Growing up in Silicon Valley, milk tea was a staple of my daily beverage consumption — I lived in a predominantly Asian area, and the sugary Taiwanese drink is offered at no fewer than 10 shops along a one-mile stretch outside my house. Despite this, the options for bubble tea and all its wild variations in Los Angeles (Snow Monster’s cotton candy milk tea drink comes to mind) overwhelmed me. Fearing for my health and wary of the sugar coagulating in my bloodstream, I quit the boba life. But caffeination soon proved necessary for a college student like me, and I decided now that I was going off into the adult world, it was time to start drinking adult beverages — namely coffee. I spent my first year at USC in more cafés than classrooms, and along the way I picked up a few tips from baristas, fellow espresso seekers and the black liquid of life itself.
For most, the priority of a café is the coffee. Since Starbucks burgeoned out of Seattle in the 1970s, the West Coast began making a name for itself in third wave coffee production. Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Blue Bottle Coffee, Philz, Verve — all of these cafés are of West Coast origin and are influenced in part from cafe culture in Europe and the growing appreciation of coffee as an art, rather than being for humans what gasoline is for cars. Smaller, locally owned cafés started cropping up all over the Pacific coast, ranging in flavor and style. Chains like Starbucks continue to flourish across the nation, each location imbued with a personality of its own. Cafés are now no longer where only the cleverest minds gather for debate and discussion — they are a stop for the expedient executive, the harried hustler, the basic b-tch and people like me, the stressed student.
Many of the coffee shops in Los Angeles focus on their bean origins, roasting, brewing and presentation. These steps are all important to crafting quality coffee. In assessing a cup of joe, however, everyone has a different flavor preference. World Coffee Research developed the Sensory Lexicon for describing coffee, and most major players in coffee have their own methods of assessing quality and taste. However, there is a clear line between good and bad coffee — my goal is to be able to differentiate that, at the very least. Becoming a coffee sommelier might take more caffeine than my body can handle.
College students comprise a large portion of café-goers. The younger generations influence cafe culture a great deal, and which is reflected in cafe trends and priorities.
There are factors to look for beyond the quality of coffee. First, there’s the ambiance. Nothing makes a study session more productive than a cozy atmosphere. Catching up with friends is always more emotionally rewarding in the right setting. Lighting, be it natural light from the to ceiling windows or swanky Ikea lamps that resemble a hybrid Death Star, is necessary to get anything done. Unless you enjoy studying in utter darkness — then the SCA basement is a solid move. Or perhaps you’re an aficionado of the sterile, hyper-regulated lighting of Leavey Library (but then, why would you be interested in finding a café?)
There’s also the physical means to productivity — Wi-Fi, power outlets, tables and chairs. Though these things seem to be obvious staples of a cafe, there will always be cafes that lack connection, push for “more human interactions,” encourage us all to bring back “the spirit of the 80s.” In that environment, I could read a lot of books, but I probably wouldn’t be able to finish my essay, complete with research and annotations. There are also cafes notorious for the guy who holes up in the corner, sapping all the internet bandwidth with his endless string of “League of Legends” matches.
Aside from the people working or chatting away in a café, there is a staff of people who serve up many, many cups of coffee and tea daily. Good customer service is a must. Being a barista can be exhausting — especially when dealing with picky customers. But baristas who manage to make good conversation, or at the very least make customers feel welcome, elevate a cafe beyond average standards. Plus, anyone who can make great latte art deserves some applause.
This column is an exploration of Los Angeles café culture and what makes the best cafes the best. Though it seems a narrow scope of view, having a cup of coffee is an underrated moment in everyday existence for many people — an instance of the ordinary that can fuel the most extraordinary things.
Breanna de Vera is a sophomore majoring in English and journalism. She is also the chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Cool Beans,” runs every other Thursday.