Exploring Coffee Culture in Seattle

When the air gets colder and the days get darker up here in the Pacific Northwest, I say goodbye to seltzer and start reaching for a beverage that says both “Seattle” and “seasonal comfort” to me like nothing else: coffee. 

I sat down in Capitol Hill with local coffee tourism professional Lucas Petrin, who grew up on the east side and now bases their specialty coffee education and tasting business in Seattle, to talk about what draws people to coffee, why Seattle is a specialty coffee capital, must-try establishments for enthusiasts and why you should think of the hunt for great coffee in your neighborhood as a deeply social pursuit.   

Aeropress and Chemex Coffee Makers

An Introduction to Coffee Culture

Why are we so enamored with coffee and coffee shops? If you’re like me, your earliest memories of coffee are of watching a parent chug a cup of the instant, mix-with-hot-water sort before heading to the office. Because I wanted to sample it and wasn’t allowed, coffee held a forbidden fruit mystique in my childhood eyes, almost the same way beer or wine did, but doubly so…because the scent was comforting and inviting. Petrin had a similar early reaction to that scent: “I was drawn to the richness, the character of the aroma early on,” they recall. Together we tried to pin down a word. Earthy? Dark? We couldn’t decide.

Fall and winter conditions in the northwest might have a role in the coffee attraction, too. “Certain temperatures put you in a particular mood,” says Petrin “and Seattle’s chill and clouds make you want to drink something cozy and warm.” Like hygge in a cup. 

Seattle Coffee Works Coffee Culture in Seattle

I wonder, then, if local climate has to do with how tastes develop. I recently moved to the Pacific Northwest after having lived in Texas since childhood, and in my hometown of Houston, unless you’re a hip twenty-something with a finger on the pulse of what else is hot, Starbucks is king – and even then, the gulf coast approach to that coffee always felt to me more utilitarian and less about slow, conscious enjoyment.

Though they acknowledge the dominance of “coffee as fuel” in some regions, Petrin doesn’t downplay or disparage the significance of the northwest-born Starbucks phenomenon. Starbucks was Petrin’s first major foray into coffee, actually – a point that surprises me about a person who spends their working hours teaching the history and appreciation of specialty coffee culture and herding tourists from one cool indie establishment to another. The initial point of connection to Starbucks and coffee was music. 

“Years ago, the Bellevue Square Starbucks location – before its remodel – had a music demo program,” Petrin reminisces, citing interesting, lesser known, and emerging music programming that was a draw for many customers in the early to mid 2000s. “It was some sort of sampling station set against a wall with headphones, and you could sort though and stumble upon music there. It was like what record stores used to have.” Starbucks also once maintained a partnership with iTunes that gifted customers with music downloads just for coming in, and still has dedicated team members who curate tunes. In bundling the sharing of music with company and the appreciation of coffee, Starbucks was part of a larger tradition of coffee-as-cultural-salon – here used in the Enlightenment social gathering sense – that is still produced and reproduced in Seattle. 

Fancy an introduction to thoughtfully handpicked music while you sip a drink brewed with a V60? Many local specialty baristas are also DJs in the sense that they curate the sounds playing in their spaces as passionately as they curate their drink menus. (Keep your eyes peeled for musical events in any coffee-dense Seattle neighborhood.) All this in mind, it occurs to me it’s not a coincidence that Seattle’s KEXP radio station shares space with a coffeehouse.

Trying to remember if Frasier Crane and his brother listened to anything at their beloved Café Nervosa, I asked Petrin if there is a specific musical genre that is linked with the coffee scene here.

“Right now, not in particular,” replies Petrin. “But I do wish the jazz/coffee linkage would make a comeback in the city.”

Pike Place Market in Seattle

The X Factor

 Dark, drizzly weather, the Starbucks connection…both gateways to a love of coffee, still strike me as Seattle-specific qualities, and my question of regional influence stands. Is there something about this city – maybe something in the water, so to speak – that has uniquely positioned it as one of the coffee capitals of the nation? What’s the reason we know Seattle as a coffee city and not Houston?

 I asked Petrin, “Would coffee be such a huge part of your life if you hadn’t grown up in and around Seattle, where there are just so many cafés and roasters to choose from?” I posit that density and availability was the X factor that gave Seattle an edge in the industry.

The answer is fair and measured. “Density of offerings is not really necessary. To build a local coffee culture, it takes just one or a small handful of really good shops that source beans from all over the world, especially if they also have the ability and ingenuity to roast beans themselves. That, and openness to lots of experimentation.” And experimentation, which results in varied, compelling menus and surprising beverage interpretations, requires considerable knowledge. Seattle’s comparative wealth of knowledgeable baristas who are paid a fair wage for their expertise and care were critical in Petrin’s own growth as a coffee industry adjacent professional. 

With this recipe in mind – ingenuity, well-sourced beans, and solid baristas, all of which Seattle has in spades – I wanted to know where else Petrin has been impressed by specialty coffeemakers elsewhere in Washington or beyond, since they admit to planning their personal trips around cafés that pique their interest. At the top of their list were roasters in Bellingham, the far northern city becoming more popular with Washington hikers and day-trippers by the month. For those who are adventure oriented, Petrin recommends booking with the Coffee Club of Seattle, which in the past has organized group road trips to destinations including Tacoma, Portland, and Olympia.


