“Coffee Style” Photo Book is Pretty But Empty

“Coffee Style” Photo Book is Pretty But Empty

Photographer Horst A. Friedrichs gave himself an Instagrammer’s dream job: crossing Europe and America photographing boutique coffee shops. His focus was “Third Wave” shops — run by a new generation of aficionados who set out to make “specialty coffee even more special,” as Nora Manthey explains in Coffee Style.

Coffee Style is what would once was referred to as a “coffee table book,” but what does that even mean any more? The people who populate the book’s pages have moved both forward and backward from the midcentury dark ages, when having a coffee klatch involved throwing some Folgers in the percolator.

That might have sufficed for Ozzie and Harriet, but Horst and Nora prefer their cups of joe to be individually crafted by artisans wielding tools that combine high technology with vintage machinery. The spirit of the enterprise is summed up by Ralf Rüller of The Barn in Berlin, who tells Manthey that brewing coffee “is an art my grandmother knew perfectly well, only now we have much better products.”

Steampunk is the operative aesthetic, and Friedrichs captures the international flavor of the specialty² fashionista. Start with skinny pants, and add a denim or checkered shirt and leather boots. Add heavy-framed glasses, and a beard for men, a nose piercing for women. A knit cap, no matter the season, is highly recommended. Then comes the apron, which ideally should be made of heavyweight fabric that’s been waxed to the point of near inflexibility.

Friedrichs also snapped numerous patrons, who look beautiful yet comical in their bespoke woolen suits, clutching their tiny cups of espresso and peering out the shop windows into the city streets that they seem to dread returning to. The tableaux include three bicycles, all fixies.

The real fetish of Coffee Style, though, is the equipment. From La Marzocco espresso machines to a $20,000 siphon brewer (the heating element underlights baristas with a demonic glow) to the fantastically complex Kyoto cold-drip apparatus, Friedrichs takes us on a tour of some of the world’s most esoteric mechanisms for coffee preparation.

On the simpler end of things, there are also ample manual-drip cones — and, of course, plenty of photos of the coffee itself, with or without latte art. In one of the most striking photos, Friedrich gets so close to the glistening, oily bubbles of brewing coffee that the shot recalls the Fantasia sequence depicting the creation of life itself.

It’s all very pretty, but as a book, Coffee Style can be frustrating. Although the photo locations are listed in the back of the book, unless signage is visible there’s no indication which photos came from which shop. Then, Manthey’s text tends toward the uninformative and fawning, and can be awkward or even inaccurate.

Coffee aficionados are described, for example, as “a crowd one would generally call hep, in the early twentieth-century jazz-age sense of the word.” That’s true — but it’s also an oddly precise use of historic African-American slang to describe the predominantly white latter-day subjects of Friedrich’s photos.

Elsewhere, Manthey describes the first espresso machines, introduced in 1885, as “huge, steamy affairs with faulty electronics.” Steamy, yes; electronic, no. Electric pumps weren’t incorporated into espresso machines until 1938.

The book is also conspicuously scant in its description of the changing ecology of the broader coffee industry, including the ways that globalization and climate change are affecting growers. That’s beyond the scope of Friedrich’s photographs, fair enough, but since it’s a matter his subjects are passionate about, a discussion beyond Manthey’s brief mention of fair-trade practices would have been appropriate.

Coffee Style gives third-wave java lovers some nice photos to ooh and aah over — but not much to think about while they sip.

Jay Gabler