Food and Drink

Fructose malabsorption: the latest milestone on an epic digestive health odyssey

[Update (August 2016): Since writing this post in 2011 about an odyssey that began in 2009, our hypothesis that Amy has fructose malabsorption has been disconfirmed. I hope the information in this post will still be of use to those who have similar hypotheses, or confirmed diagnoses. Amy still suffers from periodic episodes of extremely painful abdominal cramping and some of the other symptoms described in the original post, but our current hypothesis is that these are psychosomatic, the result of life-long challenges in processing emotions such as fear and anxiety (similar in some respects to the patterns described by Scott Strossel in My Age of Anxiety). Others experiencing an epic digestive health odyssey might benefit from considering potential psychological or emotional factors - in addition to the physiological factors - that may be contributing to the suffering. We hope the information here will be instrumental in ameliorating, or at least explaining, some of that suffering, or at least offer some consolation that you are not alone in the intense pain, desolation and desperation that often arises on such a journey.]

BarrettPracticalGastro2007-Figure1 After over two years of intermittently intense suffering, an interminable series of medical consultations with a variety of healthcare professionals, and numerous indefinite diagnoses, a dietician recently helped us converge on a new explanation for my wife's digestive health problems: fructose malabsorption (FM). Having experienced some relief from recently starting an elimination diet, it appears that Amy's small intestine does not properly absorb fructose and its many polymerized forms such as fructans, raffinose and other Fermentable Oligo-, Di- and Mono-saccharides And Polyols (FODMAPs). These are the sugars contained in many fruits, vegetables and whole grains. As we currently understand her predicament, when she consumes foods or drinks - or even chews gum - containing moderate amounts of fructose, a fructose-glucose ratio greater than 1:1, or any amount of other FODMAPs, they are not absorbed in her small intestine but pass through to her large intestine. The unabsorbed sugars feed bacteria, and the resulting fermentation leads to a range of symptoms that have included varying degrees of abdominal pain (3 extreme episodes involved pain "worse than childbirth", vomiting and trips to the emergency room), bloating, belching, diarrhea, decreased appetite and visceral hypersensitivity. During this time, she has also experienced skin rashes, muscle and joint pain, dry eyes, dry mouth, fuzzy head, fatigue and depression, but at this point we're not sure whether or how these symptoms may be related to fructose malabsorption.

Throughout this period, we have engaged in numerous medical consultations with Amy's primary care physician, colorectal surgeon, radiation oncologist, opthamologist, two gastroenterologists, an internist, and a rheumatologist (who referred us to the dietician), as well as various attending physicians during her visits to the emergency room. She has undergone blood tests, urine tests, stool tests, X-rays, CT scans, an MRI scan, a HIDA scan and a lip biopsy. Other diagnoses that have been considered (and eventually excluded) include gallbladder malfunction, Crohn's disease, Sjogren's Syndrome and chronic radiation enteritis (suspected as a delayed reaction to her 2005 anal cancer treatment). She has also been checked for celiac disease, gluten intolerance, H. pylori and intestinal parasites (all negative).

Candidates that have not yet been definitively ruled out include ileus, bowel obstruction and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) syndrome (in which the unabsorbed sugars are fermented in the small intestine rather than the large intestine). Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), a relatively unknown and ill-defined disorder in which mast cells precipitate an allergic overreaction (which in some people may include anaphylactic shock), is the most recent addition to the candidate list. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a much better known but not not much better understood disorder which has a high degree of symptom overlap with fructose malabsorption (and SIBO); we're note quite sure what to make of IBS, but Amy's IBS-related symptoms have significantly improved through the dietary management of fructose. Some of these conditions are suspected of being interrelated, and it may be the case that several of these diagnoses apply.

During a visit to Amy's gastroenterologist last Friday, he suggested that MCAS may be the genesis her FM/IBS symptoms - possibly triggered in response to an earlier gastrointestinal infection - and so she is preparing to add antihistamine and quercetin to her daily regimen to reduce the likelihood of future [over]activation. He also suggested that the rapid intestinal transit that was observed in an X-ray of her upper GI with small bowel follow-through may be a factor - fructose may not be absorbed in her small intestine because it simply isn't given enough time - and so he also recommended a daily dose of Imodium (Loperamide) to slow down the intestinal transit. I hope to have more to say about this trajectory in a future post.

CenterForWoundHealingAndHBO-Swedish Exploratory abdominal surgery was recommended by a few different specialists at earlier stages of her digestive health odyssey; thus far, concern over possible complications resulting from gastrointestinal surgery - which can introduce as well as reduce digestive problems - has steered her away from that path. However she did undergo hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) treatment at the Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbarics at Swedish Edmonds this spring to treat radiation enteritis, when that seemed to be the most likely diagnosis. HBO is a relatively unknown and minimally invasive treatment that appears to be effective for several conditions, and we were initially hopeful about prospects for improvement. Although she received excellent care over the course of her treatment, the lack of significant improvement in her digestive symptoms after 37 "dives" was a strong signal that radiation enteritis was not the correct diagnosis. She also underwent a course of Xifaxan (Rifaximin) antibiotic treatment for SIBO at the start of her HBO treatment, but the persistence of symptoms during that period lead us to believe that SIBO is/was not a primary factor.

Fructose malabsorption seems to be relatively unknown, at least in the U.S., and there are many aspects of the disorder that are still poorly understood. A review of studies on fructose malabsorption, most of which are based on results of hydrogen breath tests (HBTs), suggests that some level of fructose malabsorption may be present in more than a third of the "healthy" population in western countries, where high fructose corn syrup is increasingly used in popular consumer foods. HBT evidence of fructose malabsorption is present in a much larger proportion of those exhibiting symptoms associated with functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs). However, there is some disagreement about the application and interpretation of HBTs, as well as the correlation between HBT results and FGID symptoms; there is also the risk of triggering severe reactions on the way to a "positive" test result, as some fructose must be ingested prior to measuring the hydrogen in the breath. In Amy's case, she has not taken an HBT, but we consider her body's positive response to a diet restricting fructose and other FODMAPS - and the negative response whenever she unintentionally eats even small amounts of high-FODMAP foods - to be strong evidence that fructose malabsorption is at or near the core of many of her digestive health problems.

Given the different tests, diagnoses and treatments Amy has undergone during this odyssey, one of the motivations behind composing this post is to share some of this experience in case it might help others who are unknowingly suffering from fructose malabsorption yet have only been tested, diagnosed or treated for other diseases or disorders. Amy is an indomitable e-patient - engaged, empowered, equipped and increasingly expert in her own medical care - and I'm hoping her journey may help inform or inspire others. If not for her perseverance, she may have undergone other, potentially more invasive or risky treatments, and might still be suffering [more] from the often debilitating symptoms.

That is not to say she is not still suffering; the source of suffering has simply shifted from severe reactions to food to severe restrictions on food. There is no known cure for fructose malabsorption, and it appears the most effective treatment is an austere low-FODMAP diet, devoid of most fruits, vegetables, grains and other sources of sugars that can feed the bad bacteria. Based on some recent negative food reactions, we suspect that Amy may also be lactose intolerant - lactose being another sugar - and so she is also currently avoiding all dairy products. Years ago, she discovered that foods high in saturated fat triggered negative reactions - her digestive health odyssey actually began decades ago - so those foods were already eliminated from her diet.

More strawberries At this point, nearly all the things she most enjoys eating and drinking - including many fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, cheeses, chocolate, wine and beer - are now on the "avoid" list. Many activities and places that used to bring her joy - such as growing fruit and vegetables in her garden, exploring farmers' markets, trying new restaurants - are now also on an "avoid" list, serving as depressing reminders of the life she enjoyed until recently. As one among many examples, the strawberries in her garden [shown in the photo at the right] recently achieved optimal ripeness and were ready for harvest, and although they are a generally "safe" food in the low-FODMAP diet, she had a negative reaction to eating a store-bought strawberry a few weeks ago, and so she could only pick but not eat them. One of the many puzzling dimensions of this disorder is why she can no longer tolerate so many nutritious foods she used to eat regularly; it's as though some kind of switch has been flipped. While we have found no evidence that fructose malabsorption is a life-threatening disorder, it is certainly proving to be a lifestyle-threatening disorder, and the psychological adjustments are at least as challenging as the physical ones.

The good news is that after six weeks on the diet, many of her physical symptoms have been greatly alleviated; the bad news is that many of the generally "safe" foods she has tried to re-introduce so far have re-triggered negative physical - and emotional - reactions.

Margaret Mead famously observed that

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.

