Where is the line drawn between art and business? Is it intent? Commitment to craft? The road that brought espresso to its place of prominence in Seattle cuts between both houses.
Coffee is nothing new. It wasn’t even “new” when the Northwest transformed it from business as usual into a sort of social art form. Coffee was already centuries old when it fueled America’s cowboys. It is, next to oil, the most valuable legally traded commodity in the world.
Much of what makes Seattle’s coffee scene unusual is the willingness of people here to shun the ordinary.
As with so many staples, there are those content with the utilitarian version and those who strive for something better.
At the cusp of the coffee movement, espresso was still derided as “nasty Italian stuff” by most Americans, who were happy enough with instant crystals.
Then came the artists. Much of what makes Seattle’s coffee scene unusual is the willingness of people here to shun the ordinary. At the head of that group are those willing to work, take a risk, and drag the extraordinary into the light. There was visionary and entrepreneur Dave Olson, who opened the first true espresso bar in Seattle, Café Allegro. Five or 6 years before that, even, Jim Stewart was purchasing green beans to roast and sell out of an ice cream and coffee shop in Coupeville, on Whidbey Island. Across the Sound, Northwesterners were developing a more nuanced love of coffee. Experimentation yielded dramatic flavor differences, and the promise of something special.
Meanwhile, in his Seattle restaurant, Kent Bakke was tinkering with an inherited espresso machine that seemed more like a ticking time bomb, coaxing out maybe a half dozen cappuccinos on a busy day. While local roasters were perfecting the art of the roast, Bakke was determined to deliver the equipment for the next step in the game. A trip to Italy brought that dream closer to home. Seattle today is as famed for superior brewing equipment as it is for above par brews. Even the engineers here refuse to leave “well enough” alone.
It is a business, sure, and a successful one at that. But behind and beneath the business, from the farmer to the barista, is a commitment to perfection that could only be called art.
This story is one of many delightful, lesser-told, Seattle-centric stories inspired by our coffee blends. We hope you enjoy reading them over a cup of great coffee.