My dad used to say–at least every other day–something about “the price of tea in China.” It was one of his many catch phrases–often clichés–that he’d throw out to us, his own personal comedy audience. He wasn’t that funny, his humor was cheesy dad humor at best, but he did have a lot of charisma, something I like to think I inherited.
So I’ve been living in Seattle for over 15 years now! In the last post, I gave a little (mostly personal) history of coffee, but now I want to give you a guide to the cost of coffee in this city. It’s gotten to appalling levels. When friends from Michigan visited they exclaimed, “It’s $5 for a cup of coffee!”
Well, they would be right, sort of.
I’d say there are several levels of coffee shops in Seattle, a hierarchy of sorts.
Just like your top shelf whiskeys, we have our top shelf coffee shops. I’m sure many Seattleites would disagree with me on a few of these, but I’m sure everyone will agree that Espresso Vivace is at the top of the list. I put it at the very top because Vivace’s owner, David Schomer, as I pointed out in the last post, is one of the most passionate people I have ever heard of when it comes to making a perfect cup of coffee. This guy went to Northern Italy back in the early 90’s to study it, to learn how to pull the finest shot of espresso anyone had ever tasted, how to pull it for the most delicious flavor and crema down to the very second, how to get the best foam, how to make the most beautiful latte art, and how to translate that to all of his workers. From the Vivace website: “Since 1992 we have been roasting in the Northern Italian style: searching the world for the mildest arabicas and bringing each bean in our blends to the fragrant peak of caramelized sugar content.” Notice my emphasis. I’ve never heard of a more passionate barista and café owner.
But it’s not just Schomer’s passion, it’s the way the coffee tastes. Whenever I’ve ordered a coffee at Vivace, it is pretty much the same every time, a soft, delicate, almost sweet coffee flavor. And if I’ve ordered a latte or a cappuccino–which is rare–the foam is tightly spun and perfectly heated, creating an almost sweet taste with a ever so smooth mouthfeel which enhances the sweet coffee flavor. Every cup is finished with a beautiful, delicate heart or rosetta pattern. It’s a true work of art, each and every time. Vivace definitely raised the standard for every single coffee shop in Seattle, if not the entire country.
I like Vivace as a treat now and then, but honestly, their coffee is just a little too upscale for me. The baristas are nice enough, but there is also this feeling of superiority and weariness about many of their baristas, as if they know they make the best coffee (which in all honesty, they do) but that they also kind of hate their jobs, having to deal with the public all day, every day for an eternity. I don’t blame them, but it also doesn’t make me want to go in there that often. And then, there is the price. Vivace is perhaps some of the most expensive coffee out there. We shall see, in my ongoing investigation of coffee prices in Seattle.
For several years now, if not over a decade, my standard drink has been an americano, mostly because it’s cheaper. When I first moved to Seattle and discovered soy milk, I was over the moon! Finally, there was an answer to my dairy intolerance! I could drink the stuff and not get stuffed up sinuses, bloating or stomach aches, and I could avoid the unsociable flatulence. Well, for the first couple of years at least. It was a glorious, free time! Plus, almost every coffee shop began carrying the new-fangled stuff. Soy lattes every single day–even to the detriment of my newly acquired bank account!
Then a friend suggested getting an americano–it had less caffeine and it was also cheaper! And since soy started acting exactly like dairy in my system after two or three years of almost daily use, it became necessary. So that was it. Americanos for life. And I’d be saving at least $1.50 every time I got a cuppa.
The going price for an americano at Espresso Vivace is $3.25. The price of a 12 oz. latte is $4.50. Soy? Add a whole $1. Then you have to throw in a dollar for every drink you get, as proper coffee culture etiquette. It ain’t no 10-20% tip on drinks here. It’s a whole dollar each and every time. That’s a 30-50% tip for every coffee drink!
Baristas are bartenders here. Especially at Vivace. Real coffee connoisseurs/snobs like to tell you that the word barista actually means bartender in Italy. That’s what they are in Italy, essentially– people who work behind a bar serving everything from espresso to lattes to wine or beer. They are all bartenders, really.
Even though I think Vivace is top shelf, I actually like other coffee more. Call it poor taste, but it’s also economic sense. Well, and perhaps it also has to do with where I live. I’ve had to break myself of the habit of going out for coffee every day. It’s just too much money! How do people afford it every day?
I used to visit a friend every now and then who worked at an upscale coffee shop downtown, Cafe Torrefazione, which I just discovered, does not exist anymore because it was bought by Starbucks who soon after purchasing the business, shut down all 17 of the Torrefazione cafes. They still, however, sell the Torrefazione brand coffee at retail stores around the country.
One day while sitting in a corner seat as my friend Rachel made herself a delicious latte with brown sugar, one of her regulars came in. She told me that he came in every single day, sometimes three times a day! Breakfast, lunch and snack. I was dumbfounded, just trying to pay rent, afford groceries, and go to community college on the hill. I did the math–a very rough estimate–and discovered that man singlehandedly paid for all of Rachel’s expenses every month! (I wish I could remember how much an americano and a latte were at this store of long ago!).