This individual and collective uniqueness is a significant factor for those suffering from fructose malabsorption ("FMers") and following a low-FODMAP diet, in that foods that are safe for one FMer - or even most FMers - may not be safe for another FMer (e.g., strawberries). Further complicating matters, heating (cooking) and cooling (refrigeration) affects the chemistry of foods, as does ripeness (in the case of fruits and vegetables), and so foods that may be safe in one state may not be safe in another. Foods that might be safe in isolation may not be safe when consumed soon before or after other foods that also might be safe in isolation. The set of safe foods for a given FMer can also change over time. We keep hoping it will get better, that her gut will heal and she will eventually succeed in reintroducing some of the eliminated foods. It appears that "getting better" involves some combination of radically adjusting the diet and the associated gustatory expectations and desires, as well as managing stress through exercise and mindfulness meditation ... and practicing a great deal of patience.

Low-FODMAP foods Amy can eat Amy is currently at the most restrictive phase of the low-FODMAP diet. She has eliminated everything but fish, chicken, lean beef and pork, oatmeal, white rice, rice pasta, rice crackers, quinoa, buckwheat, banana, grapefruit, portabella mushrooms, mustard greens, Swiss chard, spinach, almond milk, an assortment of seeds, oils and nut-based butters, and decaffeinated coffee. The photo on the right shows the single shelf containing all of the non-perishable foods she can safely eat at this stage [since taking the photo, we discovered that the shallots in the bowl at the right are not low-FODMAP and have been eliminated]. We hope this is a temporary low, and she will eventually reach a stage where we will need more than one shelf to store her food.

After achieving a state of greater digestive balance in the first two weeks, Amy started experimenting with reintroducing other generally "safe" foods (e.g., blueberries), several of which have resulted in a mostly mild recurrence of symptoms. Just this week, she had an extreme bout of abdominal pain - almost on a par with the bouts that brought us to the emergency room - that, as far as we can determine, resulted from eating a few sea salt & cracked pepper flavored potato chips. We later discovered that one of the other seasonings listed in the ingredients included onion powder, which is on the low-FODMAP "avoid" list, reminding us of how diligent and vigilant we need to be about checking ingredients.

Due to the cumulative effects of unabsorbed sugars in the gut, low-FODMAPpers are advised to wait 72 hours between experiments, so as to be able to correctly assess the credit (or blame) for any symptom recurrence. Another recent failed experiment occurred after eating 1/2 of a leftover baked potato (with a small amount of "safe" margarine and no skin) a few weeks ago. The next day, shortly after eating her standard breakfast of plain oatmeal, she experienced the waves of sharp abdominal pain that characterized her worst reactions. We have since learned that starch can be problematic, at least in the early phase of the diet, and that refrigerating potatoes increases their starch content. We also discovered that oatmeal contains starch, so the abdominal pain may have been triggered by an inadvertent starch overload. We hope to redo the experiment with freshly cooked potatoes, which are a generally "safe" food, during an otherwise low-starch period, in the hope that they will prove safe for her to eat again.

Amy Amy sometimes fears that she will never be able to reintroduce eliminated (or new) foods, regain weight or acquire the nutrients - through food - that her body needs. She has been compensating for nutritional deficits through supplements including UltraClear Medical Food and calcium citrate, and has also been experimenting with the probiotic VSL#3; many supplements contain FODMAP ingredients, so she needs to be careful with those as well. Over the past 2 years, she has lost 20 pounds (9 kg) and now weighs 110 pounds (50 kg); she stands 5'8" (173 cm) tall, yielding a body mass index of 16.7, well below the "underweight" threshold of 18.5. This is particularly worrisome because none of the foods that have proved safe for her to eat [yet] are foods that can help her gain weight. Even at the worst / lowest point during her recovery from radiation and chemotherapy treatment, she weighed 117 pounds (53 kg). The lack of absorbed nutrients is likely contributing to osteopenia bordering on osteoporosis. On top of all this, her hair has also been thinning [again] throughout this time. The photo at the right was taken a little over a year ago, on the 5-year anniversary of her successful cancer treatment; little did we know then that this would represent a relatively brief crest amid the sporadically crushing waves of health challenges.

When Amy was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2005, the early stage of the diagnosis gave us confidence that there was a high probability the treatment would be successful (it was), and the side effects would eventually subside (they have). When she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986, the long gaps between her initial exacerbations gave us hope that she would not suffer the steady and progressive deterioration that some with MS experience (she has not). The fructose malabsorption diagnosis - and low-FODMAP dietary treatment - have left her feeling more isolated and depressed than any prior health challenge. It often seems like no one - at times, including me - fully grasps the magnitude of the restrictions she may be facing, possibly for the rest of her life.

As I noted above, one reason I am writing this post is to share her (our) experience of this odyssey, in the hope that it might help others become more aware of a condition that may be widely experienced (to varying degrees) and not [yet] widely diagnosed or appropriately treated, especially in the U.S. Our hope is that we might save other sufferers some of the pain, time and money - not to mention fear, uncertainty and doubt - that we have experienced over the past several years. I plan to share more of the ongoing odyssey in future posts, similar to the "cancer counterinsurgency" series I posted during Amy's anal cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery (which has generated more comments and email than anything I've written). We've discussed the prospect of Amy starting her own blog to catalog her journey, but for now, she is focused more on learning than sharing, as she adopts and adapts new ways to nourish and nurture herself through nutrition, exercise and stress reduction.

I'll finish off this post with a few resources that I / we have found particularly helpful:

I want to emphasize that neither Amy nor I have any formal training in medicine, nutrition or biochemistry; the information shared here is based on the personal experience of a long-time sufferer and her spouse. Based on our interactions with various health care professionals over the last several years and my own reading of over 40 peer-reviewed articles in medical research journals over the last several weeks, we appear to be at the beginning stages of a very steep learning curve involving a condition - or perhaps several - that do not seem very well studied or understood. I also want to highlight the fact that we are still not sure whether fructose malabsorption is the primary diagnosis or is secondary to other conditions (such as MCAS, IBS and/or SIBO). This is why the subtitle of this post is the latest milestone - vs. diagnosis - on a digestive health odyssey ... and our epic journey continues.

While we expect - or hope - that most people will never experience the symptoms of fructose malabsorption, or the challenges of the restrictive diet used in its treatment, we also hope that those who are suffering from these symptoms - or know someone else who is - and thus may be candidates for the diagnosis and dietary treatment, might benefit from this summary of our experience thus far, and seek out personalized care and guidance from appropriately trained health care professionals.

Wine, Cheese, Technology and Jobs in Seattle

The Eastside Networking Event last night, organized by Andrew Vest, included an interesting mix of wines, cheeses and Seattle area technology companies looking to hire people - primarily, but not exclusively, engineers. At one point, one of the speakers asked how many people in the room were engineers, and only about one quarter or so of the 400+ people in the audience raised their hands, so I'm not sure how well expectations were met among the sponsors and attendees of the event, but I enjoyed meeting interesting people, learning more about the companies and trying some new wines.

image from Mike Whitmore, of Fresh Consulting, talked about the increasing ways that technology is permeating our lives. The company, which integrates business, technology and design, makes extensive use of Amazon's Mechanical Turk and oDesk for outsourcing its work, using 3,000 people for micro-tasks and mini-tasks from these two services ... most of whom, I imagine, do not work in the greater Seattle area. One of the sites the company has created is, which allows users to rate web apps, and then provides capabilities to compare, rank and filter those reviews. Mike mentioned some kind of prize(s) associated with using the site, but I wasn't clear on the details and has kindly clarified the Kindle Contest in a comment below:

  1. Go to and click on the Community tab.
  2. Click the green Quick Signup button.
  3. Follow the process to Create your Account by August 31st.

All who join the CloudSurfer Community by August 31st are eligible for a drawing for a Kindle 3G.

image from My favorite example of new technologies from Mike's talk was Kickbee, a device that can be attached to the belly of a pregnant woman that tweets every time the fetus kicks. There were several articles (including the Gizmodo article I link to above) about this device in December 2008, but the official Kickbee site, and the project page in the portfolio of the device's creator, Corey Menscher (when he was a student at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program), are both currently marked by "This site may harm your computer" warnings in Google. @kickbee reminds me of @PiMPY3WASH, a device connected to a Maytag washing machine that tweets when its load is done [video] ... which seems somewhat less risky than attaching sensors and transmitters to the belly of a pregnant woman. In any case, I agree with Mike that there are many interesting developments in the increasing array of activity streams that are connected to the web, and many exciting opportunities to create useful new services based on the greater awareness and interaction capabilities these offer.

image from Next up was Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, who was touting Amazon Web Services. Werner spoke of how AWS has drastically reduced the time and costs of developing enterprise software - from 2 years down to 3-6 months - and increases agility by enabling scaling up and down based on actual (vs. anticipated) demand. Werner claimed that 7 of the top 10 Facebook apps are games (I'm not sure how "top" is measured), all of which run on AWS, and mentioned several non-game web services that I know (and love), and included one that I hadn't heard of before, but will definitely use next time I plan air travel: hipmunk. One of my favorite phrases from the event was Werner's reference to the way AWS helps during that one exponential moment when your web site gets a large spike of visitors (I've always thought of this as getting Boing-Boinged, but "exponential moment" is perhaps more general).

