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The Coffee Culture Goes Nuclear

- July 18, 2008


I don’t drink coffee – I took a sip of it once, spat the vile stuff out, and have never seen any point in trying it again. Small children know what tastes good: sweet stuff and crunchy, salty stuff. Small children do not, with a few exceptions, like coffee. In this they are correct. Any food you have to “learn to like” isn’t worth the trouble, or so say I.

Anyway, one of the trends of the past decade or so that has left me scratching my head has been the rise of Coffee Culture – the popping up on every street corner of a Starbucks or some Starbucks wannabe, the willingness of millions of people to pay unreasonable sums, several times per day, for a drink that rots their stomach and gets them so hyped up that no one can stand to be around them, and the extraordinary seriousness with which otherwise-reasonable people are approaching all matters related to coffee these days.

End of rant. That’s all I’ll have to say about coffee, I promise – except to regale you with a story in today’s Washington Post that presents proof positive of how out of hand this whole Coffee Culture thing has gotten. The source is a nicely done piece by Joe Heim (“Espresso, Extra Bitter: Man’s Tiff With Barista Spills Onto Internet,” Washington Post (July 17, 2008), pp. B1, B4). Here it is:

bq. Who knew a cup of coffee could create such a tempest in a teapot?

bq. Not Jeff Simmermon, whose request for a triple shot of espresso over ice at Murky Coffee in Arlington County turned into a heated Internet squabble, sparked debate about whether the customer is always right and provided a reminder about the intended and unintended consequences of blogging.

bq. The drink request Sunday, said Simmermon, who was visiting from Brooklyn, was denied by a barista who told him that Murky doesn’t do espresso over ice. Irked, Simmermon said he asked for a triple espresso and a cup of ice, which he said the barista provided, grudgingly.

bq. Service. No smile.

bq. Then — and this is Simmermon’s account — the barista scolded him, saying that what he was doing to his espresso was “not okay” and that the store’s policy was to preserve the integrity of the drink. The employee said that allowing customers to dilute espresso was not in keeping with said policy.

bq. Coffee-rage moment in 3, 2, 1 . . .

bq. Simmermon, 32, said that he interrupted the barista with an angry blast about how he would have his coffee any way he pleased, thank you very much, and that he told the barista he had his own policy about doing what he wants with the products he pays for. He mixed in a couple of expletives, but that was the essence of it.
That might have been the end of the saga, but Simmermon did what comes naturally to literate victims of perceived everyday injustices in the 21st century.

bq. He blogged about it.

bq. In a post on his Web site, And I Am Not Lying For Real ( http://andiamnotlying.com), Simmermon detailed the encounter, his anger and, somewhat befuddlingly, his order at Murky an hour later for the “strongest iced beverage your policy will allow.” He accepted the barista’s recommendation for an Americano with four shots “and light on the water.” (He said he enjoyed it.)

bq. He also posted a picture of the dollar bill he left as a tip, on which he wrote “[naughty word deleted] you and your precious coffee policy.”

bq. Since coffee shops are little more than way stations and IV drips for many bloggers, it’s not surprising that Simmermon’s post quickly made the rounds in cyberspace. Murky’s owner, Nicholas Cho, was alerted to the dispute and responded with an open letter on the cafe’s Web site ( http://murkycoffee.com). He defended his berated barista, David Flynn, and ticked off a litany of store policies that would have made Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi duck for cover.

bq. “No modifications to the Classic Cappuccino. No questions will be answered about the $5 Hot Chocolate (during the months we offer it). No espresso in a to-go cup. No espresso over ice. These are our policies. We have our reasons, and we’re happy to share them.”

bq. At his cafe yesterday, Cho explained the policy: “The way we do espresso is different than what people are used to. It’s a very exacting technique. . . . When you pour it over ice, it creates a certain acidic reaction that makes the drink sour.”

bq. He also said some customers have the audacity to order an espresso over ice, then fill the glass with milk at the dairy bar — creating their own iced latte, at a significant saving.

bq. In his letter on Murky’s site, Cho wrote: “To others reading this I will say that if you don’t like the policies, I respectfully recommend that you find some other place that will give you what you want, or select something that we can offer you.”

bq. But regarding Simmermon, who said in his post that he would only return to Murky Coffee “carrying matches and a can of kerosene,” Cho’s anger was undiluted.

bq. “While I certainly won’t bemoan you your right to free-speech,” he wrote, “I have to respond to you in your own dialect: [naughty word deleted] you, Jeff Simmermon. Considering your public threat of arson, you’ll understand when I say that if you ever show your face at my shop, I’ll punch you in your [another naughty word deleted].”

bq. Whew. Decaf anyone?

bq. The battle of the blogs escalated, and a cabal of caffeinated commenters soon weighed in.

bq. On a typical day, Murky’s Web site receives 200 visits. On Tuesday, there were more than 15,000, Cho said yesterday. His e-mail inbox was filled with messages full of vitriol and praise.

bq. Simmermon said his post about l’affaire Murky drew record hits for him, too — 100,000, at last count.
But yesterday, he expressed regrets.

bq. “I have mixed feelings about it, and I’m not really proud of the behavior that triggered this,” he said. “These things take on a life of their own, and I don’t want to be a part of it. He had a bad day, the owner had a bad day, and I had a bad day. That’s all.”

bq. Cho is also ready to move on, if not exactly back down.

bq. “You have to fight blog with blog,” Cho said with a laugh. “That’s the price you pay when you throw your words out there.”

bq. Cho and Simmermon seemed astounded at the amount of commentary the postings received.

bq. “Ultimately, it’s just coffee,” Cho said.

bq. Exactly. Can’t we all just get a latte?

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