As a bottom marker of coffee shops, I would have to say that Starbucks, Seattle’s Best Coffee (also bought out by Starbucks long ago), Peet’s Coffee (which isn’t really that terrible) and Tully’s (which is gone now) are at the very bottom for me. Why? Because if I go there and order an americano or even just a drip coffee, the taste is decidedly burnt–a signature taste of Starbucks’ beans–and even sour or acidic. Perhaps I should blame it on Vivace, or Caffe Vita, or Ladro or even Lighthouse’s supercilious barista way back in 2004. But they ruined me for Starbuck’s terrible coffee for life. I can’t drink it anymore. If you want to enjoy a Starbucks coffee, you have to get all that sugar in it. It’s the only way. And if that’s the case, you might as well go to a gas station or 7-11, or better yet, McDonald’s and get their pre-mixed sugar coffee drinks that come out of the machine. But, for the sake of gauge, a 12 oz. latte at Starbucks is $3.45 and an americano is, well, I don’t know. I just tried to look it up online and I gave up. I’ll check back when I find out.
So that’s the baseline.
Coffeeshops I Know and/or Love
I’ve had coffee at many, many places around this beautiful city. Here’s an informal list off the top of my head:
Street Bean Coffee on Roosevelt in the U District.
Broadcast Coffee in the Central District and Ravenna.
Caffe Ladro on 15th and on Queen Anne.
Caffe Vita, two locations on Capitol Hill.
The Ugly Mug off the Ave (which may or may not have closed and then reopened?)
Sureshot on the Ave.
Trabant Chai and Coffee (do they exist anymore?).
Cloud City Coffee.
(Coming soon: prices of all of these places!)
So I do have a hierarchy of good coffee shops and bad. But here’s my caveat. I don’t have normal tastebuds. Because of this ridiculous disease I have called Samter’s Triad (that no one has ever heard of), polyps obsessively grow in my nose and block my olfactory glands so I can’t smell anything. It’s a noticeable difference in everything I eat or drink. I prefer very strong coffee but not dark roast. But I can taste the difference between my shitty coffee at home and a perfectly crafted americano. Honestly, most of the unique flavors of Vivace (and Stumptown and Vita and Ladro) are probably completely lost on me. It’s a sad, sad, sad, sad world I live in, folks. But more on that later.
I still love coffee, it still tastes delicious to me, and I suppose it’s a bit like being colorblind. The colors are muted or completely different, but I can still appreciate them!
But oh how I wish I could still smell coffee. Once, soon after my first sinus surgery, I was walking towards the back of the grocery store I worked at and walking down the coffee aisle, I caught a strong whiff of the stuff. It made my head spin, almost dizzy with delight, I smiled, relaxed and felt altogether euphoric! It was like waking up from a very good dream. I was floating for the next several minutes. So don’t ever take your sense of smell for granted.
Ok, so I started this whole blog post so I could tell you where to find the cheapest americano! Everywhere else it’s like seriously $3.25! Yikes!
So I have to give a shoutout to Java Jahn in Ballard–which has been around for 28 years–where you can get a 12 ounce americano for $2.60! I’m now convinced it’s the cheapest americano you can get in this city. If you’re looking for a latte, a 12 ounce is $3.85. A 12 ounce drip coffee is $2.30.
It’s a cute, little spot on Leary Way just before the 15th Bridge, with upstairs seating and large, street-facing windows. And I like the coffee. The baristas are very friendly and have a good rapport with the neighborhood and regulars. Oh, and the alternative milk options are only 55 cents! Very reasonable. And they proudly serve Lighthouse Roasters Coffee! Ha. Everything comes full circle, doesn’t it?
Now that I’m thinking about it, I was having a hard time deciding on my favorite coffeeshop. I go to coffeeshops first and foremost because I love the taste of coffee. For me, it’s not just the jolt of caffeine that kickstarts my wonder and amazement for life. It’s the taste!
I know what you’re thinking, “But you just said that you don’t taste coffee like other people do!” Yes, this is true, but goddamn if it still doesn’t taste oh so good!
And yes, coffee really does give me that much needed kick in the pants first thing in the morning. I get so hyper almost immediately after consumption, although, each and every time, it appears to me as a slow dawning, and then whazzam! I’m all hyped up and psyched on whatever idea I’m riding at the moment! If it’s lesson planning for that one, measly class Cascadia gave me this quarter, or trying to explain an obscure English word like shrubs (I jest!) to my one, measly ESL student, I’m so stoked about it! Seriously!
But the other reason I go to coffeeshops a lot, and perhaps so many other people do as well, is to work. Every Tuesday I meet my (one, measly) ESL student at Wayward and practice English conversation.