WindowsPhone7 Charlie Kindel, general manager for user experience with the Microsoft Windows Phone 7 team emphasized the game-changing approach that Microsoft is taking to this new platform, i.e., how they are changing their game as they seek to compete more effectively in the smart phone market. The Windows Phone 7 is designed to offer integrated experiences, combining elements of the personal and the professional dimensions of our lives through the incorporation of productivity tools as well as photos, videos, music and games (at various points, Charlie talked about "the Zune phone" and "the Xbox phone"). The live demo - using an app that replicated the phone screen on a laptop screen - was pretty impressive, highlighting the "live tiles" interface and the integration with mail, maps and the calendar. My favorite feature was the button on the calendar app that allows a user to automatically generate an "I'll be late" email to the organizer or all attendees of an event. In addition to the user experience, Charlie emphasized the Windows Phone developer experience, claiming at one point that for someone with any software development experience [presumably with Microsoft tools and languages], it can take as little as 2-3 minutes to get a Windows Phone 7 app up and running (!).

image from Barbara Evans, aka Seattle Wine Gal, and Community Manager of Thinkspace, promotes social media for and about wine and wineries, and talked about how she started out with no qualifications, but lots of passion & drive to learn about the social online space. I first met Barbara at the afterparty for a daylong conference in Seattle this past winter, for which she had assembled one of the best selections of wineries to pour at a tasting I've encountered in Seattle. I don't know about her claim of "no qualifications": she has a degree in social anthropology, great taste in wines (and wineries), and I suspect that the Boopsie Effect - wherein attractive women suffer disadvantages due to their appearance in certain professions - does not apply to social media (in fact, I imagine it is more the opposite). She attempted to show a video of how to drink wine in the shower during the presentation, but it did not work; having watched it today, despite the images that might come to mind regarding a shower scene, I can say that it is not NSFW.

image from Bill Baxter, CTO of Cozi, which offers a set of applications to keep busy families organized, offered a blend of "prognosticating and bitching" about the state of web and mobile apps. Citing an "unstoppable juggernaut named Apple", he warned that the current rate of platform proliferation - iOS, Facebook, Windows Mobile 7, WIndows 7/8 (desktop), Android, Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer 9, HTML5, Blackberry OS, Yahoo Connected TV, Google TV - was unsustainable. He predicted that HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript will be the likely winner, but meanwhile, developers will be forced to create native clients for many plaforms, and so skills in many languages and tools - Objective-C, Java, HTML/CSS/JavaScript, as well as backend skills in database and web services - will continue to be invaluable for the forseeable future. Interestingly (to me), Bill's Twitter account has the fewest followers (3), followees (7) and tweets (2) of any of the speakers, and I can't find a LinkedIn profile either - though @CoziFamily has plenty of followers, followees and tweets - leading me to wonder if social media restraint is a strategy intended to promote the simplification and organization of his [family] life.

Windows_azure_logo Bharat Shyam, General Manager of Microsoft Windows Azure, has no Twitter account (that I can find), which is consistent with his opening statement about how little he typically tends to enjoy networking. Just as Windows Phone 7 is a relative latecomer to the smart phone game, Windows Azure is a relative latecomer to the cloud computing game, having been unveiled in January of this year (although in describing Amazon Web Services, which was an early pioneer in this area 4 years ago, Werner Vogels described the field as still feeling like "day 1"). Bharat emphasized the powerful and popular tools available to support developers on the Azure platform, e.g., Visual Studio for Windows Azure, and said there were already 10,000 Windows Azure developers, and 10,000 Windows Azure customers, a number which is "growing at a rapid clip".

EVenues_logo Nic Peterson, CEO of eVenues, whose Twitter account also exhibits restraint, gave a demo of their "marketplace for underutilized space", showing how a user can search for and reserve an unused conference room - or desk, classroom or event space - owned by another organization based on hourly or daily rates. Nic claimed that the "under 50" [person] meeting space market is a $2.5B business, and noted that hotels charge more than 10 times the eVenue rates (and having organized numerous events, I can attest to high rates in hotels). He said they soon plan to release a backend tool for space owners to more easily manage the availability of their spaces on eVenues, and I found myself wondering about potential partnerships with catering and transportation companies.

Facebook_logo Ari Steinberg, manager of the new Facebook office in Seattle, showed a bunch of photos of the new office (in Pioneer Square), and told us about another networking event / party they are holding at their office next week ... which, unfortunately, is already full. In their quest to ensure that the party is populated primarily by clever engineers, they presented a puzzle as a gatekeeper to the event. Engineers who are late to the party (and/or puzzle), may increase their chances for being invited to future Facebook parties - or perhaps even employment - by doing clever things with the Facebook Graph API, which provides access to 20 types of Facebook objects, including people, events, groups, friends, photos, videos, likes, notes, links and - after yesterday's announcement - places.

Gist_logo T.A. McCann, CEO of Gist ("know more about who you know"), was up last, and started off with the contextually appropriate insight that "the key to social networking is wine". Gist was created to deal with the information overload some of us experience with too many inboxes, social networking connections. Gist combines Outlook, Gmail, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, news, blogs, photos, RSS feeds and contact info into a single stream (for each person), making it easier to learn what's new on a person-by-person basis, regardless of the preferred platform(s) through which that person prefers to express him- or herself. According to T.A., Gist already has more profiles than LinkedIn (!), and before ending his talk - and with it, the presentation portion of the event - he noted the company has 20 employees in Pioneer Square, and "we are always hiring".

Last, but not least, I wanted to say a few words about the wine. Tasting tables were setup during the first speaker session, and the wine was flowing by the time of the first break. There was also a table for Maker's Mark Kentucky Bourbon (on the rocks or in a punch made with Reed's Ginger Beer). The wineries represented - and the wines poured - were

  • Bartholomew Winery poured a 2007 Orsa (69% Syrah, 18% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache), 2007 Reciprocity (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Carmenere) - my favorite of the night - and 2007 Cuvee Rouge (a Cabernet / Merlot blend)
  • Celaeno Winery poured a Gewurtzraminer - the most interesting wine of the night (a prominent smokey flavor, almost like drinking bacon) - a Syrah and a Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Mount Baker Vineyards poured a Semillon / Sauvignon Blanc blend, a Cabernet Franc and a Syrah (I did not make careful notes of the origins or vintages)
  • 509 Wines poured a Viognier - my second favorite wine - a Cabernet and a Syrah

Coffee, Community and Health

An article reviewing the health benefits and risks of coffee by Melinda Beck in yesterday's Wall Street Journal includes a number of studies that have yielded conflicting results on the effects of coffee. Coffee consumption of varying levels has been correlated with significant differences in the likelihood of being diagnosed with diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's and cancers of various kinds, as well as other health conditions such as cholesterol level, hypertension and pregnancy. In some cases, coffee consumption is associated with increased health benefits, in others, it is associated with increased health risks.


The well-balanced article enumerates a number of confounding factors in assessing the health impacts of a cup of coffee: the general challenges of self-reported data, the range of cup sizes (6 to 32 ounces), differences in caffeine levels (75 to 300 milligrams), and the variety of "extras" such as sugar, flavored syrup and whipped cream. It also notes a number of potential hidden factors such as employment, access to health care, exercise and nutrition (several of which have interdependencies). However, having recently written about conversation and community at Starbucks and other coffeehouses, I think that an important hidden health factor omitted from the article is the community context in which coffee is sometimes consumed.

Coffeehouses and other third places have traditionally provided physical spaces where "unrelated people relate". While people are likely to consume coffee in such places, they may also be more likely to engage in conversations with a more diverse array of people with whom they share weak social ties. Although I didn't highlight health effects in my review of Consequential Strangers, the book references a number of studies that demonstrate the health benefits of the diverse social relationships that can be created and maintained in such community-oriented places, such as fewer colds, less depression and anxiety, longer lives, better mental and physical health, and greater likelihood of surviving heart attacks and cancer.

