We've all had a memorable cup of coffee before. The setting—the light—the friends around us—that pride of honoring the chain all the way back to the farmer and the stories behind the cup—perhaps even a warm fuzzy feeling of connection to knowing by who, and where, the coffee was roasted with great care. And we've all had memorable travel experiences before, too—maybe you've flown 2500 miles across the country, having no idea what you're getting into, with only some vague directions to a remote site in the desert and the promise that a guy you know would be standing in the middle of an isolated patch of sand and brush, roasting coffee one pound at a time in high winds for two days straight, with a musical performance to follow at sundown.
Okay, maybe we haven't all been there. But that is where I found myself this past weekend, driving through the desert outside of Joshua Tree National Park, headed to the the first site-specific “roasting event” from Los Angeles-based Lightning Records‘ and Hilux Coffee, the official launch of a collaborative project first announced on Sprudge in December.
Lightning Records is constituted variously of an art journal, dirt bikes, and a general state of mind, in addition to their music label and now their coffee roasting enterprise. They launched the Lightning 001 event this Saturday and Sunday, in a weekend-long spectacle of coffee roasting and brewing spearheaded by ex-Handsome Coffee Roasters‘ Chris Owens, and a site-specific sound performance by label founders Seth Olinsky and Ali Beletic.
This “coffee pop-up in the desert” would combine the experiential magic of a truly unusual (some would say, ill-conceived) roasting setup with the label's promise to fulfill nearly five dozen Kickstarter premiums with a bag of coffee specially roasted by Owens at this unique art/sand nexus in the far-flung world of the High Desert Test Sites, a blurry-bordered haven for art and conceptual projects in and around the Joshua Tree/Yucca Valley region. Owens would bring the coffee kit—a brand new La Marzocco Linea, Mazzer grinder, Mahlkönig Guatemala grinder, Kalita pourover gear, a giant water kettle, a few camping stoves, and—oh yeah, a Bella Taiwan Mini500 coffee roaster and a Macbook Air, all to be run via propane and generators. Olinksy, Beletic and friends would bring the supplemental gear—a couple of guitars, some drums, and a lot of pedals—no food or facilities would be onsite, and dogs strictly BYOD.
As I rolled up to this uniquely conceived Flaming-Lips/Fluxus/Slow-Food-style convergence on Saturday, I had little idea what to expect. As the roads wound further and further in and up from Los Angeles, sunbleached tiny-dog landscapes turned to sunbleached post-steelwork blight turned to ribbony mountain valleys and twisted Joshua trees, my directions leading me ultimately to a fork in the road so high-piled with sand my rental car began to hesitate. As I stopped to check my map, another car—the only other car—I'd just passed stopped and a woman got out. Reality folded in on itself when my lonely soul-searching drive was halted by Intelligentsia Coffee‘s Julie Housh, a coffee friend based in LA, who ran up to my car window along Gamma Gulch Road. “It's that way!” she gestured in a general, unconvincing, sandy direction. “The Linea's not working…but they have pour-over.” And though I'd saved my coffee appetite for just this moment, really, by the time you get to a coffee bar pop-up in the desert, it doesn't matter whether the espresso machine is down: it sits there gleaming, reflecting the afternoon sun and the odd cactus paddle, reminding you in all its impractical incongruity that these complicated, high-pressure contraptions actually break down all the time, it's just that they don't usually do it when they're sitting all alone in the middle of the desert.
A couple calls to La Marzocco later and the baristas and artists had to take stock: the scenario was a bit more challenging than they'd anticipated, with power problems cutting short espresso service before it even began and no way to do immediate service in the desert. The desert's high, unpredictable winds were also making for long and unusual roast profiles on the Bella Taiwan that, well…would promise to be as unique to their unusual environs as they'd promised to be, right? Surrounding the coffee spectacle were the accoutrements of free-spirited fun: an archery gallery, replete with one-of-a-kind (once you'd shot them) posters for the event, a desert ping-pong table, several works of art, musicians, baristas, visual artists, and one weary coffee roaster working on one slow pound of coffee at a time.
“There are many reasons not to do this, specifically roast coffee in the middle of the desert,” said Owens, bedecked in a breathable pink shirt and straw sun hat. “Archery is also harder in the wind,” noted his collaborator Olinsky. (With espresso services offline, the additional technical challenge of pouring latte art in the wind was not a concern—indeed it was suggested that we use the leftover milk for Milk Pong.)
“A lot of people were excited to help me pull this off,” said Owens. “If you take out the espresso station, not a lot went wrong. Other than the weather, which is beautiful, but the changing wind and temperature make it pretty impossible to roast with any consistency,” he continued, without a hint of regret, his eyes on the current batch. “It happens,” he said, surveying the land around him. “When you try to do things bigger than you need to.”
As the coffee hour dimmed and instruments began to be set up, tables and chair legs gradually sunk into the sandy ground. What was left of the filters for the pour-over service dwindled, and overheard conversations began to take on a darker shade (“Have you seen ‘Into the Wild'?).
And just when it seemed least likely, people emerged from the hills in droves. Some came from around southern California, on purpose or by happenstance from flyers seen nearby in the desert surrounding-—as well as others who'd come from Texas, Arizona, and New Zealand.
Owens cruised through another batch of Kenyan coffee from the Kagumoini and Gatamboya factories as the sun began to drop below the mountains beyond, all while Olinsky, Beletic and friends set up a looped, rhythmic, spatial sound piece that would pulse and purr through the desert as darkness fell.