ANCHORAGE, Alaska - 6 a.m. As cars stream down the Glenn Highway, headlights tunneling through blowing snow, barista Poli Gaiduk starts her day at Java Junky, a polka-dot espresso shack on Fifth Avenue.
“I don’t do advertising,” she said, spinning the dial that makes the steam wand scream. “It’s just the cars that drive by.”
Outside her sliding window, three pickups idled in line.
In parking lots and building lobbies across the city, every morning, it’s the same scene. So much as flick a chocolate-covered espresso bean in this town, and if you don’t hit a coffee shop, you’ll hit a coffee cart or a funky latte hut with a punny name. There’s a Coffee Cats. A Mocha Mutts. There’s even a How You Bean.
In fact, Anchorage may be the coffee capital of the country. The city had more coffee shops per person - roughly three for every 10,000 people - than any other city in the United States in a 2005 study by the market research firm NPD Group.
Take that, Seattle.
What is it? Is it the dark? The cold? Do long days give people more time to buy more coffee? Could it be something about the Alaska metabolism that requires caffeine? There are probably as many explanations as there are drink orders in the morning line at City Market downtown.
First, look at where you can get it. There are the traditional coffee shops - Kaladi Brothers, Starbucks and Cafe Del Mundo. Then the little coffee stands inside most buildings. You can splash an Americano with half-and-half at Bell’s Nursery, Lowe’s, Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Laser Wash, the Federal Building, City Hall, even the Anchorage jail. (And, in case you missed your fix there, pick up a cuppa at Fred’s Bail Bonding and Coffee Cabana across the street.)
Drive down Old Seward from Huffman to 36th Avenue. You’ll find, on average, a coffee opportunity about every 2,000 feet. Shack-wise, here’s a rough line-up from south to north: Perkup Espresso, Cafe Loco, Bad Ass Coffee, Bean and Bagel (in the Light Speed Lube Center), Kindred Spirits, Java Junction, Mocha Masters, Java King, The Jerky Cache To-Go Espresso, and Motor Mocha. There are also two Kaladi Brothers, a Dino’s Donuts and a drive-through Starbucks.
It’s hard to say which came first, the carts or the coffee lust, said Whitney Wright, 19, a barista at Terra Bella Organic Coffee. Holding a warm cup of something is part of the culture here. The city can’t seem to get enough.
“I guess the demand is just high,” she said. “It seems like all the baristas do well monetarily, tipwise.”
There are just over 100 espresso carts in town, according to the city’s health inspectors. Add several dozen coffee shops to the many espresso-equipped restaurants, and the mocha may be getting an edge on the martini. (The city has about 150 bars, according to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.)
An unscientific survey through the drive-through window at Java Junky on a recent morning uncovered several theories.
It’s regional, said customer Meg Benson. Coffee is a West Coast thing, and Anchorage is just part of a coffee-crazed belt that runs from San Diego to Fairbanks.
“I drove through the states; all through the Midwest, there wasn’t anything,” she said. “I had to go to McDonald’s. It was depressing.”
Denise Bruneau said coffee carts were an outgrowth of Anchorage’s city planning (or lack thereof). In a city like Chicago, there’s public transportation for long distances, and people live in neighborhoods with commercial centers, so they walk everywhere.
Here, “Everyone’s driving. It’s a driving town,” she said.
Anchorage has a culture of convenience. We like to stay in our cars, she said.
Gary Loyd, who owns two very busy Sugar Shack coffee stands, agreed cars are huge in Anchorage, with its wide-lane roads and acres of parking lots. People here like a drive-through about as much as they like coffee, he said.
“Look at the banks and the Lucky Wishbone,” he said.
Then, there’s the weather.
“Have you looked outside today?” asked customer Blaine Ghan, snowflakes melting on the edge of his open window as he reached for his paper cup.
But, the chilly temps alone can’t explain local coffee fanaticism. It’s cold, but so is the Midwest, and they don’t do coffee there like Anchorage does, said Perry Merkel, owner of Cafe Del Mundo, who started roasting the city’s first espresso beans in the mid-‘70s.
Like those of a lot of coffee vendors, his sales don’t change much with the seasons, but there is some evidence coffee consumption is tied to northern latitudes, where light is scare in winter and plentiful in the summer, he said.
“If you were to look at coffee consumption in Europe, from Greece, Spain and Italy and go up the continent, you would see a steady increase in consumption from south going north,” he said. “Scandinavian countries are the highest consumers of coffee in the world.”
A 2006 survey of countries that import coffee by the U.S. Department of Agriculture backs that idea. Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark have some of the highest consumption.
Tom Steigleman sipped a hazelnut latte on a recent afternoon at Radio Espresso, a drive-through coffee shop and headquarters for a Christian radio station housed in an old Burger King.
Many faith communities offer espresso, from Christian megachurches to the Russian Orthodox Cupola Coffee downtown (ask the priests and monks about their mysterious signature drink: “the Curious George”).
Coffee is part of the radio station’s ministry outreach, Steigleman said. People like to congregate where there’s an espresso stand. The joe-sipping trend in Anchorage is also about income, he said.
“I think you see so many people carrying cups of coffee, it’s almost a status symbol,” he said. “Like, ‘Hey, look at me, I can afford to buy a cup of coffee somewhere.’”
Coffee consumption could have to do with disposable income, said Neal Fried, a state economist. Anchorage has the third-highest median household income - $61,217 a year - of American cities with more than 250,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Whatever it is, northern coffee love doesn’t seem to be slowing down, said Jonathan White, an owner of Kaladi Brothers.
“Go to our main cafe here: You’ve got every walk of life, every demographic. You’ve got teachers, blue-collar people, students, lawyers,” he said.
Twenty years ago, nobody knew what a latte was. Now, specialty coffee in Anchorage is so popular it cuts across all walks of life; that’s why you can get it everywhere, he said.
“One of my favorite stories is this big beefy roofer, like 6-foot-5, deep voice, he walks up to our bar and he says, ‘I’d like a wedding cake latte please,’” White said.
Back at Java Junky, Gaiduk warmed herself by the espresso machine between orders from customers. Originally from Israel, she came to Alaska for the adventure and ended up living in a tent in Seward, making coffee. Now she owns her own shack. People come here looking for opportunities, and coffee is an easy business to get into, she said.
“I still think a lot of people stay in Alaska because it’s small enough you can build yourself,” she said. “In the Lower 48, it would have been so much harder to get to the point I am in my life.”
Just then, customer Dave Wilder came to the window. He gave Gaiduk’s hand a squeeze.
“Coffee is a social issue,” he said. “Like the rest of life, it’s a lot about relationships. When you find people that treat you good, it makes coffee more enjoyable.”
A few minutes later Lee Thompson came through.
“Want the politically incorrect answer?” he asked, giving a wink. “It’s because of all the babes.”
“Please,” Gaiduk laughed, reaching through the window to hand him a steaming cup.