I'm reminded of a 2000 survey by the National Institutes of Health reviewing studies on the health risks and benefits of alcohol consumption, which also included some conflicting results. Aside from people with pre-existing health conditions that are negatively impacted by alcohol, moderate consumption habits - 1 to 2 drinks (with an equivalent of 15 grams of pure alcohol) per day - were more strongly correlated with better health outcomes than either heavy consumption or abstention.


The studies investigating the health effects of alcohol consumption are impacted by some of the same confounding factors as those investigating the health effects of coffee consumption, e.g., reliance on self-reported data and an incomplete accounting of potential hidden factors. Given that pubs, taverns and neighborhood bars are included in the array of prototypical third places - where the health benefits of diverse social relationships would also apply - I suspect that the context of alcohol consumption represents an important, and largely hidden, factor in its health effects.

It would be interesting to conduct studies that would explicitly take into account the community aspects of coffee and/or alcohol consumption, and the resulting variation in health effects. For example, are "grab and go" coffee drinkers more or less likely to enjoy the health benefits associated with coffee than "stay and sip" drinkers? Are pub regulars - with the Cheers cast as extreme exemplars - more or less likely to enjoy the health benefits associated with alcohol than people drinking at home alone? I don't imagine that many people have started - or will start - drinking coffee or alcohol primarily for the reported health benefits, but with the growing health consciousness in American society, demonstrating the health benefits of frequenting third places could affect where people drink coffee and/or alcohol.

Coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks

EverythingButTheCoffee Given my long-standing interest in the social and community aspects of coffeehouse culture, I was intrigued by a number of articles about Byant Simon's book, "Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks", that turned up during web searches and in some of the links in the tweetstream of @CoffeeShopChat. Over the last several years, Simon has spent 10-15 hours per week visiting 425 Starbucks stores in 9 countries. The book offers a far-ranging critique, exploring the topics of coffee, conversation, community and culture, as well as consumerism, corporatism and conservation in the context of a large coffee chain. Simon is concerned about what he sees as the loss of civic society, and alternately depicts Starbucks as a cause and an effect of this trend.

I share Simon's goal of cultivating community and civic engagement, and his belief in the potential of coffeehouses to promote this goal. However, having spent a great deal of time over the past two years visiting over 200 independent coffeehouses in the Seattle area, I also believe that his image of non-chain coffeehouses may be overly romanticized. While Simon raises a number of important issues, his writing sometimes seems colored by a negative bias that may reflect the disillusionment of a former Starbucks fan, and perhaps a broader disillusionment about America. Rather than attempt a full review of the book here, I will restrict my focus to its contribution to the conversation about coffeehouse culture and community, while incorporating related sources that I hope will further contribute to the discussion.

One of the first articles I encountered about the book was an Associated Press interview with Simon, "Book asserts Starbucks' store designs squelch interaction", in which he argues that a "sense of community" is missing from Starbucks, and claims that "People want these [spontaneous] conversations, people want to feel connected". While I agree with Simon (and Abraham Maslow) that people generally want to feel connected, and that spontaneous conversations can add spice to life, the research that I and my colleagues have conducted suggests that people's openness to serendipitous encounters with potentially consequential strangers in coffeehouses is highly variable. People can be very sociable with the friends they arrive with or the business associates they meet with in coffeehouses, but most people in most coffeehouses generally prefer to abide by the implicit social contract of familiar strangers, maintaining civil inattention or perhaps indulging in nodding acquaintanceships. However, our research also suggests that people are generally interested in the people around them, and while we may not initiate direct conversations with others, we often enjoy a peripheral awareness of the interests and activities of our cohorts, gleaned from observing book covers, overhearing conversations or seeing other displays of people's unique and shared affinities.

In a response to this article, "Reflection on Starbucks in the U.S.: lack of cafe culture and the role of WiFi", Esme Vos offers an international perspective. She observes that European cafes usually serve alcohol, which may help liven or loosen things up, and notes that Europeans tend to go to cafes to meet friends or people watch (but does not say anything about spontaneous conversations). She also asserts that Starbucks is not to blame for what she calls the "zombie cafe" culture in the U.S.:

There is no cafe culture in the United States. Americans are all about speed and efficiency. “Time is money” is the motto of this country. Nothing bad about that, but it does not give rise to a cafe culture where people linger for hours discussing Kierkegaard.

In another reaction to the AP article, specifically responding to Simon's argument that "Starbucks, a private corporation, has enriched itself in part by taking advantage of Americans’ impoverished civic life", educator David Warlick shares his 2 cents on the question "Is Starbucks Killing Community?":

I think that’s a little overboard.  I told Brenda that there are slow times when many of the people at the Starbucks I write at are sitting alone at tables, tapping at their laptops.  But that’s the exception.  Most of the time the room is loud with conversation, and, from time to time, I find myself drawn into discussions with others about a variety of issues.

ChacoCanyon The types of coffeehouse customers that Warlick describes - isolated laptop users vs. loud conversationalists - is fleshed out in a study by sociologists Keith Hampton and Neeti Gupta on Community and social interaction in the wireless city: wi-fi use in public and semi-public spaces. As I mentioned in my last post on coffee, conversation and continuing education at Zoka (a local coffee micro-chain), their report differentiates two predominant coffeehouse practices. True mobiles go to coffee shops primarily to get work done - typically via laptop and/or mobile phone - whereas placemakers desire and often initiate conversations with others (although these conversations are "as often with coffee shop employees as with customers"). The study looked at Starbucks stores and independent coffeehouses in two cities, Boston and Seattle (in which the independent coffeehouse studied was Chaco Canyon Cafe, shown above left), and found that while both practices can be found in both types of places, more true mobiles were found in the two Starbucks stores and more placemakers were found in the two independent coffee houses

Simon talks about engaging in both practices at various Starbucks stores at various times himself. When he wants to be "alone in public" (or practice what he quotes Steven Levy as calling "portable cocooning", or what Hampton and Gupta might call "public privatism"), he creates his "own virtual gated community" via his laptop, cell phone and iPod. It's worth nothing here that another study by Hampton and his students, The Social Life of Wireless Urban Spaces: Internet Use, Social Networks, and the Public Realm, suggests that the iPod is probably the most effective tool in achieving this goal. In their exploration of the use and effects of various mobile technologies in public spaces, they observed instances of wi-fi laptop users, book readers, PDA and portable gaming device users and mobile phone users interacting with strangers, but "no one using a portable music device was observed interacting with a stranger".

Simon's observations of other Starbucks customers suggests that he is not alone in his aloneness. In his visits to Starbucks, he observed 65% of the tables had single occupants. However, solitary visits are not restricted to Starbucks stores: in a study we conducted last year at another independent coffeehouse in Seattle (Measuring the Impact of Third Place Attachment on the Adoption of a Place-Based Community Technology), we observed that 62% of customers were alone. As others have noted, aloneness is not loneliness, and while loneliness can be harmful to one's health, aloneness is not always - or even often - a bad thing: Chris Pluger extolled the virtues and benefits of two hours of joint solitude in a coffeehouse in a marvelous 2005 essay.

And, just to round things out, aloneness abetted by technology does not equate to isolation. Hampton and his students recently published a report on Social Isolation and New Technology, in which they note that many aspects of technology use are inversely correlated with social isolation. For example, people who use mobile phones, online photo sharing services and instant messaging tools actually have larger core discussion networks - the significant people with whom we discuss important matters - than those who do not, and bloggers have more racially diverse discussion networks than non-bloggers. However, use of online social networking services such as Facebook does appear to substitute for – rather than supplement – some level of local involvement in the physical world.

In any case, I don't believe Simon believes solitary visits to coffeehouses are a bad thing. However, taken to an extreme, he is concerned that the pervasive solitariness that persists within coffeehouses detracts from the benefits traditionally offered by coffeehouses: "connections, conversations, debate, and, ultimately, the ongoing and elusive desire for community and belonging in the world". Simon notes that Howard Schultz, Starbucks' CEO, has expressed a similar sentiment, seeking to recreate "a sense of community, by bringing people together and recognizing the importance of place in people's lives", although I should note that Simon expresses cynicism about this (and many of Schultz' pronouncements).

