Public coffee-drinking in America is oddly anti-social. Urbanites craving some semblance of human contact stake out their tables, order a Venti, then disappear into their own private, silent terra caffeinata, earbuds in place, iPhone at the ready, and multiple personal screens aglow. Coffee shops take on the reverent hush of libraries, or perhaps even the monasteries where the first coffee-drinkers brewed their beans to stay alert for unending prayer and devotion.
But two Los Angeles entrepreneurs are putting the “society” back into café society: Mark Wain and Gary Chau, Baristi and Co-Owners of Caffe Luxxe. And while Wain and Chau lead the charge for the “3rd Wave” of gourmet coffee (especially espresso) in technical cuisine terms, they are equally passionate about creating community and a friendly vibe.
“It is possible to have great conversation over bad coffee, but why would you?” queries Chau, who brings an unerring eye for merchandising and international expertise in luxury branding to the table.
“And, better coffee leads to better conversation, anyway,” adds Wain, who fell under the obsessive enchantment of the bean as a young coffee-hobbyist in Berkeley in the late 1980s. At the Montana Avenue location on any given morning, there is actual chatting, done old-school: face-to-face, and audible. Here, almost nobody texts while standing in line – they converse with each other instead. The owners and the other Baristi recognize regulars, and welcome newcomers—who soon become regulars.
Caffe Luxxe crafts coffee beverages and sells whole beans at three locations: the original Santa Monica location, opened in 2006 (925 Montana Avenue); Brentwood/Downtown (11975 San Vicente Blvd.); and the new Brentwood Country Mart (225 26th Street). By the Autumn of 2012, the roasting operation, called the Laboratorio, will move from Seattle to Los Angeles, making Caffe Luxxe the gourmet coffee brand most fully identifiable with Los Angeles.
Are they purists? No, but they are sticklers for quality. For instance, they don’t sell ground beans. They won’t grind a bag of their beans for you, since grinding exposes the volatile oils and other active essences of the bean to air. “Basically, once you open up the bean and increase the surface-area to infinity, oxidization begins and well, that’s kind of when the flavor immediately begins its rapid decline,” says Wain, getting sadder by the minute. “It’s kind of like cutting into an avocado. It starts to turn brown instantly, and soon you won’t want to eat it. We recommend that you grind only enough for one day’s enjoyment, and no more. Keep your beans whole for as long as you can.”
Bad coffee begins with bad beans. “Soil, sun, water, elevation, all contribute to levels of acidity and many other aspects of flavor,” says Wain. “Then there’s the roast, the grind, the techniques of preparation, and so much more. But a bad bean cannot be saved.” Caffe Luxxe ensures premium bean quality by purchasing in micro-lots—only the best of the best. Like everything here, choices are made thoughtfully.
In addition to the velvety espressos and cappuccinos which Los Angeles Magazine calls “the best coffee in Los Angeles”, Caffe Luxxe offers artisanal baked goods including delicate macarons and exquisite alfajores (filled shortbread cookies), tarts and other light treats, made fresh, in small batches—when they’re gone, they’re gone.
A small selection of impulse-buys and gift-items—whimsical letterpress cards, re-usable handmade boxes covered in beautiful art-papers, fig-scented French hand crème—are impeccably curated by Chau. “Even when people dash in for a quick espresso, they often linger and shop, because they want a little something more, and they want to prolong the experience,” he says. “We’re far from being a department store, but we do find that our customers share a taste and sensibility in all sorts of products, objects and experiences.”
Throughout the summer, Caffe Luxxe will host cultural events, and use its walls as gallery space for local artists. Recently, Baristi competed in “the greatest event in milk-pouring history”, the “Latte Art Throwdown”. This Battle of Baristi consisted of creating the most perfect rosette—the rosetta being the finishing signature of steamed milk which finishes the caffe espresso and elevates it beyond buzz to art. The graceful, loping loops of the traditional rosetta also form the brand’s logo.
On Wednesday, June 27, at 6:30 pm, at the Montana Avenue location, local Santa Monica author Craig Boreth will launch his new book, “The Hemingway Cookbook”, which features authentic re-creations of meals that enriched Hemingway’s literature. Tapas-style dishes inspired by the cookbook will be served.
Chau adds, “We take the feeling of European tradition and luxury, and present it with an accessible, casual attitude which is uniquely American. With LA’s extraordinary weather, and the eclectic, diverse culture of the Pacific Rim, Caffé Luxxe is all about bringing people together over fantastic, hand-crafted coffee.”