Dining Guide: Brown: Appreciating coffee: Setting is everything

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By Simon Brown / Columnist

As college students, we don’t often encounter coffee in the most favorable circumstances. After midnight, with hands shaking too violently to finish typing that take-home midterm due in less than 12 hours, coffee can prove both a great ally and a deceitful trickster.

Either way, we rarely treat coffee with the respect it deserves. The most fulfilling coffee experiences demand attention, love and, most importantly, a proper setting. That ideal setting is the local independent coffee shop that caters uniquely to its community.

Oakland, however, desperately lacks such an institution. Ever since the tragic departure of Kiva Han Coffee from Craig Street last year, the neighborhood’s caffeine landscape has never recovered. Sure, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a Starbucks, Crazy Mocha or other chain cafe, but there’s something distinctive about an independent coffee house that these others can’t easily replicate.

I don’t intend to actually throw stones at these cafes, neither physical nor verbal. They certainly perform a valuable service, energizing the students, nurses, teachers and businesspeople who make Oakland the dynamic neighborhood that it is. They even do it with impressively satisfying brews — depending on the shop, of course.

But still, there is something to be said for sipping a cup of coffee made from grinds roasted by the owner himself not more than a few feet from the cash register. Or returning on any given morning to a familiar barista who can recommend an appropriate blend to suit one’s taste.

These niceties enhance the coffee experience beyond a necessary morning routine.

To get the experience, however, caffeine-curious students must venture beyond the bounds of Oakland to one of the many worthy coffee shops that populate the East End of Pittsburgh.

This distance between campus and coffee shop can be both a blessing and a curse. Although the prospect of riding a Port Authority bus 10 minutes outside of Oakland might prove too daunting for a student addled by lack of sleep at 9 a.m., it can also bring one in contact with demographics we don’t often encounter in the neighborhood. People over the age of 22, for instance.

Coffee shops, as public spaces for working, socializing and sipping, prove to be prime locations in which to reflect on the communities that they serve. Independent coffee shops, which can vary more easily than franchises in their visual and musical atmospheres to suit the character of their clientele, ideally fulfill this role.

Take, for instance, Lili Cafe in Polish Hill — just a quick ride on the 54C bus from campus. Sipping espresso there on a Sunday morning, one can hear the bells of the Polish-Catholic Immaculate Heart of Mary Church calling much of its congregation — an eclectic blend of tattooed bohemians and young families — to worship. With advertisements for local music groups and artists greeting its customers at the coffee shop’s front door on Dobson Street, with a comic book store and record shop nearby, no patron can help but feel a palpable neighborhood vibe.

A similar experience awaits you if you take the 71C bus to East Liberty. If you can notice it tucked away amid the shopfronts on Penn Avenue, Zeke’s Coffee will provide a getaway from the tedium of boring roasts.

With all its coffee freshly roasted on location, Zeke’s fully utilizes its city-wide roots. Not only can Zeke’s roasts be found at almost any farmer’s market or outdoor festival in the city, but they also peddle their brews to businesses and construction sites in East Liberty strapped on delivery bicycles.

Needless to say, the experience of patronizing coffee shops and coffee roasters like these extends beyond the mug. Just as much as Pitt students would stand to benefit from some decently brewed coffee, we could also use a heightened sense of community with the neighborhoods around us.

Traveling outside Oakland to enjoy these places could give anyone a greater appreciation for the people sharing this city. And if nothing else, it might lead some people to reach true enlightenment — and never use cream or sugar again.

Write Simon at [email protected]