Coffee master David Schomer is consumed by his passion for espresso. After decades of honing his craft, he is still on a mission to pour the perfect cup of coffee.
A SMALL GROUP of young women crowds around the second espresso bar in Espresso Vivace, located on the north end of Broadway on Capitol Hill. The girls, from the Goodwill Barista Youth Training Program, watch a man of slight build, with silvery white hair, sporting a thin mustache, a black turtleneck and black jeans, expertly pour a shot of espresso. He gives his acolytes a sip.
“The coffee is stratified,” he says. “The bottom is always the sweetest part.”
He is David Schomer, the co-proprietor of Espresso Vivace.
Though the average coffee consumer has never heard of him, and indeed many locals don’t even know who he is, Schomer is as influential in the gourmet coffee world as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is in the mainstream coffee industry. Anyone who’s ordered a latte from Stumptown in Portland, Intelligentsia in Los Angeles, or Ninth Street Espresso in New York has had coffee shaped by Schomer’s methods.
While Schultz took the path of world domination — opening more than 21,000 stores worldwide since he took over Starbucks in the late 1980s — Schomer took the opposite path. Espresso Vivace has only three locations, and has no plans for expansion. Rather than ruling the world through quantity, Schomer — who is trained in metrology, the science of measurement — focused on quality; making coffee taste as good as it smelled. It never seemed to match up to the aroma he had sniffed as a kid in Seattle’s 45th Avenue Food Giant, and it became his mission.
“David turned it into more than just a profession. He turned it into a science and an art,” says Chuck Beek, the founder of Monorail Espresso, one of the first espresso carts in Seattle. While Schultz awakened the world to espresso’s existence, it was Schomer who “made coffee huge in Seattle,” Beek says. “I give him more credit than Howard.”
Hundreds of baristas have learned from Schomer while working at Vivace, many of whom have gone on to manage well-known shops and train those employees. Others, like former Vivace baristas Christopher “Nicely” Abel Alameda and Mitch Hale, opened their own highly regarded cafes, Menotti Coffee Stop and Espresso Profeta, in Los Angeles.
Kenneth Nye, the owner of Ninth Street Espresso, one of Manhattan’s first gourmet coffee shops, also found Schomer’s techniques helpful. Nye’s cafe opened in 2001, earning accolades in The New York Times, Food and Wine, and Condé Nast Traveler.
“He delved into the science of coffee and extraction in a way unlike anyone else was doing,” Nye says. “He was light-years ahead of the conversation at the time.”
BY THE TIME Schomer came onto the Seattle coffee scene in the late ’80s, the espresso explosion was well under way — with more than two dozen espresso bars on Broadway, as well as cafes such as The Last Exit, Café Allegro, the Wet Whisker (which became Seattle’s Best Coffee) and the Monorail Espresso cart.
“Let me put it to you this way: I thought we had already missed the peak,” says Jack Kelly, who opened Uptown Espresso in 1987.
Schomer, 59, opened his first cart in 1988 on Broadway and another, ill-fated cart downtown, a year later. He learned how to pull shots from Kent Bakke, a co-owner of the espresso machine manufacturer La Marzocco, and Eric Stone, a specialty coffee consultant.
His “timing was very good,” says Zev Siegl, one of the founders of Starbucks. “Because by the 1980s there was some demand for espresso, which had verged over toward cafe latte — the milk-based drinks — and then it really took off.”
In 1989, Schomer went to Italy for the first time and “saw that we were far behind in terms of extraction technique.” Italians favored ristretto pulls — short shots over larger pours. “I saw that they had a slow pour, in order to extract the flavor they had,” he says.
He returned and began to experiment. He toyed with the size of the grind of the coffee, the method of packing the espresso into the porta-filter, the temperature of the brewing water.
“The coffee responded in leaps and bounds,” he says. “It was insane.”
BEFORE HE OPENED THE FIRST CART, he searched the Seattle library for a guidebook. To his shock, at the time, he couldn’t find one article or book, he says. “There was nothing. I was just flabbergasted.”
He wrote columns on the form for Café Olé magazine in the ’90s. In 1996, he published, on a local imprint, Peanut Butter Publishing, “Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques: How to Identify and Control Each Factor to Perfect Espresso Coffee in a Commercial Espresso Program,” detailing his findings on grinders, water temperature and tamping techniques, which proved valuable to many aspiring baristas. Now in its ninth printing (and third edition), it’s available in Japanese, Korean and Russian.
Daniel Humphries, a co-founder of Origin Coffee Network, a specialty coffee platform, read Schomer’s book when he worked at Seattle’s Victrola Coffee Roasters in the early 2000s. New York City was still a coffee wasteland, and Humphries moved to help one of the early cafes, Café Grumpy, open its second location, working as the director of coffee.
“People in the industry — but especially outside of Seattle — that was the first time anybody had seen anything like that,” he says of Schomer’s book.
The book also detailed how to make latte art. On one of his trips to Italy, Schomer noticed that baristas in Milan poured shapes in the milk, and he brought the technique back to Seattle. One of his baristas, Amy Vanderbeck, had worked at Uptown Espresso, which had become famous for its “velvet foam,” a whipped microfoam with a creamy mouth feel that made latte art possible.
