9 Things I Learned on the Seattle Coffee Culture Tour

Vanilla Oat Milk Lattes with Hearts at Wunderground in Seattle

I remember using the card catalog in the school library to find the books I needed. This was pre-Wikipedia, and when that launched in 2001, we pretty much had the answers to any question we could ever want to know at any time—except, not initially as accessible without smartphones. Sometimes, it’s nice to go back to that era and have someone tell you cool things without falling into a Youtube rabbit hole or endless stream of random internet pages. Listening to experts takes us back to the days of finding information via the Dewey Decimal System. So when I was in Seattle recently, I decided to take a coffee culture tour and learn from the professionals.

I visited Seattle for a week after my Alaskan cruise (hence the blog and social media break). I love coffee, and Seattle is kind of the place for coffee. So when I found the tour of Capitol Hill shops through WeVenture, I thought it would be a great opportunity to try some local brews.

First wave coffee is basic, but doesn’t always have a basic flavor profile.

Our first stop covered first wave coffee, which got its start way back around 200 B.C. This is what you’d imagine a traditional diner coffee to be or a cup you might make in a drip machine at home. We got an Americano from Little Oddfellows (in Elliot Bay Book Co.) which set the tone for the day. Americanos, if you’ve never had them, are essentially shots of espresso with hot water added. They get their name from when the American soldiers in World War II went to Italy. They couldn’t handle straight-up espresso, so they used to get a sidecar of hot water to dilute it. 

“Cupping” brings out the notes within coffee.

Americano from Little Oddfellows in Seattle

We tasted the Americanos much like you would a glass of wine. But with coffee, the process is called “cupping.” You slurp it, which aerates the coffee and pulls out the notes. You want the coffee to coat your whole tongue, because some notes appear at the back of your mouth. The crema (that foam on top of a freshly-brewed espresso) is the most bitter, concentrated part, and you can taste it at full force on that initial sip. The roast we tried there had walnut, cinnamon, and molasses notes. It was cool to see that there are parallels between coffee and other beverages/foods with “notes” like wines and cheeses.

Coffee got its start in Ethiopia.

Originally, coffee came from Ethiopia. Legend has it that Khalid was tending his goats and they wandered off. He found them chewing on a strange bush. After they got back to the farm, he noticed they were energetic and happy. He then tried a coffee fruit and had the same feeling—hence coffee was created. The drink stayed in Ethiopia for hundreds of years, and then Islam started. Coffee helped leaders stay up late, so the drink spread through the Muslim world. 

As coffee gained popularity, it started some chaos.

In 1511, the governor of Mecca was a little corrupt and became concerned that people were going to overthrow him. He saw that the intellectuals gathered to talk politics over coffee, so he banned it since he believed these people were discussing his politics specifically. He even executed some people. But a local sultan loved coffee and declared it a religious drink to Islam. Ironically, the governor was then executed.

A couple decades after the governor’s beheading, coffee was again declared taboo since it helped people focus (thereby changing a person’s thought process). But then it made its way to Europe and grew in prominence. Americans at the time preferred tea, but then the Boston Tea Party happened, forcing coffee to become the drink of choice.

The flavor of coffee and the process to get there are intense.

The process to create coffee also has extreme origins. The beans grow within coffee cherries. They’re seeds that can be extracted and roasted. This only happens at specific elevations, which is why you don’t hear about coffee cherries growing in someone’s backyard, even if the beans are roasted locally. Unfortunately, the process to extract the bean isn’t totally sustainable. It uses a ton of water to get the seed out and rinsed. Or done the old-fashioned way—tearing the fruit away in the field—only produces small yields. (Our guide, Keith, likened extracting the seeds to the process of creating paper.)

Second wave proliferated the coffee drinking experience.Roasting Coffee at Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle

A couple days prior to this tour, I saw the first Starbucks at Pike Place Market. And then on the coffee culture tour, we got a quick peek inside the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, which was pretty much elbow-to-elbow on a random Monday afternoon. Keith said that it wasn’t as busy as usual.

The brand launched in 1971 after Alfred Peet (of Peet’s) shared how he roasted his coffee. Starbucks’s first location in Pike Place was run by three guys who were burning through so many supplies due to the brand’s popularity that it caught the attention of  a sales executive named Howard Schultz.

On a trip to Italy, Schultz noticed that people would not only buy a cup of coffee where it was sold but would also hang around and sit for a while. So he took that idea back to Seattle…and everyone hated it. Schultz started his own company that pushed the cafe experience. He acquired Starbucks eventually, and the Starbucks as we know it was born.

Lattes, cappuccinos, and other espresso drinks found their home in second wave.

Wunderground was another second wave coffee shop we tried. The founder and owner, Jody Hall, is big into foraging. She wanted to incorporate the medicinal benefits of mushrooms into coffee. I was skeptical, but the mushroom flavor is completely hidden with a proprietary syrup…it’s wild. We had this absolutely incredible vanilla oat milk latte with a blend called “Brainwash.” If I remember correctly, this mix contains all four of the mushrooms they have in their coffee and tea—lion’s man, cordyceps, reishi, and chaga.

Vanilla Oat Milk Lattes with Hearts at Wunderground in Seattle

A brief interlude about cordyceps:

I want to give a special shout-out to cordyceps, which are the basis of some sci-fi plotlines since they can literally grow into bugs and take over their brains. That’s kind of the point here as well; although, it’s not as scary. One of the main benefits of eating these mushrooms is the focus they provide, and along with coffee, it’s a magical (but not in the psychedelic way) combo.

Third wave turns coffee shops into bars.

After Wunderground, we went to Ghost Note Coffee to get a taste of third wave. This movement is all about the cup of coffee becoming synonymous with a drink from a fancy bar. Unlike second wave shops, third wave shops are all about testing the limits of their equipment. Every time a shop gets an espresso machine, it has to be certified by Istituto Espresso Italiano. The water pressure for all these machines has to shoot through the grounds at exactly nine bars, but at third wave shops, they’re trying out what five bars or seven bars of pressure can do. A five- or seven-bar espresso can eliminate the crema and alter what we’d think of as a traditional espresso flavor.

The drink we had at Ghost Note took a traditional cocktail and replaced the alcohol with coffee. It had bitters in it and a twist of orange—like an Old Fashioned. It wasn’t my cup of tea (pun intended) but everyone else loved it. 

Capitol Hill is the place to visit for a cup of coffee.

Capitol Hill’s claim to fame is that it’s the coffee capital of Seattle, with more shops per block than any other place in the city. We passed dozens of shops on our walk to the four stops. It’s also the queer center of the Pacific Northwest—a fitting combination of intellectualism and culture.

Have you been to Seattle? Post a comment below with your favorite parts about the city!