<em/>Tall Skinny Bitter/images by Chris Munson

Tall Skinny Bitter/images by Chris Munson

Here’s a different kind of coffee talk: Dani Cone, owner of Fuel Coffee, has teamed up with graphic designer Chris Munson for a book that takes “a visual tour” of the Northwest’s independent coffeehouses. The publication party for “Tall Skinny Bitter: Notes from the Center of Coffee Culture” will begin at 3 p.m. Saturday (June 20) at Bailey Coy Books, 414 E. Broadway. (Yes, liquid caffeine will be served, along with Cone’s High 5 Pies.)

In the book,  Cone interviews baristas and coffee shop owners from throughout Seattle and Portland, providing 112 pages of browsable — or maybe, given the context, I should call them sippable — stories. There are brief profiles, bites of information, guest essays, quotes, and lists.

(Sample: Top 5 Things Customers Say That Make Baristas Want to Punch Them In The Face. Surprise: “Can I have a caramel macchiato?” only comes in at #4.)

Some of the features are formal, e.g. a look at the geographic differences between Caffe Vita’s different blends, some are casual, as with the comic strip look at Kapow Coffee in South Lake Union. The whole look and feel of the book, actually, reminded me of a graphic novel; the layout and artwork are as integral as the words.

I talked on the phone recently with Cone, whose Fuels have earned devoted fans in Capitol Hill, Montlake, and Wallingford. I liked hearing her appreciation of all her fellow independent players in the coffee scene, from my own familiar favorites such as Local Color to new names to me like Bird on a Wire  (”One of the smallest spots I’ve been in, but that is the perfect example of a coffee shop creating a community… they just anchor that neighborhood.”) I had to ask, seeing all the other profiles, how she came to open up her own shop after spending years working for others as a barista.

“There’s a novel idea. A coffee shop in Seattle, no one’s ever done this before, I’ll give it a go! My parents rolled their eyes,” she said.

She thought about the idea the better part of 10 years, put together a business plan, and opened with a goal of “working behind the bar every day and having a great coffee shop and really creating a place… where people could be proud to have us in the neighborhood. They would be happy we were there, and be an asset to the community, and not just another place opening up.”

The initial Fuel was a success. She had no further plans. Then, she got almost back-to-back opportunities to open the Montlake and Wallingford shops. “I knew it was crazy. I knew it was ‘how am I going to do this?’ in so many ways. The bottom line that kept coming back to me was — I know it sounds corny — I was and am so truly in love with what I do. There’s that feeling of when you love something, you can’t stomach the thought of not having more. I (had) to close my eyes and jump and give it a shot.”

Here’s more from Cone on coffee, coffee culture, and the book:

On the book: Over the years, before this opportunity came about, I’ve had so many countless conversations with co-workers, with customers, you name it, about all the funny things we go through, (and said) “Wouldn’t it be great to put out a book about it?” Coffee is such a daily ritual for people…I think everybody has such keen observations on it. There are some funny stereotypes, there are some true stereotypes, and all the different nuances that come with this industry.”

On her research: It was a good fit with the normal patterns of her life, which always involve visiting new coffeehouses when she has a minute to spare from her own. ”You’d think I’d get enough of it, but it’s one of my favorite things to do.”             

On the coffee scene in Portland and beyond: “It’s such a vibrant culture down there, there are so many refinements and innovations coming out of Portland. There’s a very youthful spirit to the coffee culture, and a very avid technical side of it (for instance, tweaking temperature controls to get a more consistent cup of coffee, or finding new ways to adjust the portafilter). There’s a lot of enthusiasm. I feel like it’s the second wave….

“The coffee culture is something that has grown up so much in the past 10, 15, 20 years. The most exciting part, to me, is it’s a constantly changing industry…growing at just lightning speed. Before, people might say ‘there’s no good coffee outside of the Northwest,’ but now there are just top of the line places all over the country, all over the coffee culture is alive and kicking and growing so fast.”

On the pride that baristas in the book seemed to universally feel: The vast majority of people I’ve worked with, at whatever coffee shop in whatever city I’m working in, it’s very genuine. Everyone is proud of what they are doing… it’s a really unique blend of skill, artistry, tradition, and just laid back fun. I think for those who are really passionate about the industry — coffee, like other specialty cultures, wine or beer or cheese or what have you, really cultivates its own following — there’s so much history to it, it’s such a tradition and a ritual, to most people it really is a part of their daily life.”

On whether it was clear which behind-the-scenes questions had to be answered in the book: “No, we went through a lot of different ones. We took a lot of public opinion on that, trying to get some (questions) people really are curious about.” (Rebekah’s favorite: “Q: How can I tell if my barista is flirting back at me?” A: “She or he is not.” There’s more to the answer in the book, but, as Cone told me, “that’s usually the case.”)

On how she became a “lifer” in the coffee world: “My first job was in a deli, and we would do espresso, of course, but really what we were there for was to make sandwiches. (But) the first time I made coffee, I just completely fell under its spell. Which is odd for me, looking back on it, because I am not someone who is adept at things that require working with your hands, I’m not usually a very skilled or precise person when it comes to that sort of craft…. but this was something that just clicked. I loved making the coffee and the other part I loved just as much. It’s hard for me to separate the two, of course, but the interaction with people, standing behind the bar all day and getting to talk to all sorts of people…it was so kinetic. Different people come through, they’re in different moods, they have different stories. I get to stand there and hear it all.”

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