What's so special about this specialty coffee anyway?

Communal Grounds | Why We Cannot Be Without Coffee Shops Post-Covid

A few weeks ago, Twitter’s algorithm showed me one of the most circulated recipes of the lockdown. It’s a coffee recipe, made with instant coffee grounds, sugar, hot water and milk. If you spend time on social media, you’ve almost certainly seen it too.

It produces photogenic results, but it’s not the usual stuff of cooking online. There’s no performative rainbow of plants, no pornographic lashings of cheese and melted chocolate, no elaborate constructions of icing. Instead, it went viral for two reasons: the accessibility of its ingredients, and its replication of an experience.

But what experience? Because out of all the things missed about pre-lockdown life, I wouldn’t have named whipped coffee as the thing we’d all have latched onto. Plenty of coffee vendors have stayed open, rendered collection booths for lattes and Danish pastries, but dispensing them all the same. If I’d been asked to predict what Irish social media would be glued to, it’d be how to recreate a pub-worthy pint head, not artisanal coffee. So it’s not the substance itself that captivated us, but what it represented.

Throughout this, I and everyone else bask in the internet’s ability to pour others’ words into us. Scrolling through posts, straining to catch WhatsApp’s wavering delivery of voices, squinting at Zoom’s pixelated faces – potential for online interaction is endless, even as we’re physically kept apart. But coffee shops invert the experience of the lockdown. To enjoy their experience is to soak in the physical presence of others without needing to interact with them.

There’s been plenty of ink spilled over longing for physical presence and social interaction to be combined again. But what about those of us who’ve found the lockdown more a reinforcement of our natural behaviours than a curbing of them? What about those of us who’ve always wanted community, but struggle to hold onto ourselves once we find it?

What we need, then, is a hybrid space. Somewhere that connects us to the world around us without utterly draining our social batteries. Shops and parks can do the trick, but they’re fundamentally transitory spaces; they don’t invite lingering and conversation. Pubs fill the role of explicitly social, leisurely places, and I’ve enjoyed my share of drunken chats in those. I’m the last person to rail against the joys of nights out. But their chaos eventually gets too loud, too taxing, less like meeting friends and more like navigating a sensory onslaught. If the only spaces where we savour conversations are those centred around blurring, then overwhelming our perceptions, what does it say about our conversations?

Coffee Shops | HeadStuff.org
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But of course, pubs aren’t the only public conversational spaces. They haven’t been since the 1600s, when wealthy, educated men began paying those less powerful to bring these spaces to Europe. Still at the peak of their caffeinated buzz, these first coffee houses housed radical pamphlets and tongue-scorching arguments. In toe-to-toe debate, in its space fragile as a bubble formed on foamed milk, there’s learning and turns of thought that can’t be found elsewhere. For those men, this was even more true. Lockdown has sharply reminded us all that there is no optimising physicality, no glossy app that replaces each other’s presence. Those men had no other choice.

There’s a tweeness, isn’t there, to romanticising coffee shops? A middle-class idealism to menus of drinks, to glass cases of cakes, to whisking sugar and water and coffee grounds and hoping for the same results. I mentioned men and wealth and whiteness for a reason back there. Full disclosure: I’ve never worked as a barista. I’ve done the retail version of customer service, but I don’t know what it’s like to get muscle strain from working the machine over and over or go home sticky with chocolate sauce every night.

What I’ve been describing all this time is a community space. I’ve been talking about a space with low barriers for entry that invites you to stay for as long or as little as you like. A space where everything from TV shows to anarchism gets conversational legs. A space where you’re surrounded with a cross-section of your city or town. But of course, coffee shops aren’t built for the community – at least, not the Starbucks and Costas that dominate our streets. They’re built to extract profits, ready to open or shut at their international conglomerates’ whims, and can happily ignore the livelihoods of their workers, the wishes of the people who value them and the hopes anyone might have had of starting their own.

I want to live in a world where community spaces are funded by communities. I want arts spaces to get every subsidy they need. I want youth clubs on every second street. I want taxpayer euros raining on libraries. But I don’t live in that world; I live here, in the hybrid space between utopia and dystopia, in the hybrid space between capitalistic monster and shared communal home.

The last time I sat in a coffee shop was late February. To my left were a group of parents trading gossip and placating toddlers with muffins. To my right were a gaggle of excited teenagers, their conversation fast snatches of memes and anime characters. I savoured my flat white and watched the world go by, unaware that this moment was due, in a few weeks, to become memorable. I made whipped coffee again the other day. The sludge sat glumly in my glass, nothing like the perky peaks on Instagram.