America's happening city blends into a culture of caffeine

SEATTLE DAYS
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The Independent Online
The receptionist at my hotel, who was from Washington DC, complained that Seattle did not provide enough stimulus for his brain. "It's monocultural," he said. I asked him what he meant. But he replied, as if to prove his point, that he couldn't put it into words.

It came as a surprise, immediately upon arriving in Seattle, to hear the city put down in this way. This, I had been led to believe, was one of the really happening places in America.

The setting is beautiful: the Cascade mountains look down upon Seattle and Seattle looks down upon the sea.

The money is abundant: Boeing builds its aircraft here and Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft and the world's richest self-made businessman, lives in the city. (He is building himself a $30m home with video walls that will be programmed to project reproductions of paintings from the world's great museums.)

The politics are unusually progressive: the city is 80 per cent white but a few years ago they elected a black mayor. And the music scene is super cool: Seattle was the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and of Kurt Cobain, the suicide whose rock group Nirvana gave the world "grunge".

So, "monocultural"? What was the guy on about?

I took a stroll downtown and quickly found out. Coffee. Coffee, coffee everywhere. A virus, an obsession, a fetish, coffee is to Seattle as rice is to China.

Every other shop in central Seattle has a sign that reads "ESPRESSO".

Tiny corner stores that sell razor blades and cigarettes advertise "ESPRESSO"; "greasy spoon" diners where the menus are written in red plastic letters on white plastic boards ("Poach egs, Toas, Eng Muff"[sic]) announce in red neon lights that they too do a nice line in "ESPRESSO"; elegant French restaurants put stickers up on their windows letting you know that, yes, don't worry, come in, we too provide "ESPRESSO".

A shabby little grocery wedged in between the "Lusty Lady" strip club and "Wallaby's apparel for shorter men", announces - shrieks - "NOW SERVING ESPRESSO!"

They even have "Espresso Drive-Thrus". Elsewhere in America a Drive-Thru is where you stop your car to pick up a cheese quarter-pounder and a Diet Coke. In Seattle you line up at a little window for a shot of thick, black coffee.

Two centuries ago Boston had its Tea Party. Today what is happening in Seattle is nothing short of a coffee revolution.

And the catalyst is Starbucks, a company which started serving coffee from a small shop in Seattle in 1987 (after the owner had an epiphany in Milan) and now has 702 outlets in the United States and Canada. This year, a Starbucks spokeswoman said, they are opening new stores at a rate of one a day. Everywhere from Los Angeles to New York and, starting next year, Tokyo. London - don't doubt it - will not be far behind.

Starbucks approaches coffee like the French approach wine. The staff at every store, the spokeswoman assured me, are geared to give you a seminar, should you require it, on the "intriguing smokiness" of the Guatemala Antigua variety; the "cut-grass aroma" of Ethiopian Harrar; "the low acidity and laser-focused flavor" of Costa Rican Minita; "the pungent bouquet" of Sumatran Boengie.

That is the advanced course. What I need when I go to a Starbucks is an ABC on the basics. Lengthy cross-examinations at one of Greater Seattle's 70 outlets yielded the discovery that a Latte is an espresso with steamed milk topped with foamed milk; that a Con Panne is an espresso with whipped cream; that a Frapuccino is a sweet, iced, Latte milk shake.

Starbuck's has spawned its imitators, notably a chain called Seattle's Best Coffee, which serves Raspberry Kiss Mocha, Almond Mocha Joy and Eggnog Latte, described in the menu as "espresso blended with eggnog and 2 per cent milk and steamed to a froth".

A number of the few enterprising Seattleites - that is what they call themselves - who operate outside the coffee industry have come up with innovative ideas to cater to their clients' addiction.

There are furniture shops and life-insurance companies which provide espresso shots on the premises.

There is a dentist by the name of Ron Wallach who runs an outfit called Espresso Dental. Patients seeking to build up their stress levels in Mr Wallach's waiting room are invited to sip free lattes, macchiatos, cappuccinos.

What I wonder is whether the caffeine-crazed citizens of Seattle ever manage to get a good night's rest. I do not know for sure but I think I understand better now why that Tom Hanks movie of a couple of years back was called Sleepless in Seattle.

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