Exploring Coffee Culture

Every college student has worked as a barista. At least, it seems that way. What better place to work if you need caffeine and a place to study? It’s all right there.

I was newly married with one more semester of grad school when I found myself joining ranks with all those caffeine-addicted students as I too applied to be a barista at a coffee shop on campus. I hoped this part-time job would help me pay for school, as well as provide some insight into my husband’s penchant for a daily cappuccino! Up to that point, I could only distinguish two types of coffee — the ones I liked (typically disguised with sugar, milk and whipped cream), and the ones that I didn’t like.

This coffee shop stint was my passport to coffee education and appreciation, and where better to experience this than in the coffee capital of Canada — Vancouver — which boasts one of the highest concentrations of coffee shops of any city in the country. In Canada alone, an estimated 100 million cups of coffee are consumed each day. Coffee is the second-most-traded physical commodity after oil. The world’s thirst for coffee appears to be unquenchable.

Where did we go to hang out with friends, study for finals or relax with a book before the advent of coffee shops? Throughout history, societies had public gathering places as their social hubs, from the boisterous pubs in London and the old-fashioned soda shops in America to the refined teahouses of China.

Coffee house culture dates back to 16th century Turkey, and spread to Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. Coffee houses became artistic, intellectual and even political centres where people came together to talk, write, read, relax and be entertained. A major addition to the drinking culture occurred as many turned away from alcoholic beverages in pubs and taverns, to caffeinated drinks in cafés and coffee shops.

While alcohol dulls the senses, caffeinated drinks stimulate the mind.

Taking it one step further, the coffee shop culture now so widely embraced has been labelled ‘the third place’ —   separate from the primary spaces of home and work. This intermediate place is welcoming and comforting in that it provides an escape from the pressures associated with these primary spaces, and is an impetus for feelings of social connection and safe refuge.

For some, the draw of this global living room is the meaningfulness of having one’s decaf, double tall, extra hot, no foam, vanilla soy latte remembered — the feeling of being significantly known in some way.

For others, it is the ability to withdraw into the individual activity of studying, reading or simply daydreaming in the presence of others, without feeling completely isolated or alone.

At the heart of coffee shop culture lies the basic need for human relationships — to be heard, to be known. If you have ever worked in a café or coffee shop, you know that if you are willing to listen, you soon become privy to people’s stories, secrets, confessions, fears and dreams.

A story out of the Book of John resonated with my own local coffee shop experience. In it, Jesus strikes up a conversation with a stranger by a water source, asking for a drink. Even though he was on a journey — en route from Judea to Samaria he made himself available to chance encounters that could be life-changing for those he met. He walked right through a habitually avoided foreign land. Ethnicity, gender or social status were not obstacles to conversation for him.

There are many dynamics at play in this story, but Jesus proved himself respectful even as he pushed the envelope by exchanging words with a Samaritan lady. Soon a request for a drink developed into a serious conversation about faith and religious practices, eventually became personal as he probed about her relationships.

Our coffee shop culture can be a gateway to encountering an eclectic assortment of previously unfamiliar people, and practically provides that license to explore the possibilities for meaningful conversation. Intrinsic to our human nature is the thirst for drink, but also for personal relationships.

Many, if not all, desire to be connected to others and to community, waiting, perhaps, for someone to share the Living Water with whom we need not thirst again.


  • The world’s most expensive coffee is kopi luwak, $425 CDN a pound. The luwak, or palm civet, digests the coffee berry fruit but passes the beans through its digestive system, which are then harvested and processed. It is described as “chocolaty and full-bodied with a touch of gaminess.”
  • Bach wrote a coffee cantata in 1732.
  • Coffee is the most popular drink in the world, as more than 400 billion cups are consumed each year.
  • Flavoured coffee beans are roasted, then partially cooled, at which point the flavour is applied, when the beans’ pores are open and therefore more receptive to flavour absorption.


  • Filter Drip: A machine heats then delivers measured water into a filter containing ground coffee. The resulting liquid drips into the carafe.
  • Percolation: A pumping percolator uses the power of boiling water to force water up a tube then filters it down over a bed of ground coffee. Purists claim percolation takes away from the flavour.
  • French press or plunger pot: The coffee grounds are “steeped” in hot water, like tea, then separated from the liquid by pressing them to the bottom of the brewing receptacle with a mesh plunger.
  • Cowboy or Campfire Coffee (a.k.a. open pot brewing): Boil a pot of water, throw the grounds in then after a period of time, the grounds will sink to the bottom, and the coffee is done.
  • Espresso: A brewing method as well as type of coffee, it forces hot water under pressure through tightly packed coffee, one or two servings at a time. The coffee itself is a darker roast and a finer grind than standard North American coffee.

Photo by (flickr CC) Jorge Quinteros