A Year Right Here: Chronicles of a Coffee Critic

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Charity Burggraaf)

Seattle is a famously coffee-hip city — possibly too hip for you. Definitely too hip for Jess Thomson. As part of the delicious adventures this Seattle mom writes about in her new memoir, A Year Right Here, she admits that she can’t quite keep up with the coffee trends.

The following excerpt, called “Chronicles of a Coffee Critic,” takes place as Jess reenters her typical routine writing at Seattle coffee shops after a particularly tumultuous summer when her son Graham, who has cerebral palsy, undergoes surgery near New York City.

Here’s what happens when she realizes her drinking habits are the coffee equivalent of mom jeans.

(Image credit: Charity Burggraaf)

In Seattle, coffee culture is as dependable as the rain and the tides; any deviation from regular consumption is circumspect. Since three young entrepreneurs opened the first Starbucks in Pike Place Market in 1971, the city as a whole has become synonymous with its darling drink. Seattle unquestionably redefined the way the world approaches the morning buzz.

But that coffee habit — the one that started as careful brewing of higher-quality beans, then blazed across the world under Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as an espresso-drink trend — has matured. Coffee connoisseurs have developed bean-flavor preferences the way wine geeks take to grape varietals, and today in Seattle (and even at Starbucks, depending on the location), rather than asking for a light- or dark-roasted coffee, it’s more common to see beans defined by their origin.

Asking for a cup of Ethiopian Harrar means you probably like coffees with a complex, fruity flavor. It also means you’ll probably know how you want it brewed — in a French press, for example, or in an AeroPress, a plastic contraption that forces hot water through ground coffee and an impossibly thin paper filter. And if you’re cool, you’ll probably ask for a pour-over.

At some spots in Seattle, ordering coffee feels like nothing short of an insider drug deal. I have nothing against drug dealers, but I want more tranquility. I want more ease.

There is a certain portion of the population for whom the term “single-origin pour-over” has deep, important meaning. In Seattle, this specimen is easy to identify if you permit yourself some unabashed stereotyping. Pour-Over Paul is the guy in the sharp slim suit with expensive pointy loafers, a full handlebar mustache, and mirrored Warby Parker sunglasses. Pour-Over Penny is the girl with the artful ombré-dyed hair cascading down over her grandmother’s vintage dress, which mismatches perfectly with handmade four-hundred-dollar clogs that, she’s happy to tell you, she got for 10 bucks at a local thrift shop. They both probably like Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a fruity bean whose brewed flavor reminds most people of blueberries, and sometimes lemon.

At some spots in Seattle, ordering coffee feels like nothing short of an insider drug deal. I have nothing against drug dealers, but I want more tranquility. I want more ease.

When I need coffee, I often find it challenging to speak English, much less converse in a language unfamiliar to me. I don’t want to consult a map before I caffeinate. Coffee is more about sitting at a table by myself, headphones humming, while I make sense and order out of words, rather than out of, say, our son’s therapy schedule. It’s having two hands wrapped smugly around a warm cup, knowing I won’t drop it, instead of one hand outstretched under an IV containing my monthly supply of lupus medications while the other organizes a playdate. Coffee is about the time that’s mine, rather than the time that belongs to my family or my pets or my illness.

That fall, as Graham improved, other things fell apart. We had a dog at death’s door, a cat wounded from a tangle with a raccoon, and a cranky neighbor who hated our chickens and wanted us to replace them with a quieter breed. Coffee really needed to be simple. But as I retreated into my work, which usually takes place at coffee shops, I found those places felt unsafe because coffee in Seattle as I knew it had changed.

(Image credit: Charity Burggraaf)

Historically, as a French-Press Fannie, I’ve been coffee chic. When I’d left for New York in early August, ordering a short latte still felt cool. But suddenly, one misty gray day in Seattle, where my regular order (short latte, whole milk) had always passed as an acceptable secret handshake in any coffee shop, I began feeling inadequate.

I don’t really fit in with The Pour-Over People. I wear mostly sensible shoes (often bought new) and relatively boring eyeglasses. I have no tattoos. I’m the kind of girl who thinks having a single-origin pour-over just means getting a cup of coffee that comes with a side of pretension.

I felt uncool because I didn’t want any goddamned blueberries in my coffee. Felt no less than uneducated, because while the latent leaders brewed their quiet takeover, introducing fanatics to a new way to enjoy the nuances of coffees from around the world, I was busy coaxing my kid out of his own small personal hell. So when I started working in earnest again in November, I had a coffee crisis.

(Image credit: Charity Burggraaf)

Take my initial experience at Slate Coffee, a sunny hiccup of a shop in the no-man’s-land between Seattle’s Ballard and Phinney Ridge neighborhoods. It’s a place you go to prove you’re a real coffee snob. First, you have to get there — it’s a barely signed spot in a cozy neighborhood convenient to nothing if you don’t live next door — and park, which is in and of itself proof that you are devoted to the bean in a way that makes you more special.

