Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Today, The Daily Gazette welcomes the class of 2020 with a series of articles written entirely by and about first year students. Welcome to Swarthmore!
Ben Stern ‘20 sits with his feet kicked up, relaxing in the lounge outside his room. A crowd gathers around him, seeking solace from the trailing days of the brutal summer in the glorified Alice Paul air conditioning. Joining him are his close friends, hallmates, new acquaintances, and even strangers who walk by the spectacle and curiously stop to take a seat.
This is far more than your standard Kaffeeklatsch, though it has all the perfect ingredients for one: good company, elevated small talk, and, of course, coffee.
Ben is the proud owner of one of the rare grinders on campus used exclusively for wholesome, licit purposes. He exudes a subtle sense of gratification as he pulls the cartridge of coffee grounds out from under the machine. He passes the container and prompts those in attendance to analyze the wafting fragrance of the fresh beans. “How does it smell?”
Some respond with elaborate critiques, halfhearted attempts to make an impression. Others nod in agreement with every answer but remain curiously silent and shrug when presented with the chance to speak. After skipping a beat, Ben steps up to fill their awkward pause. “The notes for this one are bergamot, lavender, and star fruit,” he casually lists, as if it wasn’t obvious enough.
One brave soul, AynNichelle Slappy ‘20, unabashedly voices the sentiment shared by most in the room: “It smells like fucking coffee,” she exclaims, doubled over laughing in earnest confusion.
But Ben is a savant who engages even the most blasé skeptics, entering a stream of consciousness monologue involving everything from the timeline of the drink culture to the physiology of the plant. For any lens one might present him with to approach the topic, he is prepared with both hard facts and a sprinkling of opinion, which he uses to polish his audience’s view. One would have to be both French pressed and hard-pressed to find another connoisseur to compare.
It is not that there is, by any means, a lack of interest. Students around the globe thrive on caffeine, consuming it in a fashion that can be considered equal parts addiction and religion, the pre-10 AM Keurig ritual being an essential part to the start of the day. The taste can be jarring, but is easily acquired, if not masked by an abundance of flavor shots, milk, or sugar––the notion of which makes Ben grimace in disapproval. Many go so far as to attribute their basic ability to survive to this miracle drink (née drug), placing the most value on its physical effects on the human body.
With all these people, there exists a general understanding of what “coffee” is––its signature bitterness, the expected medicinal consequence. But ultimately, appreciation and preference aside, coffee is just coffee.
Clearly, with Ben, this is far from the case. His passion for the plant took him over 2,000 miles south along the North American coast, all the way to Honduras. He worked with a company called Counter Culture, interacting directly with local farmers to do research and learn about sustainability within the coffee industry.
The experience is what inspired him to pursue a major in biology, to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the coffee plant. Ben believes that genetic modification is the key to developing a new better tasting, disease-resistant breed of coffee. His true motives, however, extend far beyond flavor: “There is so much potential to promote economic conditions in coffee producing countries, which are almost always impoverished.”
There could not be a more opportune time for Ben to begin his time at Swarthmore; Peet’s Coffee just debuted on campus, along with Chestnut Hill Coffee. But it seems the real hidden gem of the Swarthmore coffee scene resides on the second floor of Alice Paul.
Featured image by Ben Stern ’20.