Thursday, November 20, 2008


A Happy Accident - Joe Momma's in Avila Beach

A couple months ago, I took a little road trip down the coast, and something happened. Something that never, ever happens to me anymore. I accidentally stumbled across a near-perfect cappuccino. The home of this spectacular cappuccino was a cafe called Joe Momma's in tiny Avila Beach, California, population 797.

I have traveled a lot and tried plenty of cappuccinos, even in towns as small as Avila Beach. But at this point, I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to find (more or less), because I've researched the hell out of it on the coffee internet. So when I know I'm going somewhere new, I generally get on, say, coffeegeek and look up the city I'm going to, find out which coffee shops are supposed to be decent, and then go try them. And I've found, over time, that the hive mind on the internet is not often wrong. The places people say are great are usually pretty great. And vice versa.

But on this particular day, back in June, I hadn't been on the coffee internet in a while. I'd been insanely busy finishing my film (it is finished! Visit the website for more info on screenings, etc.), and I just hadn't had the time to make my usual rounds of coffeegeek,, home-barista, coffeed, etc. So I found myself sitting on a very windy beach on a sunny afternoon. And I turned to the Very Wonderful Michael and said, "Let's go find some coffee. It'll probably suck." So we walked up to the row of shops facing the beach and wandered into Joe Momma's.

The first sign that this place was out of the ordinary was the fact that on the menu board they list a "traditional cappuccino." I asked what the difference was between traditional and non-traditional, and they said that the traditional was the only one they serve - small, porcelain cup, single shot, wet foam... music to my ears. They just put "traditional" on the menu board as a warning to folks who might be expecting a 20-ounce cup of meringue on top of their espresso. Then I noticed that Joe Momma's serves coffees from both Ritual Coffee Roasters and Intelligentsia. I started getting excited.

And this was the result. It was delicious. Even Michael the Picky Drinker had to concede that it was among the best he's ever had. I felt joyful for the rest of the day. And then we went back the next morning - still wonderful.

It seems to me that the world is definitely changing when I can stumble across a top-notch cappuccino in a town this small. It's no longer unusual to find espresso bars in small towns (although I can very well remember when that was impossible), but it is definitely still unusual to find good espresso anywhere, much less in a tiny town. So... Joe Momma's may be an anomaly, but I'm hoping not. And I think the coffee internet is probably to be credited for this. The thing that has continued to fascinate me about the third wave is that it does not seem to have a geographic center, and it is in no way the sole property of big cities. Having been raised in San Francisco, I was kind of force-fed the idea that big cities are the origin and center of all cultural developments, and that it takes a while for said cultural developments to reach the provinces (or, as my sound design professor in film school used to call it, "Cupcake, Indiana." As in, "Sure, we like it, but how's this movie going to play in Cupcake, Indiana?")

But the third wave defies that model in a lot of ways. You can certainly argue that third wave ideals had their origin in big cities, but the movement is definitely thriving in Cupcake, Indiana. In fact, if you look at this on a per capita basis, I think Cupcake, Indiana might be kicking San Francisco's ass right now. Seriously. I've had some really great coffee recently in towns that most San Franciscans (who, I'll hasten to add, are mostly just transplants from Ohio themselves) look down their noses at: Sacramento, Capitola, San Luis Obispo, Walnut Creek... and that's just here in California. (Just wait till I get around to blogging about my recent trip to Kansas City.) I mean, if San Francisco had one coffee shop as good as Joe Momma's for every 797 inhabitants, I'd be in HEAVEN right now. My work here would be done. If the city of Oakland (pop. 397,067) had even ONE coffee shop half that good, I'd be pretty happy.

But let me get back to my earlier point: I attribute the de-centralization of the third wave to the internet. I'd be curious to hear from shop owners and roasters on this, but I am a pretty regular lurker on some of the industry chat forums, and it seems that there is an active online community of people who are exchanging advice and support pretty freely from all over North America and even the world. All the coffee pioneers seem to have banded together on the internet to learn from each other how to succeed in this business and how best to continue the pursuit of quality coffee. So as much as I have previously lamented the internet's negative influence on our interpersonal skills, and as much as I have insisted that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, I have to rejoice a little in the existence of the coffee internet. I love the idea of democratizing something that has previously been considered "high culture."

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