A Social Coffee review by Liam Wright
Social Coffee is a new segment dedicated to the review of local cafes and examining their coffee as well as their impact on the people who work there, elsewhere, and the world around them.
Visualize a half-painted space; huge smudged windows let in the pale fall sunlight. Decorative wall-hangings of red, white, and black hang from clothesline. Scuffed wood floors show years of love and use. The sixteen feet tall ceilings make the place feel huge. If you can imagine this, you’ve just imagined Capitol Hill’s latest addition to it’s plethora of coffee shops, located on Summit and Pine: Black Coffee.
When I enter the shop I notice in spite of its partly finished decor the place had a homey feel. Black Coffee has tan walls and cheap one-group espresso machine (soon to be replaced by a more standard two-group La Marzocco). It came off as down to earth. Though in a less beautiful space it might have felt like it was falling apart at the seams.
While in shop I sampled an espresso and a cappuccino. They make a mean, if idiosyncratic coffee. My espresso was made by a young woman named Caitlin. She wore all black and friendly smile. It was a 27 second pull of about a 1.5 ounce Costa Rica, Antigua roasted by a small, local direct trade coffee company called Kuma. It had a pale crema and a really bright finish and a surprising amount of staying power. Honestly, I’m shocked that such a lovely espresso could come out of the chincey machine. What a pleasant surprise.
The cappuccino was made by the man who came up with the idea for the shop; a nice slender red-head named Scott. He joined me in sitting on some of the shop’s donated furniture without my even asking. This gave us the chance to geek out over coffee, verbally comparing coffees and how to prepare them. His shot (also the Costa Rica) was pulled at about 31 seconds turning out at about 1.25 ounces. The texture of my cappuccino was pretty typical of a well-made Seattle cap (cappuccino); velvety and wet with a clever tiered heart for its latte art.
The one problem I found with the coffee is that while the espresso was rich, with fruity notes and flavorful when served alone it settled into a soft suggestion of itself, its more subtle flavors covered over, when introduced to the milk in the cappuccino. I have only tried one of their several coffees. But the espresso doesn’t seem to hold up to milk well. This is probably due to it being a single origin, which rarely have the resilience for caps and lattes.
The volume of the shots I tried at Black Coffee was pretty typical of contemporary Seattle artisan espresso which mostly ranges from 1 ounce to 1.5. Usually, with blends which are designed to produce sweet, complex, and versatile espressos. Black Coffee is doing something a bit different, using Kuma’s Costa Rica. This makes for a more simple and unique flavor, even if it suffers a bit in the versatility department as compared to some other coffee shops’ tried and true blends.
On top of its stellar espresso, Black Coffee features some of the best workers conditions one can have under capitalist systems. Black Coffee is a worker-owned co-op. Right now it is operated by four worker-owners and a smattering of volunteers. They all seemed to be enthused about working there. “I love it here. Its the people, the mission, really. The [people who work here are] the most genuine and kind people that I’ve ever run into in a single space. Especially in a working environment,” Caitlin, a volunteer, said. She hopes to be a worker-owner there soon.
The decision-making seems to be a bit slow-moving and cumbersome but equal, with many long meetings to ensure everyone has a say over management. Black Coffee’s worker-owners go out of their way to make sure that everyone knows how to do everything so that the functioning of their not-quite-yet-officially open business isn’t held in the hands of one person. (Even though it is yet unofficial Black Coffee is in fact open and serving-just not completed).
While it seems obvious that Black Coffee is important to support; it is still functioning within a framework of global (and local) capitalism. Even this beautiful shop, as a model of collectively owned capitalism which only buys coffee from landlords who offer decent wages to laborers still operates, by necessity, within a framework and survives by participation in networks of commodities. These networks gain profit by taking wealth from working people’s labor, and Black Coffee therefore cannot be a solution to the problems of workers and bosses, oppressed and oppressor, though they aspire to contribute to solving these vexing problems.
That being said this new shop does offer us a space for contemplation (over great coffee) of different ways we might organize work and production.
It also hosts occasional off-the-hook parties I hear.
Black Coffee is a great spot that people should expect to enjoy sipping great coffee and supporting good projects aimed at gaining freedom for those who need it most.
I give Black Coffee…
8 – Coffee and decor.
9.5 – Working conditions for cafe workers.
10 – Impact on others.
For an overall 9.16 – Definitely check out and support this shop.
(For each category there is a total score possible of 10. Each score is relative, meaning that if in ten years coffee has undergone profound changes and a shop is still serving what is today great coffee, their score would obviously be lower. The same goes for working conditions and social impact. What might be very good conditions or a good social role might seem very backward in a new economic situation or in the context of much more powerful liberatory movements.)