The first time I went, I made the mistake of walking straight up to the counter — there was no register, so I had to be creative about defining where the proper ordering location might be — and ordering a latte to go. The barista’s neck tattoos quivered with disgust. I’d involuntarily violated every shop rule.

“Do you mean an espresso with milk?” he asked. His tone suggested I’d been speaking a distant Amazonian dialect. “I’d be happy to make you one. Have a seat and I’ll bring you a menu.”

In a world of tasting the bean itself, I’d apparently ordered the coffee-culture’s equivalent of a wine cooler. And I’d loved it.

Of course. I should have known. At Slate, standing stock-still at the counter to order your coffee is like ordering your steak directly from the chef at a restaurant. Ordering to go is gauche and shows you’re too hurried a person. And at Slate, there are no lattes. There are various forms of espresso, served with steamed milk measured by the ounce in the kind of glassware usually reserved for cocktails.

Once I’d been seated and plied with a glass of water that made me feel guilty about intending to do anything there but appreciate the vibe, I was permitted to order a six-ounce “espresso with milk” for $3.88, which was brought to me 10 minutes later in a pretty, petite sherry glass.

It was one of the best lattes I’ve ever had — probably the result of someone being very careful with some part of a process I’ll never fully understand, and of a smaller quantity of milk, which made the coffee taste more pronounced — but it left me with the aftertaste of pure shame. In a world of tasting the bean itself, I’d apparently ordered the coffee-culture’s equivalent of a wine cooler. And I’d loved it.

Traipsing across the city on small magazine assignments, I found myself cowed by my preferences over and over. The kinds of coffee shops I’d always assumed would feel completely welcoming became intimidating, almost scary. (Whether the fear was a reflection of my general self-doubt that fall is another story.) In any case, every morning, sitting in the humming car after school drop-off, I’d weigh my options. I hated that getting to work seemed to require considering how much I wanted to feel like an asshole for drinking a latte. Until I settled in at Vif.

(Image credit: Charity Burggraaf)

At Vif Wine|Coffee, a morning-meeting outpost and wine shop housed in a bright, airy former burger joint in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, the coffee lexicon flows freely, but without the snobbery. There are three pour-over setups. The first time I arrived, they didn’t seem to judge me for drinking the coffee-world’s version of mom jeans. My latte always came with a genuine smile. I started going there two or three times a week, ordering a latte and often a bowl of slow-cooked white beans topped with a perfect six-minute egg.

And then one day, surprising myself and them, I ordered a pour-over.

“Really?” asked a barista named Raelyn, putting away my latte mug. “Which kind?”

“What are my choices?” I tried to sound confident as I clenched and unclenched my cold hands in my coat pockets.

“Ethiopian or Colombian?” she asked brightly. It was the Seattle coffee-shop analogy to a diner’s list of toast flavors. She was going to give me coffee beans from one place on the planet, and she wanted to know my regional preference.

She tipped perfectly ground Colombian beans into a conical silver bottomless teacup that had been fitted with a filter and poised over a small glass pitcher. The whole setup rested on a scale so that she’d know she was adding 23 grams of coffee to the filter (no more, no less). She poured water from a delicate-looking teapot at around 202 degrees Fahrenheit over the beans in a circular motion, until the total water weight measured 391 grams, or roughly 17 grams of water per gram of ground coffee. Mahogany liquid dripped through the filter into the bulb at the bottom of the pitcher.

I waited, realizing that adding my usual half-and-half to the science experiment I’d just paid $3.75 for would be a travesty. I wanted to ask whether my coffee would be ruined if someone opened the shop’s door during a stiff breeze and cooled the water down by a degree or two on its way to the ground coffee.

When the cup of Colombian came, steaming at the temperature likely predetermined to be the most perfect for my particular cuppa, I resisted the urge to add anything. It was astringent to me, despite the varietal’s common reputation as a relatively mellow bean with low acidity. From the moment it coursed across my palate, I was proud of identifying the nutty, caramel-like flavors, but the moment I’d swallowed, I knew I’d need a latte. Or something with cream in it. I’d grown so accustomed to doctoring my coffee with dairy that even Colombian, the bike-with-training-wheels bean, was too bitter for me. I was a pour-over failure. Which I’d known, but for some reason had to relearn.

I got halfway through the cup before sheepishly slinking back up to the counter.

“Would it be possible to add some steamed milk to this?” I smiled my sweetest and apologized for my lack of sophistication.

The barista demurred. “I have a secret for you,” said Raelyn quietly. “I’ve been doing this for seven years, and I still always put cream in my coffee.” She offered to make me my usual, then presented me what she called “my shameful latte” with a wicked grin. I knew I’d found my forever coffee shop. And in that moment, I resolved to be okay with loving my coffee in whatever way fit me best.

About Jess Thomson

(Image credit: Jess Thomson // Hogwash)

Jess Thomson is a food and travel writer and the author of eight cookbooks, including A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus, co-written with chef Renee Erickson. Her most recent book, A Year Right Here, is a food memoir about her family. She lives and eats in Seattle, with her husband and 8-year-old son.