and art.”

How were you introduced to coffee?

These are what I think of as my Life Stages of Coffee:

Stage 1 (Age 5): First Awareness of Coffee
My grandparents have a percolator going all hours of the day. It smells like burnt peanuts and my grandmother’s perfume and looks like something I’d be yelled at for drinking. Adults are unknowable creatures.

Stage 2 (Age 17): All Nighters
I am crazy studious in high school and college. My primary experience of coffee is drinking it to stay up all night writing papers. By 4 am, I’m so jittery and exhausted my whole body is shaking. For some reason, it never occurs to me to switch to water.

Stage 3 (Age 23): The Lever Machine
Living in Montreal, I have a sophisticated friend who is given a La Pavoni single group lever espresso machine as a gift. He studies latte art and tamping technique. It’s the first time I encounter someone who has a true love affair with coffee. I am mostly mystified at his enchantment with it. He is also enchanted with expensive whiskey, which is easier for me to comprehend. Together, we drink whiskey and I listen to him talk about coffee.

Stage 4 (Age 26): The Barista
I move to Portland and am spending my days alone, writing and editing in my sweatpants in my living room. I decide this is a miserable existence. To meet people and get out of the house, I apply for a job as a barista. The cafe I work for takes coffee seriously and encourages me to learn about it. My customers feel a little like a family I was invited to join. I fall in love with Portland, with coffee, and with coffee people. I consider this my real introduction to coffee—or at least to coffee as I now understand it.

I think this is exactly the kind of progression most people who love coffee experience. It starts as something strange, evolves to something purely functional, then inexplicably becomes something worthy of more attention and consideration.

Who would you like to see read your book and why?

The thing most people say when I tell them about writing this book is: “Oh my gosh, that’s so wonderful. I LOVE COFFEE.” And they do. Lots and lots of people really, truly love it. It’s a small but important part of their day. I want those people to read my book, and maybe get excited about some aspects of it they weren’t familiar with. I want anyone who cares about food and where it comes from to cock their head and think about coffee the same way. Consider it’s taste. Consider where it came from. Just marvel a little at it: “Hundreds of people had a hand in it getting this here. It tastes like….” Coffee has been a global commodity for centuries. It can taste like blueberries and caramel, all by itself. That’s amazing.

Beside local pioneers like Alfred Peet and Howard Schultz, are there other reasons why coffee has become so popular on the West Coast?

Peets and Starbucks are essential reasons. But San Francisco has been a coffee town since the 1800s—Folgers began there. Infrastructure is part of it: There are ports along coasts, and coffee comes to us on big ships. But the recent explosion of higher quality coffees and cafes I think is actually more about the west coast’s longtime love affair with food and with feeling connected to where it comes from—in some ways it’s a response to how big Starbucks got. It’s also a quality of life thing: West coasters seem to take a bit more time to just enjoy things like food, beer, wine, coffee (this has spread all over now, which is so wonderful). In the Northwest the clouds are definitely part of it. My old cafe boss calls a sunny day “an episode of cloud failure.” Coffee helps with cloudy days.

Coffee has certainly become a big (bigger) part of our economy, are there ways it’s become a part of popular culture, too?

Of course! It’s everywhere in our culture. Like anything, how you relate to coffee is one way of marking out your identity in our culture. We still have yuppie moms with their cross-tours and their Caramel Macchiatos. There are the programming geeks who glorify its all-nighter-fueling status as a legal narcotic. There are the hipster cafes and the earnest Fair Traders. For many of us, the coffee we drink is definitely part of how we announce ourselves to the world.

If you were a cup of coffee what kind would you be?

I guess this is how I announce myself to the world, eh? I’ve been many cups of coffee: A small cup of Tim Hortons with two sugars and two creams. A sloppy wet cappuccino. Right now, for the first time in my life, I’m a cup of black coffee—really, really good black coffee. Coffee from Kenya is in season right now, and it’s some of the best in the world: juicy and winelike. It reminds me of the grapes we have growing in our garden, called Neptune, which came from cuttings my grandfather gave me. The vines are as old as I am. They are the taste of my childhood and like nothing else in the world. They explode with flavor and make the sides of your tongue water. I get that kind of pleasure from a simple, good Kenyan coffee. I want my life to be full of experiences like that.


Left Coast Roast by Hanna Neuschwander


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