Coffee in Seattle is sacred. Roast of beans, choice of beverage, favorite café – the combo of these is a Seattleite’s personal deity, and there are few locals who do not worship at the altar of the double tall. Whether you are relaxing on vacation, off on a Sunday morning excursion, taking a five-minute break between Monday morning meetings, a cup of coffee is always a treat. When in Seattle, a cup of joe is even more than a treat, it’s a cultural experience.
A popular destination at any time of day, the coffee shop, coffee stand, or coffee cart is an entity unto itself. Every venue and each roast has its own distinct personality and mood that sets it apart as a favorite for local caffeine-seekers. It’s no joke that coffee shops seem to peer at you from every corner of Seattle’s urban areas, but don’t be overwhelmed. Seattle’s unique coffee culture is easily navigated when armed with a touch of local coffee history, familiarity with a few local coffee shops, and a crash course in the nuances of roast varieties.
Falling Beans – the History of Coffee in Seattle
Local lore holds a convenient accident responsible for the first coffee shop. In 1895, a Seattle dockworker snatched a bag of spilled beans lying unnoticed on the waterfront, roasted them up in a pan, and began to peddle his whole bean treats around the neighborhood. Soon after, his proceeds allowed him to open up Seattle Tea and Coffee at Pike Place Market, which is also home to the oldest Starbucks location, still standing today.
In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, coffeehouses began to pop up around the city as bohemian culture melded with the desire for hot brews during Seattle’s rainy months. In 1967, The Last Exit was born in the University District, a popular spot for poets, students, and artists to gather on sopping wet afternoons for some solace, a read, or a clove cigarette and conversation. Dave Olsen, a future Starbucks executive, followed this tradition in 1975 with the opening of Café Allegro, where talented baristas still rock the worlds of academics, visitors, and seekers of fine java. In 1971, three coffee connoisseurs delivered the shot of success to Seattle coffee culture that would be felt around the world. Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zev Siegl so wanted to share their love of high-quality beans that they pooled their money, ordered in bulk from Peet’s Coffee and Tea in Berkeley, Calif., and opened up the nautical-themed Starbucks Coffee on Western Avenue. What began as a vending point for whole beans—they offered tastes but didn’t brew beverages until later—eventually grew into the coffee giant we know today. In 1976, the roasters moved to Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market in what is now touted as the original Starbucks location.
Although Starbucks is still hugely popular in virtually every Seattle neighborhood, the 1990s saw a notable increase in independent roasters and coffee shops. The emergent grunge culture met the folkier, salon ambience of the coffeehouse as bands began to draw large crowds to venues accessible to underage music lovers. Now-defunct venues such as Belltown’s Sit and Spin hosted dedicated cappuccino sippers and beer swillers alike for some of Seattle’s most memorable shows. Luckily, the coffee habits of more than half a million Seattle inhabitants keep most of the start-ups in business.
The process of roasting coffee is neither cheap nor easy—beans must be roasted at extremely high temperatures for long enough to bring out the flavor but not so long that the coffee gets burned. Once the beans are roasted, the aroma and taste begin to change almost immediately. So the shorter the period of time between the roaster and your cup, the better the coffee. From mega coffee corporations like Starbucks to hole-in-the-wall roasting operations such as Wallingford’s Lighthouse Coffee, each roaster has its own method to perfecting the art of coffee. Although most companies do not offer tours of their roasting operations, some establishments house both the roasting equipment and coffee shop in the same building – the coffee doesn’t get much fresher when it has such a short distance to travel.
Traditionally, Seattle coffee roasters order raw beans from coffee plantations in far warmer climates. As is the case with any business, the bottom line must be a factor when considering the choice of product suppliers. Unfortunately, many of the cheaper coffee plantations are known for the unfair and inhumane treatment of their workers, and international coffee business are taking notice. Fair Trade Coffee is a certified product that is guaranteed to come from farms whose workers are treated equitably, have a voice in the operations of the farm, and who receive a living wage. Many Seattle coffee shops offer Fair Trade Coffee; look for the black-and-white certification sticker or ask your barista for details.
There is a subtle and distinct rhythm to every Seattle coffee shop. The clink of spoons on ceramic cups and the clank of heavy metal as the baristas pump out shot after delicious shot of espresso. An acoustic guitar dispenses peaceful moods from an unseen speaker in the corner and the hum of quiet conversation fills the air. If you enjoy sipping and people watching, you’ve come to the right city. Thousands of folks flood Seattle’s coffee shops every day to enjoy a tasty beverage and read a book, catch up with friends, or watch the world pass slowly through the silvery grey mist. Seattleites’ tendencies to spend hours on end parked on a chair with a ceramic mug and something to read is perhaps the fault of the weather. When the air is permeated with moisture and the breeze sneaks up from the Puget Sound, the chill can seep into ones bones. The only cure is multiple cups of joe.
If you’re short on time and close to the downtown area, consider a quick walking tour of downtown Seattle’s most famous coffee hotspots with Seattle by Foot (seattlebyfoot.com).