Here’s a funny (to me) story. I had originally begun meeting my student (who is a mom from Hungary) at Broadcast Coffee. I had begun going to Broadcast because the aesthetic, not the coffee, is so conducive to getting shit done! I love the streamlined, clean, white look this place inspires. It helps me to focus and stay on task, to not let time slip away. Or at least it seemed to at first. Which is probably why this guy Dave that I know is always in there working remotely. We began to laugh every time we’d see each other in there, two or three times a week, working, sipping coffee slowly.
But the truth is, Broadcast’s coffee isn’t that good! At least, I don’t really care for it. And neither does my student. Of the many things we talked about, we finally arrived at the conversation of coffee. She is eastern European, and everywhere you go, you can get a pretty standard delicious espresso. But here, well, I don’t know what they’re doing at Broadcast either. Great aesthetic, great decor, perfect lighting, wonderful windows. Coffee, subpar.
So I suggested Wayward and we’ve never looked back.
Bonus: Wayward Coffeehouse self-identifies as a coffee haven for geeks. It’s also a very community oriented meetinghouse where all kinds of groups can host their weekly or monthly meetings. There are big tables for large groups, and the baristas will even reserve a table for your meeting with a little white board. It’s a little hidden gem that you have to go down a set of stairs to reach, so essentially you’re in a basement. The walls are painted golden rod, and the decor is all Star Trek and other nerdy things I know nothing about.
Price: The menu says an americano (12 oz.) is $2.95. But after tax, it’s $3.25, just like the rest of them.
Caffe Ladro is pretty great. They’ve been around for 25 years and they have several locations in the Greater Seattle Area! Their coffee is delicious, beautifully crafted, and at least in the Upper Queen Anne location, they have this super yummy Almond Coffeecake that is gluten-free! Yeah!
I’ve been in the habit of stopping there after my therapy sessions to get an americano and that very same coffeecake. I’ll sit at one of the mosaic table tops, or, on a nice day, outside on their large, outdoor seats in front of the cafe, and journal for an hour or two while sipping all the crema away.
I used to go to Storyville just kitty corner from Ladro because they have such a beautiful (again, streamlined) aesthetic. Their logo is the red silhouette of a child running with a little toy airplane. They have these super comfy leather chairs next to a fireplace and they used to give out FREE chocolate cake drenched in chocolate sauce!!! Yeah, I was going there for quite a while, almost religiously, especially after a hard therapy session, to recoup, relax, journal, and sometimes work on my computer or write things. But then I discovered (or maybe I knew already?) that the owners used to be heavily involved in the Mars Hill megachurch in days of old. They were even in leadership there. I was trying to keep an open mind. Christians are people, too. I mean it was kind of easy to with all that FREE CHOCOLATE CAKE DRIZZLED IN CHOCOLATE being slung around.
But after a while, it just kind of got to me. I couldn’t go in there anymore. It just made me feel bad. I suppose it’s just my old religious trauma seeping up. They still make a great cup, the aesthetic is beautiful, the service is phenomenal, but there’s that itch at the back of my skull I just can’t shake. Mars Hill! I don’t need to go into it here. You can read for yourself. (Or I’ll write a post about it later.) Plus, Storyville is a bit pricey.
Anyhow, an americano at Ladro is–you guessed it–$3.25 for a 12 ounce. A 12 ounce latte is $4.15. Not really affordable at all. But that gluten-free Almond Coffeecake is delicious! And so worth it after crying a lot (about my religious trauma).
Plus, they have that really cool mysterious guy silhouette in black as their logo.
Here’s the thing about coffee. No one is wrong. Your tastes are your tastes. And your tastebuds are not mine. (In fact, mine are exactly like no one’s ever, except maybe some ladies in this AERDs/Samter’s Triad group on Facebook). It’s just like art. You might like New Country music, I might loathe it, you might think Kendrick Lamar is the greatest rapper to ever live, I might not think you’re totally wrong (but what do I know about rap?) and you might think that Starbucks is good coffee because it’s been mass marketed to you that way and you believed it.
But really, that’s irrelevant at the end of the day. What you like is what you like. I still like diner coffee and I could sit an entire morning enjoying the watered-down or sludge version, either way, milk, cream or none. If forced, I will drink a Starbucks coffee, especially if they are the only ones around serving my drug of choice–though I have been actively trying to boycott Starbucks in the name of anti-capitalism for over a year now, along with fucking Amazon.
But if you want a good americano at a decent price and you happen to be in the neighborhood, go to Java Jahn Espresso. You won’t be sorry.
*As an afterthought, I want to say that if you do decide to take an anti-capitalist stand (not that I’m trying to get you to here! lol), it will only make your life so much better. Because I actively boycott Starbucks (read: avoid as much as humanly possible), I end up finding really cute, adorable little coffeeshops that bring real joy and delight to my day, unlike the corporate, cookie-cutter chains that make me feel like my soul is trying to climb out of my skin and fly far, far away. In the same way, by actively boycotting Amazon (the evil empire), I end up finding really great bookstores that I love and want to support, build relationships with more people, and peruse bookstores as a much needed respite, almost a meditative practice.