Caffeination Stations & Perfect Pairings

Admittedly, as broadening as it would be to embark on a statewide coffee tour, my social circle and I – all homebodies – currently have enough trouble overcoming habit and inertia to venture beyond Pike Place or Capitol Hill for our cold brew fixes. What if we wanted to branch out a little closer to home first?

On Petrin’s list of recommended Seattle spots to explore are: the neighborhood of Ravenna, previously predominately residential but becoming a hub of great coffee; Santo (1325 NE 65th Street), a farm-to-table operation that is a specialized rarity in that it sources only from Colombia; Broadcast (multiple locations), which also supplies in bulk to other coffee businesses that do not roast in-house; and Armistice (multiple locations), which champions a collaboration-over-competition business approach and are notable for permitting customers to observe roasting operations right in the café.

Of course, coffee culture exploration doesn’t have to extend only to beverage menu items and specific shops. Pair a drink with complementary eats ranging from the conventional, like chocolate (see the selection at DeLaurenti in Pike Place Market) or donuts (Petrin favors Mighty-O, while I have fond memories of snacking on Top Pot Donuts while waiting for the Edmonds ferry) to the less intuitive (Petrin enjoys the surprising combination of coffee with dim sum jian dui, a fried Chinese pastry). Anything goes in this city of diverse offerings.

two people drinking coffee

Coffee as Community

Many tend to think of drinking coffee as a solitary act of passive enjoyment, just something to do while wearing headphones, scrolling on a laptop and ignoring people peering around us for an open seat in which they can do the same. While there’s certainly an audience for the coffee-shop-as-airport-gate model, where the consumer’s task is to block out the world and be as unobtrusive as possible while getting caffeinated, Petrin is a proponent of regarding coffee as community.

One barrier is simply feeling too much distance for full appreciation, artificially and needlessly so. Petrin says, “Many people truly are deeply curious about the intricacies of specialty coffee, but find the idea of striking up a conversation with their barista is intimidating.” They may be afraid of asking dumb questions, and afraid of being out of their depth – as I was, prior to going on a Seattle coffee walk with Petrin myself. I found that the people across the counter who talked me through complex brewing processes did so with patience and humor, as well as pride in their art. 

The experience left me feeling more connected to the neighborhoods around me than I had felt since moving, and made me think of one especially fulfilling summer day when I went to La Marzocco with a friend and met, over the course of a couple hours and a few cold drinks, several regulars that my friend already knew, plus a kind visitor from Portland – all of whom we’ve hung out with since. It was a social collision like something out of a 90s sitcom. That day, coffee was a convenient excuse for this introvert to get out and meet some people for once.

Some establishments are better designed for socialization than others. One location Petrin and I visited in Pike Place seats customers at a raised bar directly in front of their baristas, permitting both parties to make eye contact and proper conversation. Another location near the Denny Triangle features long, rectangular tables rather than small, circular ones – a kind of communal table experience that I imagine lowers the activation energy needed to get customers jumping into each other’s conversations (seeing as they’ve already infringed upon each other’s elbow space by necessity).

Anchorhead Iced Coffee in glass Coffee culture in Seattle

As an aside, Petrin tells me about a coffee shop in Venice Beach that elects not to provide Wi-Fi – an anomaly in the coffee world – in hopes of encouraging people to “actually communicate with one another while in the café.” I’m not sure if I’d personally frequent an internet-free café, but Petrin is into the idea: “The internet makes you lose that vital human element to everyday instances of connection.”

I ask if this coffee-as-community, coffee-as-connection ethos is why Petrin primarily chooses to bring guests directly to a specialty coffee slow bar, rather than share their coffee appreciation via a staged and strategically hashtagged social media feed. Many food and beverage professionals elect the latter, which generates a kind of flattening, disconnected, and secondhand experience.

That was a huge part of it, Petrin agrees. The other part was driven by a dining mishap from years ago: hyped to try a popular vegan haunt because of a few rave reviews and gorgeous images of its dishes on the internet, Petrin found the food lacking and later returned for another meal just to double check. “I thought it was me!” they recall. “Or that the restaurant was having an ‘off’ day. I thought: how did all these people sharing beautiful photos and writing wonderful comments online…have such a different experience of the same thing?” The hype counted against the food, in the end.

When it comes to the rich experience of Seattle coffee, Petrin wants enthusiasts not to be led the wrong way by the gulf between a photo and its reality, or get lost in a branding operation. We agree (although not without some self-awareness of our shared visual appreciation of one café’s particularly kitschy décor involving succulents and script) that truly great coffee is something best stumbled upon in person, ideally in conversation with company, and enjoyed while present and engaged. I’m reminded of the experiential difference between a recording and a concert, a digital photo and a print, or passing through a city versus interacting deeply in the long term with its communities. 

Seattle’s coffee shops are community hubs, or rather, they could reach their full potential as cultural hotspots and hubs if we showed up and engaged. I’m going to do just that: show up and engage.

Avatar photo

Albertine Wang

Albertine Wang is a Seattle-based consultant, writer, editor, and photographer with a background in literary criticism. She is a sucker for clear lakes, dark skies and tartan shirts…as well as anything to do with the Olympic Peninsula. Instagram: @alb.ert.ine


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