June 12, 2006
Ritual Coffee pulls one of the two or three best espresso shots in San Francisco, but it's not the coffee that hit me when walking in, but the laptops instead. I spent nearly four years living and working out of a carry on bag, so I'm certainly no stranger to cafe's filled with laptops, but I can't recall ever walking into a storefront so large are so completely overflowing with white people lined up and devoted to the screen. I couldn't quite tell if it was a sweatshop for freelancers or a sweatshop for laptops, but there certainly was way too much work going on to classify this place as a cafe. In fact the main thing that seems to distinguish it from an open plan office with an expensive espresso machine is that you need to fight for a deskspace... That and there are people there trained to pull that coffee deliciously.
I've been spending far too much time and money on delicious coffee lately. Ritual is part of the new school of American coffee, the post Starbucks wave of shops that aim to distinguish themselves via an obsessive devotion to the perfectly pulled espresso shot. Visually this tends to manifest itself in the rosetta, or latte art, that the barista will cap off your milky drinks with. But the root identifier is probably behind the counter or in the office, where you'll likely find a devout fan (or perhaps knowledgeable critic) of David Schomer of Seattle's Espresso Vivace. Through books, videos, and extensive semi-scientific experimentation Schomer is the lead evangelist or perhaps religious leader of the next generation coffee house.
The last few weeks have taken me from New York to Montréal to San Francisco and inevitably to these new coffee shops. Coffee shops that all seem to share the same awkward discord between the two sides of the counter. Coffee shops once came in two flavors, local and Starbucks (a category that of course includes Starbucks many corporate imitators.) Follow the online trails to your local espresso obsessive shop though and more likely find a space that feels like a teenager struggling to grow out of local and into something that maybe doesn't quite exist yet. Perhaps it's the counter Starbucks, perhaps it's the future replacement, or maybe something else entirely.
Whatever it is though, it's clear it will be well branded. The new school of espresso shops is almost always well branded, often too well branded for local comfort. Perhaps the fact that the shops are always filled with designers (you know like me) is to blame for this, but then again the whole western world seems to be filling up with designers... Ritual's knock off of the Soviet flag, with a coffee cup replacing the sickle and the hammer of labor absent entirely is slickest and most symbolically relevant of the brands I've seen. The revolution might not be televised but it will cost $3 a cup.
The rise of $3 cup (aka coffee culture) in America over the past decade or so has dovetailed nicely with the napsterization of music, ably sucking up the daytime jobs for musicians slot that the decline of the record store opened up. In an indie record store though there is a relative homogeneity you won't find in a new school espresso shop. It's a high end product and the crowds tend to vary from the sort you'd expect to find in a high end car dealership and a high end drug dealership. The only common bonds are a shared addiction to caffeine, electricity and wifi. Sitting in the packed and well branded cavern that is Ritual Coffee makes it pretty clear that this uneasy mix has a clear economic viability, but just what it will look like as it grows beyond adolesence is beyond my powers to forcast. In the meantime I guess I'll just enjoy the espresso.Posted by Abe at June 12, 2006 04:12 PM