The Importance of Finding Community: How Specialty Coffee Helped Me Grow, and Why I’m Grateful

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

The first time I ever had coffee was when I was dumped by my high school girlriend. I was depressed, sleep deprived, and working three jobs.

I needed the jolts, and lots of them. 

It first started with a latte from Starbucks. They were the only coffee shop in my neighborhood that didn’t serve a roast by the name of “Breakfast Blend” or "Donut Shop.”

I don’t think I ever liked the coffee, just the caffeine. Eventually (as in just six months later), my body grew tolerant to the drug, and I looked for different drinks. I tried drinking it at home, at fast food chains, and I even ordered it at restaurants before meals. 

Eventually, I discovered the Café Misto at Starbucks. It’s a Café Au Lait, which is half coffee, half steamed milk. I actually liked it this time. I could taste the coffee, and I didn’t feel like a wimp ordering it. And it gave me more of a kick than a latte. But what I didn’t like, was that it was the same goddamn taste every single time. That bored me.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I’m not still drinking mistos. I know that familiarity, even across the world, is a major reason why people love Starbucks. But not me. I needed variety. I needed more of a connection to this beverage that I was consuming three plus times a day.

So, as I got over my breakup, made more time for myself and focused on my studies, I started to look for better coffee. It just so happened that I was living in the south San Francisco Bay Area at the time, where speciality coffee shops were opening up left and right. 

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

In San José, where I was going to college, there was one shop that seemed to have infiltrated the entire student body at San José State. You had your books, your Macbook, and your Philz Coffee.

You know, famous for its Mint Mojitos? Or its Ambrosia Coffee of God? It’z the Best? Hell, they just opened their first location outside of San Francisco in DC! And, they’ve been featured on one of my favorite comedies, Silicon Valley! 

"One Cup at a Time" - the only way. 

"One Cup at a Time" - the only way. 

Point is, they were, and still are, coffee legends in the Bay Area. And as a daily customer, I was very much a part of this legendary coffee story in the making. I was, and still am, proud of that. Aside from my newfound love for the mint mojito, I was ecstatic to have found a delicious, hip, affordable and independent coffee shop in my new neighborhood.

On top of that, I got my first taste of community at that Philz. It was there, just half a block from campus on Paseo de San Antonio, where I saw more familiar faces there than I did on my college campus of 30,000 plus students. I worked there, socialized there and even developed an obsession with their…wait for it…speciality microwavable burritos. This place was just that good.

I couldn’t help but wonder what I had missing out on all this time? Why weren’t there coffee shops like this around when I first started drinking coffee? Why doesn’t Starbucks try to learn from an independent coffee shop like this? 

Whatever the reason, I didn’t really care.

WHEN IT BECAME A RITUAL

So I stopped going to Starbucks, and started buying Philz to make at home. Making my morning coffee became a ritual. I loved it.

Lots of good memories at this coffee shop. I'll never forget the dirty old couch, the piano, and the random bike hanging over it. 

Lots of good memories at this coffee shop. I'll never forget the dirty old couch, the piano, and the random bike hanging over it. 

Then, my coworkers caught wind of my new love. I got them to try it, and they weren’t fans. I got them to try it again, and they tolerated the quote on quote “bitterness, acidity, and strength.” But, because they were too lazy to make coffee runs, and too intimidated to order from a place that was not Starbucks, I became known as the coffee guy.

Shit, I even got to make coffee runs while all on the clock. I’d even get my managers coffee. But it wasn’t always easy transporting eight coffees through busy downtown streets. So I started asking for one thing in return: their opinion. 

They tried. “Hella strong, hella good, even chocolatey.” At the end of the day, I’m not sure if they cared how it really tasted. They just thought it was good, and that was okay with them. 

But I continued to analyze and question the flavor profiles of my coffee. I started to ask questions at the coffee bar, and take my time in picking the perfect one. I was curious, and I wasn’t afraid to express it. 

WHEN YOU FIND COMMUNITY, YOU FIND YOURSELF

Eventually, as I hopped around the city a bit, I looked for shops located more conveniently to home. Some of those shops included Barefoot Coffee Roasters in Campbell, B2 in downtown San Jose’s San Pedro Square (they served Verve Coffee from Santa Cruz), and Chromatic Coffee in Santa Clara. 

I started noticing the same things in all of these shops: pour over, siphon, Chemex, single origin, cold brew etc. Philz didn’t have any of these. What were these things? I didn’t know, so I asked. 

They talked and talked and talked. And I loved it.

To think coffee—something that’s been avidly consumed and worshiped for centuries—was being approached so differently than what we were used to, amazed me.  

And it wasn’t just me. No longer was I the only one in the shop asking where my coffee came from. Or what method they used to brew it. The questions I wanted to ask no longer felt unanswerable. 

It was at that point that I realized where I can truly be the coffee geek that I had become. 

WHEN YOU BECOME GRATEFUL 

So, as I’ve evolved and taken interest in other parts of the coffee industry, I felt it was necessary to pay some homage to these coffee shops that played such an integral role in my relationship with coffee.

Believe it or not, they were there to satisfy my curiosity. They were there to spark my wanderlust. They were there to help me understand the importance of social, environmental and economic responsibility.

I grew personally in these shops, and I developed a community. For all of that and more, they have my utmost gratitude.

To all of the independent businesses doing really cool things in this very big world, I thank you! 

Have other south Bay Area coffee shops to add? Or want to tell us where you first start drinking speciality coffee?  Leave us a comment below, or subscribe to our newsletter here.

 

Coffee Shop Mentions: 

Philz Coffee (San Jose) - 118 Paseo de San Antonio Walk - San Jose, CA 95112

Barefoot Coffee Roasters (Campbell) - 1819 South Bascom Ave. - Campbell, CA 95008

B2 (Belano Coffee) - 170 W. St. John St. - San Jose, CA 95110

Verve Coffee - 1010 Fair Ave. - Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Chromatic Coffee - 5237 Stevens Creek Blvd. - Santa Clara, CA 95051