TheGrandLiteraryCafesOfEurope Others have also recently commented on the disappearance of coffeehouse traditions. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Coffeehouses: Bringing the Buzz Back, Michael Idov talks about some of the European coffeehouses I first read about in The Grand Literary Cafes of Europe, warning that Americans are "losing the coffeehouse ... to our own politeness". Idov claims that while coffeehouses were once "hotbed[s] of a proudly rootless culture", "seminaries of sedition" with traditions of "intellectual sparring", they have now become elitist bastions of "balkanization". While these coffeehouses may have promoted civic engagement, it appears that they were not well known for civil engagement. Interestingly, Idov argues that this trend toward balkanization is more exacerbated in the third wave (independent) coffeehouses, which he labels as "austere obsessives", observing that "[w]ith the exception of the ubiquitous Starbucks, where slumming and aspiration meet, we use our coffeehouses to separate ourselves into tribes". And Idov should know, given his own "nightmarish" experience as an independent coffeehouse owner, wherein his dream of hosting a "perpetual dinner party" was soon dashed by the economic, psychic and emotional costs of opening and operating a shop in New York's Lower East Side.

In a related article on Coffee House Culture, Robert Bain elaborates on an episode of the BBC radio series, The Eureka Years, on Coffee, Cosmology and Civil War, an historical account of coffeehouse traditions circa 1650, which suggests that the balkanization that Idov decries may not be a recent, nor exclusively American, invention:

Coffee houses became the respectable alternative to taverns, serving a drink that sharpened rather than dulled the senses and fuelled conversation about arts, science, politics and business. Lloyds’ insurance market, the Stock Exchange and Newton’s theory of gravitation all have their origins in the coffee house.

Tom Standage, business editor of The Economist by day and an expert in the history of coffee by night, draws parallels between coffee house culture and the internet: “Coffee houses tended to have subject-specific alignments, so if you were the clergyman you would go to this one, and if you were an actor you went to that one and if you were a sailor you went to that one, and so forth. They were a bit like websites, and you’d sort of go to the ones that matched your interests…

Oldenburg-GreatGoodPlace Ray Oldenburg has also researched the history of coffeehouse culture, extending it to other types of hangouts in his classic book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. In this book, which is largely responsible for the popularization of [the notion of] the third place, Oldenburg praises the virtues of these "homes away from home" where "unrelated people relate" and "conversation is the main activity", offering spaces wherein "the full spectrum of local humanity" can engage in "inclusive sociability" and practice an "ease of association" that is rarely found elsewhere. Oldenburg argues that such places offer individual benefits - novelty, broadening of perspective and "spiritual tonic" - as well as community benefits - fostering the development of civil society, democracy and civic engagement.

Simon frequently invokes Oldenburg and his ideal of the third place, and notes - with some cynicism - that Howard Schultz does, too. Simon also draws upon a related idea, Elijah Anderson's notion of a "cosmopolitan canopy":

sites where different kinds of people gather and feel safe enough to let down their guard and open themselves up to new music, new food, new experiences, new ideas and even new people.

Simon describes a Starbucks on Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, that had "that third place feel", and includes other accounts of Starbucks experiences that present what seems like the ideal picture of a third place. For example, he references a 2003 column written by Sandra Thompson in the St. Petersburg Times, "Bringing Us Together, One Latte at a Time", in which she highlights the distinct culture and community - or, perhaps, "subject-specific alignments" - of several different Starbucks in her city:

Once an urban dream in Tampa, Starbucks, the ultimate deliverer of caffeine, has cropped up all over the city. There are now 20 Starbucks in greater Tampa, and while the logo is the same for all, each has its own identity.

At the Starbucks on S Howard Street, you see the city's fashionistas, sitting outside under the oak tree at the edge of the parking lot, feeling good that they're hip and they're here. At the Starbucks near the University of South Florida, young people are hunched over laptops or textbooks, one duo discussing the merits of the carrot cake. At the Starbucks on S West Shore and Kennedy boulevards, well-dressed people with French accents drift in from the Wyndham Westshore Hotel across the street. At West Park Village, mommies and daddies pick up a latte before walking the kids down the block for ice cream.

However, as much as Simon promotes the idea of people who don't already know each other talking to each other and exchanging the ideas, by his own admission, he doesn't practice it much himself. Despite his extensive visits to many Starbucks stores (425), he notes that "on only a dozen or so occasions did I speak to someone I didn't already know", and that he sometimes found that "I didn't know what to say or how to raise questions ... with people I didn't know". And yet, on the same page, he complains that "I have been to plenty of Starbucks without much talk", though on the next page he admits "maybe I should have tried harder".

GoodSheet-008-20081030 I can relate to this challenge myself, and despite my general desire for greater connection and belonging - at coffeehouses and elsewhere - I often don't want to (or am unwilling to) take the time or assume the risk of initiating conversations with people I don't know. And we are not alone. One of the most popular ideas at MyStarbucksIdea - a web site where Starbucks customers can submit, comment and vote on ideas created shortly after Howard Schultz returned as CEO - was "Great Conversations at Starbucks", with 95120 points and 1030 comments. The ideator echoed many of the sentiments expressed by Simon, i.e., wanting to create "a sense of conversation and community" about "the arts, world events and culture" and moving toward a European-style "21st century 'cafe society'" at Starbucks stores. Starbucks responded by offering free copies of The Good Sheet - short, weekly, folded newsheets devoted to social, environmental, economic and political issues intended to spark conversations in the stores (number 008, from October 30, 2008, is shown left) - in its stores, and by sponsoring The Alcove, with Mark Molaro, an online long-format interview program, and offering free access to episodes on its stores' WiFi splash pages.

[Update, 20-Jan-2010: StarbucksMelody has posted a detailed, visually annotated history of the GOOD sheets on her blog; from comments on her blog post and on a post on the official Starbucks blog asking what kind of great conversations people were having, it appears that many people liked GOOD sheets, but there is only one reference to a conversation being sparked by one ... and that was between coworkers, not customers.]

IMG_0117_2 The desire to help break the ice, spark conversation and cultivate community was also the motivation behind CoCollage, the system we developed at Strands Labs Seattle and deployed at 24 coffeehouses and other "great, good places" around Seattle. CoCollage uses a large display to show a dynamic collage of photos and quotes uploaded to a special web site by the customers and staff in that place. I don't know how successful The Good Sheet or The Alcove have been in fostering more conversation and community at Starbucks, but I do know we had some success on those dimensions with CoCollage. In our followup study, "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software", we found that 81% of customers reported that CoCollage "increased interactions" in the coffeehouse and 95% reported that the system "increased the sense of community" there.

An important source of inspiration for CoCollage was the participatory culture of art we discovered at our pilot site, ranging from the framed art on the walls to the more spontaneous art we found in the sketchbooks around the coffeehouse. In his book, Simon contrasts the abstract art, jazz music and "whiff of danger" that speak "the language of freedom and individualism" he associates with independent coffeehouse culture to the "exclusive and controlled environment" he associates with Starbucks stores. While I have observed a broader diversity of art and music in many of the independent coffeehouses I've worked with, most of them are considerably more careful about curating their coffeehouse environments than Simon appears to imagine.

One independent coffeehouse owner with a considerable community customer base told me last fall that he would not allow any kind of political posters or ads; even though he estimated that Barack Obama was the U.S. presidential candidate preferred by about 95% of his customers, he saw no reason to risk alienating the other 5% (bringing to mind earlier themes of politeness and balkanization). The owner of another independent coffeehouse, which also enjoys a strong community connection, imposes very strict standards about the art on its walls and the items allowed on its bulletin boards. Elizabeth Churchill and Les Nelson also found significant levels of curatorial constraints in their conversations with owners of an independent art gallery / cafe in which they had deployed their eyeCanvas digital bulletin board.

Bulletin Board @ 15th Ave Coffee & Tea I always notice - and often take photos of - bulletin boards in coffeehouses, as I think they offer interesting windows into the communities. Simon criticizes the Starbucks policy on bulletin boards, referring to a "Dos/Don'ts of Community Boards" document from the late 1990s (some of which is reflected in a Starbucks Gossip thread on bulletin boards about a year ago). Recently, I've noticed more variety in the items I've seen posted on Starbucks bulletin boards and elsewhere in its traditional stores. And the bulletin boards in its two new un-branded stores in Seattle - 15th Ave Coffee & Tea and Roy Street Coffee & Tea - are indistinguishable from many I have seen at independent coffeehouses (an example from 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea is shown left). These "street level" stores are widely viewed as an attempt by Starbucks to recapture some of its mojo. They are intended to be more individualized (both have their own distinct web sites, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts) and better integrated with their local communities, offering poetry readings, musical performances and art, photography and video exhibitions. More importantly, these stores are designed to renew Starbucks commitment to "premium quality, passionate partners and a rich customer experience".

