In advance of her new West Coast coffee travel book, Left Coast Roast, author and coffee professional Hanna Neuschwander will be storming San Francisco the week of Jan. 21. To prep ourselves for the trio of Neuschwander events, we sat down with the author to talk West versus East, caffeine as a drug, and those goddamn coffee pod machines.
West Coast vs. East Coast -- who wins?
The West coast undoubtedly has more small, independent coffee roasters at this point, which are a driver of energy and excitement completely out of scale with their actual size. They are mice who roar. Every major city on the West Coast now has multiple high-profile roasters. I don't think you can say that of the East Coast yet. People ask if I am going to write a companion to my book -- East Coast Roast. I could be wrong, but I don't think I could find 60 interesting coffee companies indigenous to the east coast.
Why the West Coast though?
Why was coffee embraced so forcefully in the Northwest early on? It might be the dark and damp. It's almost certainly partly to do with cheap rents in exciting neighborhoods back in the '90s. There isn't a thriving independent coffee shop in the country that is unconnected with the culture of its city or neighborhood -- if there are artists and musicians and writers, you have both fuel for that creative work and a workforce to staff your café. I also think it has to do with food. People on the West Coast were interested en masse and very early in where and how food was being produced.
Fifty-five shops visited -- what are your newfound coffee qualms?
Over-caffeination. Caffeine is a drug, a psychostimulant, and you feel that powerfully when you do four back-to-back interviews with roasters and you need to sit with them and drink their coffee. Remember the Jessie Spano caffeine pill freakout? It's like that, for six months.
My other qualm is sameness. Last summer, I went to a café in Copenhagen I was very excited about. I walked in and felt instantly at home -- it had all the markers of a high-end coffee experience: gorgeous raw wood on the bar, a bit of copper; clean lines; some subway tile, a chalkboard. It was lovely. But then I thought: This looks pretty much like every café in Portland. I think it's a bit sad when cafés start to look too much like each other and not enough like the places where they're from.
Your book features an excellent section on home brewing and what that entails. I wonder if you have any advice for the nascent coffee enthusiast?
Just don't buy a fucking pod machine -- in most cases, you'll be paying upward of $50/pound for stale coffee. Very little or none of the premium you're paying goes to the people who grow the coffee; it goes to the industrial process of putting generally cheap, pre-ground beans into wasteful little packages.
Is this coffee thing close to hitting the saturation point?
Portland might be close to saturated, but Houston? There's plenty of room for this to keep going. It's like five years ago someone knocked over a cup of coffee on a map of the U.S., and it's still spreading.