undergraduate ethnography written about coffee.
Coffee is important to many people; for some it serves as a social door opener, a quick wake up call, and to others it may serve as a momentary escape from this world as your tongue is enveloped with flavors, textures, and notes. Coffee is as complex as it is simple, meant to be purely enjoyed, savored, and taken in all at once with time, fluidity, and speed. The culture of coffee is an easy one to find, just look in any coffee shop or house around the nation just as I did, and you will find a loyal following of individuals who peruse the bean offerings at night or grace the bar just after the sun has risen, all while music plays and the espresso machine expels its fragrance. Coffee shops and houses exist in many forms all over the nation, the most paramount being those that gild and occupy the streets of small towns and small buildings and use the community’s admiration as a spring board into their endeavors. All in all, the culture is real and is bursting out of the tall wooden door of Spencer’s Coffeehouse where with the culture comes themes that play a pertinent part of the lives of many. As I sat in a metal chair with a tall back with my cup of hot Mudd, I contemplated these themes that flowed through the body of the coffeehouse. As my last few drops were being savored I realized that quality and being compassionate about the environment were the most salient themes that were brewed and consumed within the walls.
I began my journey when I inspected the website and blog of Spencer’s looking for interesting tidbits of information the night of my first visit. I was introduced by a friend who swore to the remarkable qualities of the coffee there and promised me that I would not be disappointed. We ordered a French press of Mystic Brew and dove right in after the four minute waiting period at which time we put the coffee to our noses and inhaled. Since that first experience, I had been frequenting with her and others, even making the nifty location the weekly meeting spot. The appreciation grew as we worked our way through the coffee choices critiquing and admiring the hints of flavors and the feel of the body. I was assigned to compose an ethnography and so I almost immediately realized that I wanted to study the culture of coffee with the guiding question of why do people consume coffee.
Since then, I have used interviews of people who had seemed to live at Spencer’s and those who had never been, hoping to gain the full spectrum of etic (outsider) and emic (insider) perspectives. Interviews included questions that dealt with the importance to coffee, why one would drink coffee, and what they thought was ‘good’ coffee. The range of answers was received along with some good stories and memories. Interviews were all recorded and semi-structured. This allowed for both fluidity and spontaneity of the session as well as structure and support. These interviews were later transcribed and examined for clues about the identified themes, as well as important ideas using content analysis with key terms, words, and themes.
An extensive amount of literature exists on the internet and in print form that are either based on Spencer’s Coffeehouse or coffee in general. Thanks to online blogs, such as that of Spencer’s, websites, and social networking sites I was able to create and compile a vast collection of data which assisted in this project. Print sources, such as SOKY Happenings allowed me to examine the written word of Justin Shepherd, the owner of Spencer’s Coffeehouse and dissect information concerning coffee and Spencer’s. Both of these data sources were catalogued into my ethnographic project portfolio and coded for those previously identified principal themes using key words.
Of course, participant observation provided the bedrock foundation of this ethnographic study. I was able to view how the space was used, as well as the types of people who frequented the coffeehouse. This method was perhaps the most integral to understanding the culture of coffee that exists at Spencer’s Coffeehouse, as well as the culture of coffee in general. I varied my visit times, many of which were conducted in the evening hours and a couple of visits during the morning hours, as well as my seating location. Each of these revealed differences in the customer base, the scenery, and a difference in the purpose for coming to Spencer’s. I also conducted my participant observation both alone and in the company of friends so that I could vary the reasons why I was coming to Spencer’s to experience both a social gathering and a solitary work day. Both experiences were different and occurred at different times; further adding to my rich bank of data I have accumulated.
