How do you take it? Just black? Add almond milk? Maybe a cold brew (but definitely not iced coffee, that’s too acidic)? How about a pour-over (but not a French press, you hate the grit)? Let’s get a little fancier. How about a flat white (but please not a latte—you want those espresso notes to really sing)? Mocha, macchiato, cappuccino, americano, cortado, iced dirty skim chai latte with extra foam?
I once took my dad to James Coffee, which specializes in handcrafted artisan roasts. The third wave of coffee, as it's known. (Coinciding, take note, with the third wave of feminism.) The Guatemala is sweet and juicy. The Ethiopia has notes of dark chocolate and cherry. The Indonesia is a delicate peach nectar. If none of these single-origin roasts satisfy, there are a number of blends and espresso-based options. Dad stared at the barista and squarely asked for “coffee.”
I can’t say I blame him. The Olds don’t drink the stuff with Italian-sounding descriptions. They just drink “coffee,” and a lot of it. They’re the Indifferently and Eternally Addicted. Always intent on cutting back on the number of cups consumed per day, they drink enormously and heedless of origin. For them it’s the K-cup, the McDonald’s drive-through, the year-old Kirkland Signature tub in the office.
It appears to me that our generation has cultivated an entirely new coffee culture. We the Millennials have ushered in a new age of the Selectively and Willfully Caffeinated. I collected answers to the simple question “Describe your relationship with coffee” from my MIT graduate student colleagues. Answers were always delivered with clarity and conviction. Not only do they love it, but they also love to love it.
For Jacob B, coffee is vital to happiness. “When my science fails for weeks, when new data contradicts old, when I'm frustrated by slow feedback,” he says, “I can quickly regain optimism by crafting an artisanal light-roasted pour-over coffee—riddled to the brim with notes of berry and chocolate and rich with other complexities as well, all within a warmed porcelain mug.”
For Nikki H, coffee transcends the energy boost. “I drink it for the experience,” she says. “It’s a slowly poured, rich, smooth, full cup of indulgence. Something where you can taste the love, the sunshine, and the care that went it to each of the beans.” Lauren K echoes the sentiment: “Every time I have my first sip of coffee I get the chills. Every. Time.”
For our generation, coffee is practically a deity. We worship it, ritualize it, love it. We believe in coffee. And so the coffeehouse is our temple, sacred and awe-inspiring. In the MIT area, that coffeehouse is Area Four, known affectionately by its patrons as A4. A4 loyalists are diverse, including the students, professors, business people, and socialites of the MIT and Kendall community. They talk, write, and work, all bonded by the shared experience of the coffee aromas and flavors.
For some, the communal aspect of coffee drinking at A4 becomes more important than the coffee itself. Noor M, an A4 regular, describes coffee as her “social drink, only to be consumed in parties of three or more.” Mohamad N comments on his social experience at A4: “The diversity of conversations that you experience usher not only a sense of intellectual creativity but foster a sense of collaboration and connection. So, it’s really the coffee shop that is the vector.” The vector! Coffee, as filtered through an MIT grad.
Of course, not every Millennial believes in coffee. Skeptics exist. Some reject the phenomenon entirely. Ranjani G describes her relationship with coffee as “nonexistent and undesirable.” Georgia L “doesn’t need it, doesn’t feel it.” Others resent coffee. Tony K is practically a spokesperson of the anti-coffee-snob movement: “Coffee is a performance enhancement drug that I am addicted to. No milk, no sugar, no butterfly patterns. No chatty baristas or coffeehouse culture. Just the unfiltered shame of beans and water.” Tony K might sooner chew on a piece of caffeine gum (gag), but I wonder if he’s tried an A4 dirty chai latte.
But not even these reactionaries could deny that coffee is a ubiquitous part of the contemporary American experience. Our generation is merely making coffee its own. We’re realizing the coffee bean’s potential not only in the multitude of flavors it can create but also in the deeply individual and social experiences it can inspire.
Not surprisingly, our generation has driven a sizable increase in the size of the coffee market, including a tripling in the consumption of espresso-based beverages from 2008 to 2016. Are you a part of this trend? Do you begin your day with a café au lait (hearty and rich) or latte (sweet and creamy) or cold brew (full-bodied and refreshing)? Do you drip or pour-over or press? Are you a kitchen brewer or coffeehouse regular? Come find me and let me know. Follow the sweet aroma of a fresh brew, the purr of an espresso machine steaming milk (Starbucks, this should not be automated), the tranquility of the first intoxicating sip, the feeling that the world is a bit better than it sometimes seems. Now, let us pray.