OpeningDayBusynessSimon has written a short blog post expressing cynicism about 15th Ave Coffee & Tea, focusing on its name (which, he notes, is not "Starbucks"), and describing it as "another attempt to consume genuine desire with carefully crafted artifice". Alex Negranza, one of the most passionate people I know in the local independent coffee community, posted an extensive review with a more balanced perspective, noting some positive developments in the quality of coffee at 15th Ave Coffee & Tea (a photo from which is shown right). Although Alex focuses primarily on the coffee at the new store, he also talks about enjoying "interesting conversations" with "extremely friendly" baristas who are "passionate about their involvement in coffee".

[Update, 2009-12-03: Alex has posted a review of Roy Street Coffee & Tea, which also focuses primarily on the coffee, but also talks about the "refreshing transparency", "sense of eagerness" and "refreshing outlook" among the "friendly and eclectic" baristas there.]

Passion is the key to the cultivation of animated conversation, engaged community and vibrant culture, whether in a coffeehouse or any other environment (online or offline). Several years ago, after reading the book, Pour Your Heart Into It, I wrote about Howard Schultz' promotion of passion, perseverance and partnership, and while I have read some cynical comments by disillusioned partners and former partners on the Starbucks Gossip blog, there are clearly a number of partners who persevere in their passion for Starbucks and its customers. A recent post there by a former Starbucks Manager - who has offered pseudonymous critiques of 46 Starbucks stores - about a legendary Starbucks experience offers an inspiring example of contagious passion at a Starbucks in Lynnwood, WA

Chris, a male barista who appeared to be everywhere at once ... was nothing short of amazing – while rocking the bar, he was tossing out well wishes to customers who were on their way out of the building. He joked with folks waiting for drinks. He interacted wonderfully with his fellow partners. It was like there was an aura of energy around him that touched anyone who came near. This is not to say the other partners weren't doing their's just that Chris noticeably stood out and the result was pretty damn cool to experience.

This story about Chris reflects elements of the Coffee House Man that Antony Wild writes about - and Simon alludes to - in his book, Coffee: A Dark History, and the plaza mayors that William Whyte describes in his classic book, "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces". Other names and descriptions for this kind of conversational catalyst can be found in a blog post on "Here Comes Everybody - Tummlers, Geishas, Animateurs and Chief Conversation Officers help us listen", in which Kevin Marks notes that 

The key .. is finding people who play the role of conversational catalyst within a group, to welcome newcomers, rein in old hands and set the tone of the conversation so that it can become a community ... The communities that fail, whether dying out from apathy or being overwhelmed by noise, are the ones that don't have someone there cherishing the conversation, setting the tone, creating a space to speak, and rapidly segregating those intent on damage.

Independent coffeehouses often have brilliant conversational catalysts, of course, and I have had the pleasure of enjoying regular exchanges with many of them; my point here is that Starbucks has them too. Simon questions the authenticity of any exchanges between Starbucks baristas and customers, referring to them as "corporate-generated recognition and banter", but I've read enough comments on different posts on Starbucks Gossip and other blogs that lead me to believe that many Starbucks partners genuinely enjoy interactions with their customers ... or, at least, most of their customers. No one likes to deal with angry, bitter customers (not to mention all the RUDE customers described on a Facebook discussion thread).

And speaking of anger and bitterness, this may be the area where I most sharply disagree with Simon. Simon talks in glowing terms about "heated exchanges", "noisy political debate" and "shocking, in-your-face art" while disparaging "respectful conversation", "familiarity" and "predictability". And he is as disparaging of National Public Radio as he is of Starbucks, accusing both as offering "smooth sailing for the less adventurous, those who want discovery but want it close by, clean, and not too far outside the mainstream". 

I believe there is room for - and value in - both the mainstream and the outliers. I enjoy vigorous debate, but vastly prefer the more respectful form of conversation curated on NPR (and PBS shows such as the Lehrer Newshour) to the kind of angry, bitter attacks I occasionally catch glimpses of on Fox News. With all due respect, I don't believe that civil engagement precludes civic engagement, or that politeness precludes passion. I also enjoy familiarity and predictability, and while I believe it is good to regularly stretch out of one's comfort zone(s), it is also good to have places - online and offline - where one can savor periods of relative comfort as well. Thus I, for one, am glad that there exists a range of third places that span the spectrum.

Coffee, conversation and continuing education at Kirkland Zoka

Kirkland Zoka I've met with good friends at Kirkland Zoka the past two mornings, enjoying great coffee, stimulating conversations of considerable breadth and depth, and a continuing education about a range of topics, including social media, Foucault and social dialogue, the challenges of living without a goal (or, at least, living without attachments) ... and the finer points of fine coffee.

Friday morning, I met with Jason Simon, a connoisseur and cultivator of caffeinated conversations, to talk about the ways that coffeehouses are using social media (e.g., Jason has been tracking how coffeehouses are using Twitter, the resurgence of controversy about WiFi use in coffeehouses and a collection of photos of conversations at coffeehouses), as well as the ways that social media is affecting - or might affect - conversations in coffeehouses (which was one of the design goals behind CoCollage).

Four-cone pour-over station Upon my arrival at Zoka, I was happy to reconnect with Matt, one of the baristas who had been working at Trabant when we initiated our collaboration on the initial deployment of CoCollage (and who has one of the coolest pair of forearm tattoos I've ever encountered). After telling Matt that I was interested in trying something with full body - subtlety is nearly always lost on me, and I need big, bold flavors in anything I drink to really have [positive] impact - he suggested the Kenya Kirimara, and I followed his recommendation, enjoying a great cup via their ceramic Melitta "pour-over" system (pictured left).

A stacked pair of ambient displays @ Kirkland Zoka While I was waiting for the coffee to be prepared, I became intrigued with the pair of 37 inch LCD displays showing dynamic patterns and sequences of Zoka-related photos on the southeastern wall of the coffeehouse. The upper display shows a scrolling collage of photos while the lower display shows a single photo at a time. As far as I can tell, all the photos are of, about or by Zoka, its owners and staff, the coffee they serve there and the places / plantations from which the coffee is sourced.

Although I was mostly engaged in the conversation(s) with Jason while I was there, my long association with CoCollage led me to occasionally monitor the level of attention and engagement the displays were attracting. It seemed to me that they were less engaging than the CoCollage displays - which also show a collage of photos (but the photos are contributed by customers, not just owners / staff, and their selection is influenced by who is in the coffeehouse at any given time) - but of course I'm [still] biased. I suspect part of the difference - in addition to who is contributing photos and whether / when they are shown - is due to the size and placement of the displays. The 37" LCDs (vs. 50" plasma displays used for CoCollage), coupled with the position in a corner of the coffeehouse some distance away from where most people sit, makes them somewhat less noticeable than most of the CoCollage installations. Interestingly, I had talked with the manager of the Greenlake Zoka (or "Original Zoka") and University Zoka about a CoCollage installation, but there was no interest in having any kind of display in those two coffeehouses. A recent post on the Zoka blog - Zoka Getting "With It" - which mentions the Zoka Facebook page and Twitter account (@zokacoffee) - suggests that they may be becoming more engaged in / through social media ... at least online.

Kirkland Zoka This morning, I returned to Kirkland Zoka to meet another friend, Mike Buckley, founder of Inventcor, which produces, among other things, a water tracker bottle (for monitoring daily personal hydration), to talk about personal, professional and philosophical issues not as closely related to coffeehouses, per se. The coffee house was much more crowded this morning (a Saturday) than yesterday morning, and I noticed that the community table had a much larger pool of people gathered around it today. The sun was shining for much of our time there, and the large, open windows, light colors and strategically positioned mirrors helped accentuate the delightful, but increasingly rare, absence of clouds today (though, alas, it did cloud over after a while).

After a post-coffee walk along the lakeside with Mike, I realized I was still undercaffeinated, and so after he left, I went back into Zoka for a second cup. Having recently started reading Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks, by Bryant Simon (no relation to Jason) - in which the author complains, among other things, about how customers at Starbucks stores tend to either keep to themselves, talk only with people they come in with, or talk with people they go there to meet, I was eager to spend some time there observing conversations (rather than participating in them). Although there seemed to be a few examples of spontaneous / serendipitous conversations among people waiting in line - perhaps due to the relatively inefficient layout of the counter (order on the left, pay on the right, go back to the left to pick up your drink, with the food display case in the middle) - I can't say I saw any more such conversations taking place at Zoka than I've seen (or Bryant Simon reports seeing) at Starbucks ... and despite Simon's critiques, I've had some pretty amazing coffee and conversation experiences at Starbucks.

