Seattle's Coffee Culture

Seattle's Coffee Culture

Where it got its start.

Sometimes Seattle seems a little extreme with its coffee habits. I've seen a vaguely Victorian, cold-press drip machine brew delicious sweet coffee on one shop's counter. Some shops think Fair Trade coffee isn't good enough--they need to know the name of the Guatemalan coffee grower's first born child.

And for the most part, these trends are good.  Ethical decisions for world trading and elevating the status of coffee in Seattlites' minds is positive.  The funny thing is that it wasn't more than 40 years ago that coffee was black--maybe with a little cream and sugar--and consumed only by sailors and working men in the city.  Let's take a look at the history of Seattle's staggeringly huge coffee culture and the companies that changed the shape of consumption in the city:

Starbucks. You can't think about global coffee culture without the big one, Starbucks. The name Starbucks comes from Melville's Moby Dick. Cutting back and rebranding itself again after over-selling its product a few years ago, Starbucks wants to get back to its roots as an espresso bean vendor at a stall in Pike's Place Market in 1971. That's right, the Starbucks store that all the tourists snap pictures at across the street from the market is officially the second Starbucks. The first just roasted and sold beans. The second shop wasn't very much like the one we know today, either. CEO Howard Schultz introduced lattes, mochas and other Italian-style coffees after a trip to Italy in the 1980's.   

Seattle's Best Coffee.  I don't really know of anyone who actually drinks Seattle's Best in Seattle because it is definitely not Seattle's best. But it is the oldest. The coffee company started a year before Starbucks, roasting beans on Pier 70, just a few blocks from Starbucks. It has gone through a lot of name changing in its history, starting with the infinitely more interesting Wet Whisker Cafe.  After it moved the roasting process to Vashon Island, Wet Whisker changed its name to Stewart Brother Coffee, but eventually changed it to Seattle's Best Coffee after winning a competition in the city.  

Caffe Vita Coffee Roasting Company.  A baby compared to its big time competitors, Caffe Vita seems to be the brand of coffee that Seattlites actually prefer. Everywhere I go, from the ubiquitous Vita signs with the Pulcinella (the long-nosed clown guy) to restaurants, Caffe Vita is the coffee of choice. Started in 1995, Caffe Vita promotes what they call the "third wave" coffee movement, gettign their coffee beans straight from producers, rather than going through a middleman like in fair trade coffees. Caffee Vita gets coffee beans from Brazil, Ethiopia, Panama and Sumatra--straight from the farmers who grow them.

Tully's.  Tully's is a delicious brand and also relatively new compared to its competitors, started in 1992. The company has already become the third largest specialty coffee in the United States. Interesting, however, it opened stores in the Pacific Rim before they started expanding to the Midwest or the East Coast.  Tully's opened the first store in Kent with a $1 million investment, trying to rival its neighbor, Starbucks.