Rob keeps trying to give me money. Silly Rob. Now, admittedly, Rob has excellent manners, and is very fond of things being organized and following prescribed patterns and such. Hence the proffered bills. You see, when the guys at work go out for lunch, they take turns paying, and then after lunch, when they stop for coffee, one of the people who didn’t pay for lunch buys coffee. It’s their little system. Except that I mess things up. I have paid for lunch and coffee. Sometimes I pay for my own lunch and not theirs. Sometimes I pay for neither. Sometimes I don’t go to lunch with them, but I ask them to bring me a coffee. Sometimes I don’t go to lunch with them but I offer to pick up coffee. So you can see why this would fall outside of Rob’s accepted coffee procurement parameters.

Thing is, though… I don’t care. I don’t care if our current coffee tally is uneven. I don’t care if I bought lunch, an extra $6 isn’t going to break me if I buy coffee, too. And I don’t mind buying coffee even if I am not eating lunch with them, if I’m going up to the mall and Second Cup is there and they like that coffee better than Timmy’s. Hell, I’ll even swing ’round the corner to Cinnabon and pick up cinnamon buns to go with the coffee.

They’ve developed their own system, but I came to the company with mine, too, which, as luck would have it, gels nicely with my laissez faire attitude towards lunchtime spending. At Descartes, coffee was culture, not commodity. It was understood that keeping everyone sufficiently caffeinated was a group responsibility. Someone was always going out for one reason or another, and all you did was holler on your way by (“RIM me!”) and everyone would email you their Tim’s or Starbuck’s request, depending on where you were off to. You couldn’t have kept track of that set up. Which is why to me, offering me money is more a message of “I don’t trust that you’ll take your turn”, even if it’s not an intentional message. Sometimes you got coffee for three, sometimes for 13. Sometimes there was a crazy group Starbuck’s binge and a couple sales people would hand you $20s and you’d head out to get trays of grande lattes. Have you ever bought over $50 worth of coffee at once? It’s weird. And very first world.

The one constant in these scenarios, of course, is this: the office coffee isn’t fit to drink. 🙂

Coffee, though, is culture. It’s been an inextricable part of western culture since its introduction to Europe in the 1600s. Coffee is part of work culture, school culture, dating culture, domestic culture. Working late and your eyes are getting buggy or need something to keep you awake through the afternoon while you’re running reports? Let’s grab coffees. Pulling an all-nighter or got some time to kill between classes? Let’s grab coffees. Need some venue and environment to meet someone new or an excuse to sit and talk for hours? Let’s grab coffees. Just had a nice dinner with friends or are relaxing with the Sunday paper? Let’s grab coffees.

Coffee is an expectation. People will assume you drink it, unless you specify that you don’t. Then you become That Person Who Doesn’t Drink Coffee – cuz you’re always in the minority. And if you don’t drink it, you need a) a reason why you don’t, and b) an alternative beverage – tea, hot chocolate, Coke. (Unless you’re “off the caffeine”, of course…) Hell, where coffee’s concerned, addiction is acceptable, even amusing. Among certain groups – students and IT are two that come to mind – drinking multiple cups a day, and being someone who’s often seeking a caffeine buzz isn’t unusual. Call yourself a caffeine addict and people will chuckle. Dana has recently taken up coffee-drinking. She takes it basically double-double, and drinks it often out of a pink Tinkerbell mug, with a straw (which is just ridiculous), but the reaction to her exclamations of addiction are consistently of the “isn’t that cute?” variety. Try that with heroin… And yet, even those of us who are moderate drinkers are addicts to a degree. Being used to a couple cups a day can end you up with a wicked headache if you go a day without. Of course, if your consumption heads towards double-digits, you’re starting to ask for heart palpitations and other unpleasant side effects. (Though personally, for me caffeine is like sugar – rare do I get buzzed off it, and to do so it takes a LOT.)

Coffee is a coming of age marker. Children don’t drink coffee. In high school, you’re as likely to hang out at fast food joints (or bush parties…) as cafes. But once you get to university, cafes and coffee pubs and good old Timmy’s are staples. You go there with your friends; you go there to study; you go there to help you stay up much too late to finish projects you were procrastinating on by going there with your friends. As an adult, coffee is just what everyone does. At work – coffee breaks. After dinner with friends – dessert and coffee. Whoever’s up first in the mornings at home – makes the coffee.