Keith Hampton and Neeti Gupta, in their fascinating study of Community and social interaction in the wireless city: wi-fi use in public and semi-public spaces, distinguish between true mobiles - who do not want to interact with others in the coffee shop (other than people they arrive with or meet there), and [so] often use laptops as "portable interaction shields" and/or mobile phones as "legitimate momentary diversions" -  and placemakers -  coffee shop customers who desire and seek out serendipitous social interactions. Hampton and Gupta studied both independent coffee houses and Starbucks coffee houses in two cities - Seattle and Boston - and did not report any significant differences between the types or numbers of conversations - or the relative proportions of true mobiles and placemakers - at either kind of place [Correction: they did note more true mobiles at Starbucks and more placemakers at independent coffee houses]. I plan to post another entry about the Bryant Simon book - and the Hampton & Gupta paper - once I'm done with the book ... and, perhaps, conducted a few more first-hand observations of Starbucks and third wave coffeehouses like Zoka.

Meanwhile, returning to first-hand experiences of coffee and conversations, in addition to observing conversations at Zoka, I was also eager to expand my coffee horizons. I asked Conner, another barista there (who also looks familiar ... perhaps he also worked at Trabant), for a recommendation of another full-bodied coffee to try. He told me they had Ethiopian Sidamo, and asked me if I wanted some of the old batch or some of the more recently roasted batch. I asked him which was bigger and bolder, and he said the older one probably had an edge in that regard, so that's what I ordered.

Ethiopia Sidamo, old (natural) and new (washed) As it turned out, although my plan was to only observe conversations, I become a participant in yet another engaging discussion. Conner went on break shortly after serving up my coffee, and sat down next to me for a bite to eat ... and didn't get as much of a break as he'd probably anticipated. I asked him what the difference was between the old and new batches of Ethiopian Sidamo. He explained that the older batch was "natural", i.e., after picking the coffee cherries, the cherries are laid out to dry before extracting the beans from their casing. This allows more of the fruit of the cherries to be imparted (infused?) into the beans, and increases the acidity. The newer batch was "washed", i.e., the beans are removed from the cherries - and washed - soon after picking, before they are allowed to dry. [I've since found a blog post with information about "washed" and "natural" Ethiopia Sidamo.] Conner asked me if I could taste any blueberry in the cup I was drinking, and I had to admit that I could ... continuing an educational process that started with a Clover tasting at Trabant over a year ago. There was only a handful of beans left from that batch, and he kindly put them in a bag for me to take home with me (see photo to the right). I now wish I'd asked for a cup of the new batch, to try them side-by-side, but then I probably would have been overcaffeinated.

Perhaps I'll go back soon to pick up a bag of the newer batch ... in any case, I'll definitely be going back there, as Kirkland Zoka is my new favorite independent (or, perhaps more accurately, micro-chain) coffee house on the Eastside.

A Cloveristic Tasting at Trabant Coffee

The coffee tasting class at TrabantI attended my first coffee tasting yesterday, at Trabant Coffee & Chai (the U-District shop). Alexa, one of the baristas at Trabant (at the far left in the photo to the left), led six of us through the multi-sensory educational experience involving words, photos, charts and five different coffees freshly brewed on their Clover machine.

I've attended numerous wine tastings over the years (including the recent, Zinfantastic Zinfandel Festival in San Francisco), and feel like I have a acquired a moderate amount of knowledge about wines, and although I've been drinking coffee longer than I've been drinking wine, I feel like a neophyte with respect to coffee appreciation. The coffee yesterday tasting marks my first steps toward better appreciating some of the finer points of this beverage.

CoffeeTastersFlavorWheel Alexa told us that coffees are typically differentiated based on three primary sets of features: acidity, body and finish (all of which are used in distinguishing wine, as well). There are a number of aromas and flavors that are considered "bad", and a number that are considered "good". She passed around a Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, produced by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), that showed a large number of smell and tastes that coffee aficionados look for. Nearly all of them are well beyond my current skills in discrimination, but it was interesting to see them laid out in this format (and I found myself wondering if a similar "wheel" exists for wine).

The current offerings that we tasted were the following (the "notes" are copied from the placard posted next to the Clover - I certainly could not have come up with these descriptors myself):

  • El Salvador Retiro Estate: Balanced notes of strong chocolate and soft lemony acidity. Finishes with amaretto and apricot.
  • Papua New Guinea Kunjun Estate: Strawberry-rhubarb and smoky cedar. Smooth medium body and rich on the finish.
  • Colombia La Planeda Micro-lot: Flavors of jasmine and orange peel. Smooth mouthfeel rounded out by a juicy acidity.
  • Ethiopian Yergacheffe Konga Co-Op (organic): Classic profile of chocolate and citrus paired with an aroma of raspberry lemonade. Creamy and heavy body.
  • Kenya: A strong structured coffee with floral fragrance and tea like qualities. Bright lemon acidity, sweet nectarine and a long fruity finish complete this full-bodied Kenyan.

My favorite of the bunch was the Kenyan, although I think I was in the minority. "Full-bodied" is descriptor that has positive associations for me in everything I drink (coffee, wine, beer, scotch), as is "long finish". Subtlety is lost on me - in nearly every dimension of sensory experience - and so I typically need something that really fills my mouth with powerful flavors to enjoy the experience. I also tend to prefer tannic wines and bitter beers, and so don't typically enjoy milder, smoother flavors. Several of the other coffees were lighter in body, and they seemed to be better appreciated by several of the other participants in the tasting (one of whom has a fabulous web site devoted to coffee appreciation), who detected and shared various "notes" that entirely escaped my notice.

Among the other things I learned at the tasting (and in discussions with other baristas at Trabant this morning) were:

  • Coffee beans grow on plants (that sometimes look like trees), and are, essentially, the seeds inside of berries of those plants.
  • The beans have to be dried after harvest, ideally to a humidity level of 12%; they are laid out on drying patios (reminding me of the process by which the grapes for my favorite wine, Amarone, are prepared for fermentation), and typically tested by a coffee farmer biting into a bean to assess its humidity.
  • The beans are extremely porous, and easily absorb all kinds of external substances; this is part of what gives each coffee variety its unique flavor (e.g., the soil and climate conditions where the plant grows), but is always why great care has to be exercised in handling the beans after they are harvested.
  • There are many different varietals of coffee plants, as there are for grapes used in wine; a great deal of experimentation is going on in coffee growing regions to determine which varietals grow best in which places (sometimes extending to the level of a very small section of a plantation).
  • The Clover machine enables baristas to experiment with the dose (grams of coffee), the water temperature and the steeping time; minor fluctuations in any of the above can have a significant impact on the resulting coffee flavors and aromas. It would be fun to try a tasting where a single coffee was the basis for a series of separate brews that demonstrate the impact each of these.

I discovered an article on the Clover in the current issue of Wired - The Coffee Fix: Can the $11,000 Clover Machine Save Starbucks? - that has additional information about the history, design and future prospects for this machine. It mentions some of the new coffees that are brewed in Clover machines, including Los Delirios, a micro-lot that is located at "13° 22'45.99"N x 86° 28'50.45"W, between 1,050 and 1,450 meters above sea level", and Kopi Luwak, "an Indonesian bean that's eaten by a civet cat, then 'harvested' from the animal's dung" ... and which sells for $100 / cup - or $600 / pound (!).

Coming back to Trabant this morning, I bought a 12 oz. bag of the Kenyan (for a mere $14.95) and will do a little experimentation of my own over the weekend - for example, seeing how this tastes (and smells) when brewed on my $80 Cuisinart DCC-1200 drip coffeemaker at home, vs. the $11,000 Clover machine at Trabant.

[Update, 2008-08-29: Tatiana Becker, co-owner of Trabant, shares some of her views on Starbucks' use of the Clover in a Seattle Times article, Starbucks Launches New Coffees for Clover Machines:

She said she doubts the small-batch Clover coffees, which Starbucks will sell for $2 to $4 a cup, will be feasible on a large scale for the chain.]

I've been Schmapped!


Or rather, one of my Flickr photos - of the large photoboard at the Hopvine Pub on Capitol Hill in Seattle - has been schmapped. Schmap appears to be a not-so-new (founded 2004) travel guide mashup that combines information on points of interest (from Wcities, an online travel information aggregator), e.g., restaurant reviews, with photos of the those places (from Flickr), and a map (from Google, Yahoo! or Microsoft). [My Flickr photo was included with my explicit permission.] Another friend had a Flickr photo that was selected for use in the Schmap review of Place Pigalle (an example of Flickr helping to make the world seem smaller and more connected).

