mike young digg cropped

I’d always known there was a heavy overlap between quality coffee and other worlds of geekery—from surfing coffee message boards to serving highly engaged guests in Seattle and NYC, geeks of all stripes were a constant presence. But it wasn’t until last year, when I was sitting in the offices of Betaworks, a hybrid startup incubator and seed venture capitalist in NYC, with Mike Young and Justin VanSlembrouck from Betaworks-backed Digg, that I began to truly fathom just how deep the affinity between coffee and tech could go.

On the one hand, it seems quite obvious why these passions pair so well together: geeks gonna geek, basically, and there is a bottomless pit of variables and details to geek out over in coffee. Mike Young captured that sentiment when he described to me his experience of “falling down the coffee rabbit hole”—but even then, that explanation alone didn’t seem to sufficiently explain the depth of the crossover.

A rotating selection of some of Digg's favorite roasters.
Some of Digg’s favorite 2013 roasters, with bottles of coldbrew from Ports in case of emergency.

From that point of initial fascination, Sprudge has gone on to cover a number of in-depth, often grandiose combinations of “Coffee + Tech,” from tricked-out office coffee bars at bigger companies like Square and Evernote to combination technical bookstore/café/co-working spaces with a maker sensibility. In researching these pieces, I made a point of asking the subjects their thoughts on what it is about coffee geekery that speaks to tech geeks. An increasingly clear and repeated picture emerged, and it kept coming back to the framework that Young and VanSlembrouck first outlined.

The most universally repeated point is also a simple one: coffee is a delicious, unregulated drug, and typically the first excursion into performance modulating drugs for the budding hacker. Extreme caffeine consumption is common in the tech world, and the desire to optimize that experience can easily emerge. It’s worth it to properly enjoy your vices, after all. 

The desire to optimize points to another common refrain: coffee as the unsolvable riddle, a field where careful technical consideration can yield clear improvements, but where there’s also always something more to learn. The field is still very much brand new, especially where the pinnacle of quality is concerned. Modern specialty coffee as we understand it today is younger than Pong, or even Mario & Luigi. It is, as they say, a technical frontier–one less mapped, and perhaps less ossified than programming, web, or hardware hacking. It’s like Candyland for nerds, is what I’m saying. Coffee affords ample space for a geek to play.

And of course, ample gadgets to play with. Young said that at the coffee-loving Betaworks offices, news about hotrod espresso machines like the Modbar was more likely to get shared around than news about the latest Android phone. From Aeropress and precision hand-grinder travel kits, to ultra-luxury kitchen-counter investments, to digital chemistry analyzers, coffee has more than enough toys for any hardware-loving geek.

Image courtesy Wright Bros  Brew & Brew
Modbar image courtesy Wright Bros Brew & Brew.

As I said, geeks gonna geek. But what first tipped me off to there being more to coffee’s allure was hearing the Digg people talk about the social role that coffee played in their office. When the office was first really getting into coffee, Allan Beaufour, the CTO of Chartbeat, one of Betaworks’ most successful ventures, was spending a lot of time travelling to and from Copenhagen. Every time he returned to NYC, he’d bring back beans from The Coffee Collective–at a time when getting to try any sort of premium Nordic roasts in the US was an extreme rarity. They’d share the beans around the office, and call up their other coffee-geeky friends (many with serious media and tech credentials) to drop by and indulge with them.

That quickly developed into a full blown office addiction. Spreading the gospel of better coffee with Chemexes became a point of order at every internal meeting; meetings with clients were an all-hands coffee situation, with service choices carefully deliberated over so as to yield maximum tastiness. It was like mankind’s overarching desire to share the possibility of a better world, but in beverage form. 

Utopian futurism is a dream at the core of so much of the tech impulse, but in the real world it is easy for that to become wild-eyed or cynically lost. In coffee at least, more attention to the technical details can unequivocally improve your cup, and as you go further down the rabbit hole, maybe even the world. 

Alex Bernson is the assistant editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Bernson here.

Top image courtesy of Justin VanSlembrouck.

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