As an undergraduate, I made a habit of following professors out of lecture halls to try out my ideas on them. One patient pedagogue, Rhetoric Prof. Frederick Dolan used to indulge these follow-ups, and sometimes we would even stop for coffee. “Coffee is the last socially acceptable drug,” he would smile.
Caffeine blocks the brain’s adenosine receptors. Living bodies are never completely exempt from the entropic laws governing inanimate matter, that aspect of you that remains indifferent to your existence. The divergence of interests between matter and vigor inspired Freud’s death drive theory. And what a fitting symbol adenosine makes for matter at its most mercenary: a nucleic acid which is both inextricable from life and inimical to pleasure. Adenosine is part of DNA’s quaternary code; within ATP, it makes cells go; by itself in the silence of a synapse, though, it undoes alertness, smothers thought, and sabotages pleasure—unless caffeine can intervene!
Caffeine’s downsides (addiction, anxiety, dehydration, no net energy gain) are offset by coffee’s other ingredients, such as water and tasty chlorogenic acids, which enhance health and mood. My professor introduced these powers to me almost a decade ago. Now everyone I know accepts my lifestyle, as I anticipate a future of only coffee-shaped days. I do not expect it to enhance my study skills—just to offer me pleasure so compatible with work that it makes work hours a little more my own.
Iced cappuccino, double cappuccino, and espresso at the (espresso) bar (Phototography: Benjamin Beckett)
Professors, students, and peers all want to talk over coffee. The best coffee shops in town add joy to key meetings, hard studying, or just deep daydreaming. The coffee connoisseur has a variety of options for combining business with freshly roasted, expertly brewed coffee.
We have Comet: the most luxurious-feeling. It blends perfectly with the exotic air of the Nickel’s Arcade. They brew beans so remarkable in flavor that it can only be expressed in light roasts (which are highest in chlorogenic acids). Cinnamon, rum, rhubarb, tangerine. This shop is ideal for the flâneur who wants to taste something memorable in hopes of extending the fantasy that the Nickel’s Arcade is fin-de-siècle Paris.
The two comfortable stories of Café Ambrosia are as suitable for holding office hours as for organizing a protest. It is frequented by teens on the town, U-M students, artists, and the Ann Arbor Free Skool. The most diverse café in town accommodates a clientele with diverse demands; you can order delicious, freshly brewed Roos Roast or Metropolis coffee, but you can also pay less and get watery, anonymous brews.
Lab on Liberty imports beans as extraordinary as Comet’s, in my opinion. What their space offers the imagination is a future of serene self-empowerment: here “lab work” has become a matter of sitting on cubic chairs (sorry, no Squares™) and thinking hard.
From Jonah’s whale and Jesus’ resurrection-cave to desert hermitage and silent cloisters, isolation may be even more important than community for liberating the Christian spirit from the sin-world. The sequestering tradition gained a new affirmation when Martin Luther declared salvation a solitary event. In a Lutheran church basement on a quiet, green street, the Common Cup offers seclusion from the worldly. Unlike a church, no one here will compel you to make a place in your heart for Jesus, but do prepare a place in your mouth for a liquid rapture.
I can only recommend Café Zola for formal dining; it is too crowded for studying, but their great coffee deserves mention. As befits a French-Turkish fusion restaurant, unusual coffee preparation styles fill a whole page on their long menu: French press, Turkish, Moroccan, pour-over, and several rare espresso concoctions.
Perhaps you want flavor without fantasy; perhaps you delight in coffee’s “socially acceptable” face even more than its “drug” experience. Mighty Good on North Main St. feels earnest enough. They roast coffee and serve it fresh within two days! They have those thick, chocolaty dark roasts. Their Brazilian decaf is astonishingly complex, and they boast a spacious, many-walled workspace. Some walls bear visual reminders of our day and age—twenty-first century piping, ducts, and drywall—to effectively root your attention in the present and its tasks.
Like your home, the (espresso) bar demands no particular behavior from its patrons. The co-owner-baristas and their guests all vacillate comfortably together between industry and leisure. The drinks are served impeccably, but during downtime the servers continue playing a board game resembling checkers. Before work, one of them bakes pastries you can buy. Then on holidays, they close. One day, they may leave. Their behavior betrays minds that are both flexible and determined, and that might explain their supreme knowledge of espresso and foam—airy even on iced cappuccino.
My favorite local coffee roaster is Roos Roast. They satisfy my passion for novelty; for instance, they roast beans from three different Columbian farms—each with distinctive flavors. Their Ethiopian “deep blue” has blueberry notes, which disappear under dark chocolate, then return to your nose on sage-scented air. Only synesthetic language can mimic its complexity. When I go to their café, flavor dominates my attention—but other patrons read and converse here.
The order of the above listing reflects proximity to the library. All sell beans as well as brewed coffee.
Picking berries in Costa Rica, sorting for the best in El Salvador, sun-drying them in Brazil (Photography: Intelligentsia Coffee)
Coffee only grows in tropical climates, such as sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and the Pacific Islands. Ethiopian coffees tend to be exquisitely balanced (never too acidic or bitter), and at their freshest and best, they have a sweetness finer than sugar. Our neighbor, Mexico, sells its worse coffee domestically and only exports their best: imagine almond-butter hot chocolate. Coffee is a juicy-looking berry before its hull is removed, and the tartness and esters in Central and South American coffees remind you of that. Roos Roast sells a Balinese coffee whose fragrance penetrates the sinus like bread from an oven, whereas most of the earthy Indonesian coffees rarely linger enough in the nostrils to be memorable.
It is troubling to remember that it takes hard physical labor in depleting weather to produce the substance that makes mental labor so agreeable. The only consolation is that some farms are reputed to have decent working conditions. The Fair Trade Alliance, however, cannot assure growers fair income: it fixes export prices, but allows regionally managed co-operatives to decide what percentage goes to particular farmers. These prices allow small-scale farms to stay competitive and pay their workers better than large-scale farms do, and the shops listed above at least try to purchase coffee from those small farms. Supermarket house brands are cheaper, but you are probably less complicit in global inequality when you buy Fair Trade certified coffee. However, no coffee retailer can promise you a good conscience. Outstanding coffee consoles by another route: after its taste has summoned up your full attention, its effects put the world at a distance, so you can focus entirely on what you are doing.
Some of the coffee beans available in Ann Arbor for home-brewing. From left to right, these beans were roasted in Ann Arbor, Chicago, Detroit, and Ypsilanti. These can be purchased at Roos Roast Free Speech Café, Comet Coffee, the (espresso) bar, and the Common Cup, respectively. (Photography: Benjamin Beckett)
About the Author
Spencer Hawkins, Ph.D. Student, Comparative Literature
Published in: Student Voices