I'm including what I hope will show up as a schmaplet below - Hopvine should roll around in the autoplay sequence (#22 of 32). I'm not sure whether the code was intended to be embedded in the body of a blog post (vs. a widget along the side), and it seems to give TypePad's editor problems ... I hope it doesn't break anyone's browser.

Although I have a number of photos of restaurants and other points of interest on Flickr, I've decided that I'm going to use my public Twango account to represent my self as a "foodie" - uploading old photos from food experiences there, so as to not disrupt the time-sequential nature of my Flickr account, which is more of a general historical record of where I've been and what I've done. Perhaps one of those photos will be candidates for future schmapping.

This co-promotional marketing dimension leads me to wonder whether Schmap's inclusion of user-generated content will help differentiate it from other online travel services. I know that my ability to upload photos to accompany restaurant reviews I write on Yelp is a definite appeal of that Web 2.0 service. On Yelp, though, I get to directly post reviews and photos ... Schmap intermediates this process - someone else writes the reviews, and Schmap appears to select photos rather than enable indiscriminate posting of photos (not that my photos are ever indiscriminate, of course). This will increase the signal-to-noise ratio, but at the potential cost of reduced engagement with the users generating the content ... reminding me of my dilemma regarding the use of Yelp vs. TripAdvisor in sharing some of my experiences during our recent family vacation along the Oregon Coast. Of course, maybe co-promotion was never Schmap's intention, anyway ... another example of my increasing symptoms of apophenia (the condition - "the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data" - not danah's blog ... which I don't read nearly often enough).

Continuous Improvement of our Thanksgiving Meal

We were searching around for our turkey recipe and then I remembered I'd blogged about brining and grilling a turkey last year, so I just went online to follow the instructions there (or perhaps I should say "here"). The post reminded me not only of the recipe, but of my pledge to not overcook the turkey "next time" ... and that Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a good accompaniment to the meal (my cousin-in-law, Richard Gagnon, wine manager at Brattleboro Food Co-op, first introduced me to this unusual pairing).



Among the variations this year:

  • My mother and father-in-law stepfather are visiting (last year, Amy's aunt, cousin, cousin-in-law and their daughter were visiting ... and I forgot to take a picture of the people (!)).
  • We bought a heritage turkey (just under 14 pounds) from our local PCC Natural Market.
  • I checked the bird 15 minutes before it is supposed to be done (it was done at exactly the right time - 2 hours, 40 minutes, at 350 degrees - and was not overcooked, I'm glad to say).
  • A newly discovered bacon Parmeson Brussels Sprouts recipe was a big hit with everyone.
  • The mashed sweet potatoes were also tasty.
  • The 1998 Domaine de Villeneuve Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Ville Vignes" (which we enjoyed last year) and the 2000 Domaine de la Janasse Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Chaupin" were outstanding; the Janasse had more fruit, body and depth, and [so] I preferred that one. Both are predominantly based on the Grenache grape, and so I may experiment with some single varietal Grenache next year, and perhaps a bit of Cinsault (Chateau Ste. Michelle offered their first single varietal bottlings of each grape this past year, and both sold out very quickly to Wine Club members).


On a separate but related note, an email exchange earlier in the day with Dan, who had posted a comment on last year's blog entry about his own firey experience with flaming grilling a turkey, assured me that he would be practicing safe[r] cooking this year.

Brining and Grilling a Turkey

We brined and grilled a turkey for Thanksgiving again this year.  We did it once a few years ago, and I forgot nearly everything we did, so this year, I decided to bookmark a few online resources and snap a few photos to help me remember how to do this more easily in the future.



We picked up a 15 pound Heidi's Hen Certified Organic Range Grown Turkey from our local Whole Foods on Tuesday. Wednesday evening, we prepared a turkey brine mixture based on How to Brine a Turkey (, removed the innards from the turkey, rinsed it thoroughly with cold water, placed it sideways in our Coleman Personal 16 quart cooler (which we lined with a plastic garbage bag), and poured the brine over the turkey, adding about a dozen ice cubes on top before closing the lid. I was a bit concerned about the resident coyotes, but decided the handle lock for the lid would be strong enough, and so left the cooler outside on the deck overnight.



Thursday, I fired up the two outer burners of our Weber Genesis Silver B gas grill, pulled the turkey out of the brine, and let it drain on a rack in the sink for a bit while the grill heated up (I decided not to rinse it or pat it dry, although several sets of instructions I found recommended doing both). I pinned the wings to the main bird, so as to prevent them hanging out directly over the active burners, placed the turkey and rack in a roasting pan, added about a cup of water, and placed the whole rig in the center of the grill, which left just enough room to close the lid of the grill while cooking.

I loosely followed instructions I found for Grilling Your Bird on the Barbeque (, calculating the cooking time as 3 hours (12 minutes x 15 pounds), and maintaining a near-constant grill temperature of 350 degrees. However, since I was using a roasting pan, I decided would only turn the bird once (at the 90-minute mark, at which point I added another cup of water), and only reverse direction (180 degree rotation) rather than do a complete flip. Unfortunately, the propane tank expired shortly into the process, and I overcompensated by cooking the bird an extra 15 minutes -- it was a little dried out (though not badly so), and I think that I would have been fine at the 3 hour mark (even with the period of time the grill fell below 350 degrees). Next time I will start checking the temperature of the turkey with a meat thermometer about 30 minutes before the target end time, to reduce the likelihood of overcooking.

Amy, her aunt Nell and cousin Katie prepared all the other fixings, and everything was ready about the same time. In preparation for the special dinner, I had cleared all the Interrelativity equipment and paperwork out of the dining room -- which had been my office during my startup [ad]venture (maybe I'll clean up, or at least update, the web site during the Christmas / New Year holiday week), so the nine of us (including Katie's sister, Heidi, husband, John, and daughter, Georgia ... and, of course, Meg and Evan) could all eat around the table.


For wines, I followed what has become my traditional Thanksgiving wine and food pairing strategy: drink what you like, bringing out a selection of southern Rhone wines: the 1998 Patrick Le Sec Chateauneuf du Pape "Aurore", the 1998 Domaine de Villeneuve "Ville Vignes" and the 1999 Chateau St. Cosme Gigondas. As some of the guests wanted white, I also opened up a 1999 Silver Lake Chardonnay "Founders Series" and a 2000 Renwood Viognier.

I just realized that after carefully capturing the preparation of the meal, and even snapping a photo of the wines, I did not take any photos at the meal itself ... that will be the goal for next Thanksgiving ... when [hopefully] the meal preparation won't require quite so much attention.

Building a Community around Football and Food on Bainbridge Island

Evan's team, the Woodinville Falcons (Cubs division), played their first regular season game today against the Bainbridge Island team at Strawberry Hill Park.  The team played very well, and Evan was excited about getting his first "real" tackle, on the second defensive play of the game [photos below courtesy of our star team photographer, and videographer, Bruce].



It was a great game, and it was a great after-game, as the food being served at the concession stand was like nothing I've ever seen or tasted at any other ballfield (outside professional sports, and even then, better than the food I've had at most professional stadiums).  In addition to the usual fare (hotdogs, soda, candy and chips), they were offering BBQ Pork, "Island Pork" (with jalapenos, sauteed onions and cilantro), and a Chicken Salad with goat cheese, candied pecans cranberries and pears.  The Island Pork was fabulous, as was the accompanying southern-style cole slaw (with sesame seeds -- it's amazing to me sometimes how little touches can make a big difference).  I smelled and heard good things about the other items as well [if you click on the photo below, you can read the full menu board].


I spoke with Liz Le Dorze, the Vice-President of Fundraising and Community Involvement for Bainbridge Football (pictured above, in the center, flanked by Margie Wienkers, Snack Shack Manager, and Kelley Yarbrough, Treasurer and Volunteer Coordinator -- who also contributed the cole slaw).  Liz told me the specialty food is part of a larger community effort that they are experimenting with this year.  The healthier food selections are intended to appeal to a broader range of families who will be coming to the park each Saturday, and she is hoping that will provide more incentive for people to hang out longer, meet other families and cheer on other teams.  They offer free meal certificates to the sponsors of the league, some of whom then donate the certificates to the home team coaches, who then are free to use them as awards for MVPs.  They also offer free drinks to the coaches and free meals to the referees (which, at least for this game, did not seem to influence or bias their calls in any discernible way :-).

I think it's a great idea, and wanted to share the news with others who may be heading to Bainbridge Island for a junior football game this season (don't bother packing a meal!) ... and with people who are in fundraising and/or community-building roles for other leagues or clubs, in case they might be inspired to replicate this tasty experiment!