This summer, I made my foray into the curious world of coffee shops. Although I am from Portland, Ore.—the unofficial mecca of independent coffeehouses—I remained skeptical: “Nothing can be as good as my mother’s Turkish coffee,” I thought, with the same stubbornness that led me to eschew store-bought hummus. But one Saturday morning, in the name of exploration, I grabbed my best friend and headed to the most hipster coffee shop I could find. The front of the building was unremarkable, but upon walking in I was immediately surrounded with the aromas of coffee beans and expensive perfume. The walls were a metallic brocade, and the floors were made of warm chocolate wood.
Behind the counter stood an incredibly attractive barista, who grew much less attractive once I asked him what espresso was.
“It’s very strong coffee,” he said cryptically, the midday sunshine illuminating his artfully tattooed biceps.
“Ok,” I said, glancing at my friend. “I think I’ll take the espresso.”
Five minutes later we claimed a table outside and, feeling very much the parisiens, we sat down to enjoy our coffee.
It was terrible.
We grimaced simultaneously and then immediately realized that we were the only ones who seemed to notice anything wrong. The bespectacled couple near us was animatedly chatting away—looking at them, I could believe that Portland was the city where young people come to retire.
The point of this little anecdote is that I had missed the point. The Coffee was secondary to the social space of the coffee shop. The idea behind “let’s grab a cup of coffee” is not the “cup of coffee,” it’s the “let’s.” Coffee is inseparable from its social connotations; for the hipster, the intellectual history and exclusivity of coffee can be leveraged to reaffirm the boundaries of the hipster social space.
Coffee’s history began in Ethiopia when, according to an Arab legend, a goatherd discovered that his flock gained extraordinary energy after chewing on the beans of a certain plant. The shepherd decided to boil the beans, and the result was a coffee. From its humble origins, this drink spread to the rest of the Arab world, where it became an integral part of social and intellectual life. The stimulant nature of coffee made it perfect for sustaining long, intellectual conversations, and the coffeehouses that sprung up were nearly always in cosmopolitan centers of learning such as Aleppo, Syria, and Istanbul, Turkey. The link between coffee and intellectuality was further strengthened when, sometime in the late 1500s, coffee made its way to Europe.
At this time, many learned Europeans were turning to the Middle East for cultural and intellectual inspiration. In order to gain prestige, prominent families often displayed their connection to the Middle East in the form of rare goods such as coffee. By consuming coffee, affluent Europeans displayed their access to a good (and therefore a culture) that was generally inaccessible to most. Thus, the beverage became enmeshed with exclusivity, and this tradition continues to this day.
While the hipster may not use coffee to symbolize exclusivity in the same way that Europeans did, the ritual of drinking coffee is an important part of the hipster persona. By attending to the source of the coffee and whether or not it is Fair Trade, the hipster establishes herself as a conscious buyer and thereby thwarts the mindlessness of the mainstream consumer. The coffee order itself is also an integral part of establishing the hipster identity: Few hipsters simply order “coffee.” An article from Food Republic, “10 Coffee Orders to Step Up Your Game,” is a perfect example of how the cultural symbol of coffee has a competitive undertone. The drinks by the name of “cortado,” “Gibraltar,” and “breve” are meant to reaffirm the hipster status of exclusivity: The language of coffee thus functions as an insider jargon that clearly delineates the in-group and the out-group.
The coffee shop is also a symbol of an intellectual boundary: Instead of rushing away, the hipster often lingers. This act of leisure signifies that the hipster has time for intellectual pursuits and is therefore someone who is “different” or more enlightened than the imagined masses. The intoxicant nature of coffee might also have something to do with it—consuming coffee, just like smoking or drinking, serves as an initiation of sorts. While some hipsters may not actually like coffee, they drink it anyway, simply because they do not wish to be excluded from that certain society that does drink coffee.
If this sounds like something that all people, not just hipsters, do, that’s because it is. Coffee serves better than anything to show that, while the external markings of hipster culture may be different, there is nothing radical in the social structure or community rituals of the group. While some hipsters would rather die than let a pumpkin spice latte touch their lips, they have already imbibed the most mainstream drink of all: the need to belong.