Coffee Culture : Coffee Ceremonies

For people in the Horn of Africa and parts of the Middle East coffee has maintained its religious connotations, and the ritual aspects remain conscious and refined. Ethiopians and Eritreans brought their coffee ceremonies with them as they immigrated to the United States. My first experience with a formal coffee ceremony was in the apartment of an Eritrean friend in a thoroughly urbanized part of Oakland, California. His wife carefully roasted the green coffee beans in a shallow pan, passed the just-roasted, steaming beans around the room so that everyone could enjoy their sweet black smoke, cooled them on a small straw mat, ground them in an electric grinder (at home in Eritrea she would use a large mortar and pestle, but she explained that the pounding disturbed her downstairs neighbors!), brewed the coffee in a traditional clay pot, and served it in tiny cups. The entire event was an opportunity to talk and gossip while basking in the smell and spectacle of the preparation of the beverage whose consumption consummated the morning.

On a less literal level, a multitude of coffee ceremonies take place simultaneously all over the world: in office lunchrooms, in espresso bars, in Swedish parlors, in Japanese coffeehouses, wherever coffee drinkers gather to stare into space, to read a newspaper, or to share a moment, outside time and obligation, with their friends. Ritual is further wrapped up in the smell and taste of coffee. Certain aromas, flavors, gestures, and sounds combine to symbolize coffee and suggest a mood of contemplation or well-being in an entire culture. This, I am convinced, was the reason for the persistence of the pumping percolator in American culture in the 1940s through 1960s. To Americans of that era, the gentle popping sound of the percolator and the smell the popping liberated signified coffee and made them feel good before they even lifted a cup.

Other cultures have similar associations. To people from the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe, the froth that gathers in the pot when brewing coffee is an indispensable part of the drink, not only because it tastes good but because it symbolizes the meditative glow that comes with brewing and consuming coffee. Italians put a comparable, if somewhat less ceremonial, emphasis on the froth produced by espresso brewing. An Italian will not take a tazzina of espresso seriously if it is not topped with a layer of what to a filter-coffee drinker may look like gold-colored scum. Yet this golden scum, or crema, is what marks espresso as the real thing. Similar satisfaction resides in the milk froth that tops such drinks as caffè latte and cappuccino. The froth has almost no flavor, but a cappuccino is not a cappuccino without it.