THE TALL DOOR AND THE WORN-WOOD TABLE
The distinctive entrance to Spencer’s leaves an imprint on those who walk through it. The tall, heavy solid wood door stretches from the floor all the way up to the white plastered ceiling 15 feet above your head. The thick breeze of roasted coffees from all over the world hits your face and finds its way through your nose and into your mind. When you are there, you are truly there. As you realize the door’s true magnificent size and weight, you encounter open space draped in rich earth tones and the light wood flooring entrance that transitions into green plaid-like patterned carpet. The bar, as it is called gleams with the best gadgets that produce the elixir of many, and draws your eye along the full extent of the coffeehouse. You are allowed to stare at the menu board in awe and contemplate your order while the baristas continue their art forms of rich cream and dark coffee liquids. The most overwhelming presence at Spencer’s is the delightful aroma that wafts around you and saturates your hair, your clothes, and your soul. The smokiness of classic Indonesian beans mingle with the earthy Mexican beans which both dance in unison with the heavy and pungent dark chocolate aroma of a brewing Guatemala. These perfumes linger so thickly in the air that you can taste them on the tip of your tongue as you tell the barista what you will have.
The majority of the furniture is composed of earthy and homey, wood and contemporary metal pieces, each of which convey and reflect their own character as well as that of the people who choose their seats. One of the favorite tables near the back of the coffeehouse is large and round and shows evidence of the years with its thin scratches and worn away varnish. It leaves you to ponder its origin and history just as the coffee you sip leaves you to ponder its journey from it’s seed pod to the brown glazed ceramic mug clasped in your hands. Ceiling fans twirl, helping to increase the circulation of the conversations, hearty laughter, and the whirring of a Burr coffee grinder; these are the sounds that run through the veins of Spencer’s Coffeehouse and give it life. Each person here is unique in their ways, but also alike in the fact that they all crave the warm dark brew that Spencer’s offers in abundance.
100% FAIR TRADE ORGANIC COFFEE
Spencer’s Coffeehouse prides itself on the fact that all the coffee brewed, served, and sold behind that wooden door are all 100% fair trade and organic. Each of the bean types or blends are purchased from a local roaster in Nashville, after which they are carefully measured to allow for quality control and of course the best flavor possible. It is not just the fair trade and organic qualities of the coffee that are important, but also the impact it has on the environment as well as the impact on the environment its consumers have.
In an interview with Justin Shepherd (2011b), the owner of Spencer’s Coffeehouse good coffee was described as being coffee that does not just taste good, but also coffee that is good for the environment. This theme is carried all throughout Spencer’s; it can be found on almost anything with the Spencer’s logo or name. For example, one of the first things you read on the homepage is “coffees from around the world. 100% organic, 100% fair-trade” (Spencer’s Homepage). It does not just stop there; advertisements in SOKY Happenings tote this well known phrase, along with the information section on their Facebook page, and the coffee sleeves. The concept of food being organic means that the coffee trees were grown without the use of synthetic chemicals and/or pesticides; fair trade means that producers in whatever country it may be are paid a fair amount for their goods, their work, and their services. Both of these ideas are salient examples of this theme that Spencer’s employs.
Along with the coffee being organic and fair trade, the fact that the resources used with the coffee are also environmentally friendly also plays into this theme. The coffee sleeves are one of the newest additions that were made to help support the preservation of the environment. The front of the sleeve talks about the coffee being organic and fair trade but when you look at the back of the sleeve it has a series of boxes which you can receive a mark or have punched each time you buy a coffee; after 9 cups, the tenth is free. This encourages frequent visitors to save their coffee sleeves, keeping them out of a landfill, and in the end they can get a free cup of coffee. Along with this is the use of sustainable materials such as the new bamboo counter that was recently installed and the use of completely biodegradable coffee cups, soup/ice cream cups, and water cups which interestingly are made of corn. Along these same lines is the use of ceramic coffee mugs for drinks taken in house which helps to keep cups out of the landfill and adds to the genuine coffeehouse feel. The importance of sustainable coffee is also looked at as well. In the most recent SOKY Happenings article, May 2011, Shepherd (2011a) deals with this issue head on and gives general readers tips and pointers about how to get coffee that taste good and is also good for the environment. This includes the use of low-impact coffee making devices.
All of these practices help support not just the local environment, but the earth as a whole. This theme is one of the more visible ones that occur all throughout Spencer’s. It is very obvious that the owner cares about his home on a larger scale, but also wants to encourage others to do the same.
