On campus, the coffee craze continues

USC is getting into the thick of midterm season, which means a few things to students: long nights spent squinting at mundane text in front of a desk lamp, pre-exam stress erupting like Mount St. Helens and many a cup of coffee downed in futile attempts to maintain focus.

Coffee is undoubtedly a fundamental part of American culture today, particularly among young people. In fact, the National Coffee Association of USA found that the 18- to 24-year-old demographic is continuing to drink more coffee every year. Consumption of coffee by the same demographic in 2005 averaged about 2.5 cups a day. That number grew to 3.2 cups a day in 2008, a noteworthy increase.

Marisa Lorion and Katrina MacGregor | Daily Trojan

Take a drive through Los Angeles and you’ll see signs of our increasing infatuation with all things tall, dark and caffeinated: Starbucks sitting happily on adjacent city blocks, denizens in designer sunglasses with organically produced $5 lattes and even McDonald’s billboards hawking gourmet espresso drinks. The temple of blue-collar mass-produced American eats producing fancy-shmancy caramel macchi-whatevers? Just another sign of the times, it seems.

Coffee culture has spread like wildfire in recent years, with no sign of going out any time soon. Still, it’s really nothing new. Coffeehouses came into vogue around the 15th century in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul. These coffee joints weren’t just places to get a morning buzz; they were also hubs of intellectual discussion and artistic expression.

Today’s coffeehouses might not seem like hangouts for the philosophical, Jean-Paul Sartre types, but they’re still nice places to spend some time and engage in a stimulating conversation or two.

It’s not hard to find examples on USC’s very own campus. Tucked between Marks Tower and the wings of Trojan Hall, Ground Zero Performance Café is a popular coffeehouse that’s also a widely used performance venue, playing host to everything from a cappella performances to improv comedy to open mic nights. Nick Wright, a junior majoring in chemical engineering was there on a chilly and drizzling Monday afternoon.

“It’s pretty laid back and there’s usually good music going on or some other event,” Wright said. “It’s nice to have some place that’s not so formal or stuffy.”

The café was filled with people, some who were merely escaping the rain but also others who seemed to be regulars. Laptops were logged in, drinks were in hand and legitimate group studying was happening.

It’s this social, homey characteristic of many coffeehouses that seems to attract so many people. What’s even more curious is that this comfortable atmosphere is so very often an essential component of coffeehouses, and not other types of establishments. Food-focused eateries don’t seem to encourage this sort of innocuous loitering and libraries certainly don’t create the same kind of feeling. So what brings it all together?

It’s difficult to pinpoint. Part of the explanation is that coffee in the past decade somehow became trendy and hip. And hipness tends to breed socialization — there’s nothing like communicating with others of similar ideologies and lifestyles. The trend originally began around the mid-20th century, in places like the Pacific Northwest and in towns like New York’s Greenwich Village. Advocates of counterculture would congregate in such coffeehouses, meaning participating in coffee culture became a lifestyle decision.

Lifestyle. That’s the key word behind today’s coffee culture. Not only is coffee from a premium coffeehouse more delicious, but it seems to subconsciously signify a lifestyle that cares about quality, local community and socialization. The irony behind this is that coffee culture today has more to do with standardization, the mainstream and increased profits more than ever before. Thankfully, local coffee joints continue to thrive — including on campus.

Freshman Brian Thompson, a barista at the Shop Café near the Roski School of Fine Arts, smiled when the idea of coffee being hip was brought up.

“I believe some people are truly passionate about their coffee, but I do believe that it’s kind of trendy,” he said. “[Customers] are willing to pay a higher price for coffee — partially cause of marketing, but, well, I believe in quality and people definitely like to drink more than just ‘coffee’ — the flavored lattes and things.”

Coffeehouses aren’t just about the atmosphere, it’s still about how good the coffee is — even if some major chains might not reflect that — and campus has its ups and downs.

Trojan Grounds, colloquially known as “TroGro,” is popular because of its 24/7 operating hours, with every snack, from roasted nuts to microwave burritos, available all the time, along with various coffee drinks. It seems constantly busy, which might account for the terrible coffee.

Drinks from TroGro consistently have miscues, including bitter, overdrawn espresso to other issues such as the insistent overuse of flavored syrups. After all, who wants a solid puck of caramel syrup at the bottom of their cup?

The new Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center also suffers from long lines, which could explain its underachieving coffee as well. Milk for lattes gets over-steamed, leaving the resulting drink watery and astringent instead of velvety and rich. There’s very rarely the necessary head of creamy milk froth; instead, you might get a lonesome island of bubbly looking milk suds.

This is surprising considering the high quality (and tasty) product coming out from behind the counter of the other Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, located inside the School of Cinematic Arts. It’s unfortunate that this new branch falls into the stereotype of franchises: premium prices, not-so-premium drinks.

Thankfully there is one particular local café that outshines the rest.

The aforementioned Shop Café, located between the Roski Fine Arts building and the School of Architecture, is a coffee stop that all others on or near campus should measure up to (that means you too, University Village Starbucks). Premium Ghirardelli sauces sit happily alongside expensive Monin flavoring syrups (much better than the cheaper, ubiquitous Torani brand). Gleaming, Italian-made La Marzocco espresso machines pump out silky, deep-flavored espresso. Thick, subtly sweet steamed milk is free-poured from the pitcher, leaving behind a topping of foam streaked and flavored by the coffee itself. Decent places like Ground Zero pale in comparison.

Granted, there aren’t soft couches to sit and surf the Internet on, and if the weather is unusually bad, the outside seating areas are no help at all. But the drinks themselves are certainly worth taking elsewhere.

It’s pretty clear that our growing coffee culture, for all it’s worth, wouldn’t exist without the actual beverage. Having a good drink, then, might be the most important factor of all.