Coffee was once seen as a sophisticated antidote for a society drowning in the ill-effects of alcohol.
In 1887, in the Alexandra and Yea Standard under the heading Progressive Melbourne an enthusiastic writer wrote that Melbourne was the “most comfortable city in the southern continent” for the “casual visitor” chiefly because of the coffee houses which were “intended originally as a corrective to the baneful effect of the numbers of drinking shops”.
In 2014 coffee is still making news in Australia.
Melbourne proclaims itself as a coffee city and local newspaper The Age awards Melbourne the best coffee in the world award or something like that. Sydney reckons it’s catching up and everywhere, even in Euroa, people pride themselves on knowing the difference between a ristretto and a latte.
Some feel that the coffee culture is a demonstration of how far Australian culture has progressed since the first expresso machine was installed in a cafe in George Street, Sydney by three Greek brothers. For them, it is a demonstration of how sophisticated we are, of our innate Europeanness between Asia and nowhere.
Sadly, I need to admit that I’m a willing participant of the Melbourne Coffee culture and earlier this year after an office move I spent over a week sampling all the coffee on offer before settling on the very fine Sbrigo where pretentious orders like a double ristretto with 3/4 milk are not mocked. In fact they have their own unique name – the Melbourne Magic.
Three months ago I gave up coffee and took up tea. Black, Green, Herbal. The lot. I did it to give myself a break from the marriage of perfection that is coffee and cigarettes. It’s a beautiful and dangerous combination and I needed a break.
Just last week I tried coffee again for the first time and it was like I had consumed class-A illegal drugs, lots of drugs.
I called my wife and jabbered at her for a bit about how amazing coffee was and how my life was poorer for it while she quietly listened. She then told me to take it easy and hung up. Everything was awesome and I was the captain of awesome fuelled by the bitter sweet schadenfreude of caffeine.
During my respite from coffee, I learnt that the absence of “coffee culture” did not leave a massive void in my life. My simple life carried on as normal with the sole exception that I didn’t start the day by trudging to my desk with a paper cup filled with possibility and a mild sprinkling of resentment. I was also a lot calmer.
Life was better without the addiction to caffeine. I was better.
Unlike fin de siècle Vienna, contemporary Australian cafes and coffee shops are not a hotbed of revolutionary ideas, art, books, and writing. They are filled with lifestyle seekers. As Century 21 Australasia chairman Charles Tarbey gloated in The Australian:
“Lifestyle puts the prices up. The opportunity for better lifestyle, which could include the addition of a good quality coffee shop, would definitely have an increase in interest of people buying in an area.”
The Australian obsession with coffee, with lifestyle, is a reflection of how small-minded and narrow our culture is. This might seem a bit of a stretch but for me, the self-congratulatory way we “discover” new cafes and bakeries, and the way we judge an area by the quality of the coffee and length and sheen of the barrista’s beard is a reflection of misdirected priorities. The focus on coffee and cafe culture, on lifestyle comes at the expense of a focus on a rich intellectual life, on theatre, on art, on making stuff, on creating a better world.
This might seem a little black and white, a bit too binary, but a culture is as Foucault says, “a hierarchical collection of values, accessible to everybody, but at the same time the occasion of a mechanism of selection and exclusion”. If all we appear to value is coffee and lifestyle, closing the borders, selling fossil fuels, and bigoted t-shirts, then those are our values, that is our shared culture. My thesis is that if we value ephemera less and if we pay more attention to the big things that matter then our culture would place coffee further down the priority list and people further up the list.
As the oft quoted Socrates aphorism tells us, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Now I know that just because you’re sucking down a latte in a cafe staffed by a Barista with tattoos and a long shiny beard doesn’t mean you’re not examining your life deeply and profoundly. The point is that with coffee and lifestyle being such an integral part of our cultural discourse (along with house prices, foreigners, and football) there is not much room for anything else. Coffee is the drug that stupefies us and keeps us in a state of bewildered anxiety fusing around at the short-term, the banal, and whatever the Murdoch/2GB cabal are obsessing over this week.
What Australia needs is a coffee-temperance movement.
The simple act of saying NO to lifestyle choices, saying NO to an unexamined life, saying NO to an obsession over the perfect ristretto or the merits of a pour-over will result in a renewed focus on who we are and how we nt to live. Avoiding the inevitable queue for coffee followed by the dismal trudge, jumbo-coffee in hand every workaday morning and choosing a green tea, black tea, or just water will after a few days of headaches and rage free you from caffeine slavery. You will be able to examine your life free from the constraints of lifestyle expectations.
Today’s coffee houses are maker-spaces, meet-ups, and social-media platforms like Twitter. They are the non-religious churches like the Sunday Assembly. They are places like The School of Life, The Wheeler Centre, and the local park. They are self-organised utopian-technologists like Future Crunch. All these and more contribute to a discourse that seeks to inspire and elevate, not compare, contrast, and caffeinate.
The great irony is that I have now devoted 1,000 words to coffee, lifestyle and what some might say is the trivial. But then again maybe you’ve had too much coffee.
Note: I haven’t covered the ethical or ecological impact of coffee production. That is for another time.