Do you remember when you started drinking it? I do. I was 12. Strangely, I don’t remember how I decided how I like to drink it. I drank double-double for years. Then one day realized you can taste more of the coffee if you drink it regular. Then I started finding the taste and mouth feel of cream disgusting, so I switched from cream to milk. (At some point I used sweetener, too, but that’s also got a nasty aftertaste.) After the breakup with Andrew, my taste for sweet, which had been slowly waning for years, vanished. I literally could not swallow anything sweet. The only thing I could consistently consume for several weeks was black coffee. And wow, could you ever taste a lot more drinking it black. That can be both a blessing and a curse. Good beans, freshly ground and brewed, and drunk without adulteration? That is a taste sensation. Timmy’s coffee from a pot that’s been sitting drunk black? Revolting. So now, if I know the coffee is good, I drink it black. More questionable sources, I’m back to regular with milk. I still won’t drink coffee from the cafeteria at work.

Coffee is an integral and subtle part of office culture. You can welcome the new guy by stopping by his desk on your way to get a coffee and inviting him to go with you. And it’s a less personal or committed act than inviting him for beers after work. It’s a way of having “pedeconferences” or sidebar off-the-record meetings, and the further you go from your work area to get the coffee (i.e. down the hall or down the street), the more hush-hush the info tends to be. Like smoking, it’s a way of exchanging company information or gossip out of earshot of the masses. Bosses use getting a coffee as a way of softening the delivery of negative information. The professional is tempered with the social.

Of course, coffee has been social since we started drinking it, and by “we”, I mean Europeans in the 1600s. The coffeehouses of Europe’s cities were popular from the beginning, and served as unofficial offices where a great deal of business, strategy, and intrigue took place. Different important groups of people were known by which coffeehouses they frequented. It was like a second address. The literati gathered around tables to drink coffee and talk about everything much as they do now. It became as sought-after and fashionable to serve as tea. We owe the Arabs a big one. Coffee culture in North America is somewhat different than it is in Europe, though. Our tastes, pace of life, and founders are a bit different. We’re not so much for whiling away an afternoon with endless cups of coffee and cigarettes. And they still consider alcohol in a more social context than we do. One wonders, had the Venetians not imported coffee in large quantities (and had no one else imported it, for whatever reason), what would have taken or held coffee’s place in western culture over the last 400 odd years? Wine? Ale? Tea? Given the Puritan origins of the American work ethic, I have difficulty envisioning American workers taking a mid-afternoon Cabernet break, or slipping out of the office for a flagon of mead. Granted, people might be a lot happier with their work-life balance if they did… And hell, how Canadian is it that our most ubiquitous chain is named after its founder – a hockey player.

Coffee choice says a lot about the person drinking it as well. Drinking coffee black is not unlike drinking whiskey neat. It’s no-nonsense. But it starts before that. Do you buy beans or pre-ground? Do you buy your coffee at the grocery store or specialty store? Do you have a favourite grind or blend? Do you buy green or roasted beans? What kind of grinder do you use? What kind of brewer do you have? What kind of cup or mug do you prefer to drink it out of? What do you put in it, and how much? It’s the same with buying pre-made coffee. Local hole in the wall, Timmy’s, Second Cup, Starbuck’s, yuppie cafe? Cuppa joe, vanilla hazelnut, latte, or venti, triple, non-fat, extra-hot caramel macchiato?

To the same extent, your coffee choices say things about your socio-economic status, gastronomic tastes, and political inclinations. I know people who have never drunk a $5 latte, and probably never will. I know people who own espresso machines worth more than my car. I know people who eschew Tim Horton’s and slag their coffee every chance they get. I know people who would rather die than enter a Starbuck’s. I know people who insist on organic, fair trade beans, and people who buy no-name pre-ground off-the-shelf grocery store coffee and don’t care what kind of beans are in it or where they’re from. I know people who grind their specialty store beans in a grinder bought at Zeller’s, and brew their coffee in a Starbuck’s Barista coffeemaker with filters purchased at Canadian Tire. And then they pour their coffee (black) into a travel mug from Target to take to work because the work coffee is nasty and the employees at the Tim’s closest to the office are inevitably incompetent and a two-a-day Starbuck’s habit is too expensive and William’s coffee tastes funny. (Okay, that last person is me.)

In any case, archaeologists learn the most about lost societies from studying their garbage. And given the frequency with which I see litter that originated at a Timmy’s, maybe their tagline is right: a story in every cup.

3 Comments on Bean Culture.

  1. It’s not the straw + tinkerbell, it’s just that *I* am unbearably cute in everything I do. (Ha!) And as for my heroin addiction, I .. uhh.. never mind.

1Pingbacks & Trackbacks on Bean Culture.

  1. […] But small talk? Oy. Based on that, the internet was invented for people like me. Unfortunately, the Metaverse doesn’t quite exist yet, which requires occasionally meeting real, live people. Fortunately, some time before the Baby Jesus invented the internet, he invented alcohol… And coffee, which gives people an excuse to do a lot of things. […]

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