There are many other prominent themes that are woven into the culture of coffee that exists at Spencer’s Coffeehouse. One of those is quality. All consumers want a high-quality product; Spencer’s offers a high-quality product. In an interview with owner Justin Shepherd, the quality of the coffee as well as the quality of the experience one would have at Spencer’s was imperative. The quality of the coffee was often associated with the quality of the service combined with that of the coffee. This definitely seems to be the case, as well as the fact that there are at least three different categories or types of quality that exist at Spencer’s.
The first of these types is quality of the coffee. This seems to be the most important out of the three categories. The coffee should be, as previously discussed organic and environmentally friendly. Along with these two aspects, coffee should be priced in a way that is affordable, but yet allows you to pay for the quality. Coffee should also taste good in general; there should be no bitter, burned flavor which most people know coffee for however, “burnt coffee is bad coffee” (Montgomery 2011). The art of creating good coffee is an exact science. The perfect amount of grams, the perfect temperature, and the perfect brewing time must be used to allow for the best coffee experience. Because this science is tested and perfected each day is why and how Spencer’s can offer high-quality, amazing-tasting coffee.
The second category of quality is the quality at which the product is provided. For Spencer’s, this includes the quality of the service and the quality of the barista’s work. An interview conducted with Shepherd (2011b) many people come to Spencer’s because of the quality of service and without good service there will not be a good atmosphere and therefore a good customer base. Everything seems to depend upon the quality of the service.
The third category of quality is the quality of the environment or atmosphere. Many parts play into the whole here, the lighting, the furniture, the music, it all helps to create an environment that people want to frequent and spend their time in. Shepherd (2011b) states that having a “good atmosphere plays into the perception of a drink” and so Spencer’s must keep a nice and inviting atmosphere so that people will continue to frequent the coffee house. Making sure the quality is up to par for the customer seems to be a very integral part of Spencer’s, this includes the furniture, the lighting, the music, the people, and the resources available such as the free wi-fi.
It may seem as if the environment and quality are the two main themes of Spencer’s Coffeehouse, however these are not the over-arching themes; only one of these exists. After examining all the data and information relating to Spencer’s Coffeehouse, the one overarching theme that seems to play the most vital role is good coffee. In general, this is what Spencer’s seems to strive for and this is what, in the end they accomplish.
This can be called the one overarching theme because it is from this premise that the two themes of environmental compassion and quality stem. Without the theme of good coffee, the other two counterpart-themes would not exist. This can be demonstrated very nicely using a taxonomy (Figure 1.1) which uses the theme of good coffee as the topmost theme and follows the two lesser themes and their extent.
In an interview, Shepherd (2011b) talked about how people like himself are trying to elevate the idea and image of coffee in the minds of people. He compare coffee to the idea of wine and how people are willing to pay money for a nice wine but they are often not willing to pay money for a really good cup of coffee, which requires a bit more work than wine. It seems as if to serve ‘good coffee’, people must be educated and understand the processes behind the production of coffee as well as the massive amount of resources and time, as well as human involvement that go into and play an integral role in just one coffee bean; a miniscule part of one cup of coffee.
Figure 1.1 Taxonomy showing the overarching theme of good coffee and then most of the categories under the two subthemes of quality and the environment.
Significant themes appear in many places all throughout the spaces that Spencer’s Coffeehouse occupies, both literal space such as the building and space such as advertising space. It is very important for Spencer’s to serve good coffee, coffee that is good in more than just one way. It must be environmentally sound coffee, fair trade and organic. It also most exude quality in three ways, quality of the coffee itself such as the taste and price, quality of the service, and quality of the atmosphere in which it is served.
I have learned many things about the culture of coffee, as well as Spencer’s in a more specific sense. The most evident fact that I have learned is that at other coffee shops, cups of coffee-flavored caffeine are sold; at Spencer’s Coffeehouse, cups of coffee, good coffee are sold.
Montgomery, Amanda J.
2011 Interview by Renee Pinkston. Audio recording. Bowling Green, KY., May 6, 2011.
2011a Coffee with a Conscience, Part I. SOKY Happenings, May: 63.
2011b Interview by Renee Pinkston. Audio recording. Bowling Green, KY.
“Spencer’s Coffeehouse Homepage”, Spencer’s Coffeehouse, accessed on May 8, 2011, http://www.foodcoffeelife.com/