Another of Schomer’s baristas, Sarah Hunting, poured a shape resembling a “posterior” — or a big B; another, Lisa Parsons, poured a heart after Schomer bet her $50.
“Then, I learned by watching them,” he says.
Soon, hearts and leaves — or Rosettas — dotted Vivace’s lattes, becoming part of its signature. Schomer’s 1995 video “Café Latte Art” demonstrated the technique for far-flung baristas.
Now latte art is such a part of the mainstream lexicon that there are competitions — such as the World Latte Art Championship — dedicated to it. And comedian Amy Schumer’s Comedy Central show recently featured a skit in which she and a barista court, fall in love and break up based on his milk patterns — a rose, a heart, his manhood, a diamond ring, and to her horror, a foamy nondescript latte.
“I think everyone owes a huge debt to David for really developing the science of espresso,” says Kelly, who now co-owns Caffe Ladro.
FINE-TUNING COFFEE satisfied what Beek jokingly calls Schomer’s “anality” — but it also satisfied his more artistic interests; a lifelong pattern, it turns out. Schomer had entered the University of Washington as a math major but graduated in cultural anthropology.
He joined the Air Force in 1974 and later worked in Boeing’s metrology lab. He met his future business partner and wife, Geneva Sullivan — with whom he has two kids, Andre and Taylor — in 1986 at the Fremont Street Fair. Though they divorced in 2006, they remain friends and business partners.
“Without Geneva, I would be one store that was always out of napkins or something, with the best espresso,” he says. “I have three stores and a life because she has organized the backsides so meticulously.”
He started playing flute in the Air Force, later getting a BFA from Cornish in Classical Flute Performance.
“I was just dying, as a human being. I was dying,” says Schomer. “Can you imagine me in the Air Force?”
Somewhat geeky, he wears a bolo tie in one of his videos, and possesses a sweet, gentle demeanor. The self-avowed movie aficionado loves blockbusters (“He has terrible taste in movies,” jokes Beek), but is too squeamish for some of their more gruesome elements. Alameda recalled going to see Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse.” He says, “I remember looking over and seeing his ears plugged and eyes closed, as he wasn’t too keen on the zombies.”
Schomer’s warm wit can be punctured by an aloofness that can come across as arrogance.
“David is just — in my book — a sweetheart,” says his friend Joe Monaghan, a co-owner of La Marzocco. But, he says, “It takes a while to get to know him.”
Schomer is habitual — he visits each of his cafes every weekday, starting with Alley 24 in South Lake Union, checking in at the sidewalk cart on Broadway, winding his way to Brix, the cafe where he trains employees, before heading to Vivace’s roasting plant on 11th Avenue.
“He’s very rigid in his life and his rituals and his habits,” says Monaghan, citing Schomer’s regular poker games with the same guys, on Wednesdays or Sundays. “He’s pretty regimented about it, which is what makes him good at what he does, so good.”
It has been good for business, too. Once certified, employees get paid $10.50 or more an hour, plus tips; there’s a company matching 401(k), paid vacation and catastrophic health insurance. The generous treatment engenders loyalty. Several of his 49 employees have been with the company more than 10 years, including Lisa Parsons and Don Jones, both of whom have worked there more than 20 years.
SCHOMER’S BIGGEST contribution to coffee is via engineering ingenuity. For espresso to come out right, shot after shot, the brewing temperature must be kept stable.
“A properly brewed espresso is pretty delicate and fragile,” says Monaghan. “It’s subject to a lot of variables in the brewing process.”
In the early ’90s, Schomer began writing about temperature control issues in his column for Café Ole magazine.
“I said, ‘A $39 Mr. Coffee has better temperature stability than these $10,000 machines. It’s embarrassing, you should be ashamed.’ And I just kept poking the industry,” he says.
Schomer worked with engineers and technicians at La Marzocco, connecting a Proportional Integral Derivative controller to the machines (“You can think of it like the computer that controls a boiler,” Schomer explains) and described the day he reached coffee nirvana.
He was at La Marzocco’s shop in Ballard with the manufacturer’s technician Roger Whitman and co-owner Bakke, and John Bicht, a designer at Versalab.
“On Ash Wednesday, I think it was Feb. 28, 2001, we finally made coffee, I think, for the first time in the history of the world, on a stable temperature,” Schomer says, waxing rhapsodic in the glassed-in meeting room at Brix, his flagship Capitol Hill location.
“And indeed, it was so sweet. I’ll never forget this butter caramel, like a sunrise on my tongue. Just gradually, as soon as I tasted it, this, just bloom of sweetness and this silk on the tongue — the silk pajamas.”
And then, the earth literally shook. The demonstration happened just as Seattle’s most recent big earthquake, Nisqually, which registered a 6.8, rumbled the city.
But to Schomer’s surprise, La Marzocco didn’t immediately change its machines.
“David was obviously a futurist and on the cutting edge,” says Monaghan. “It’s one thing to develop and recognize, and it’s another thing to try and implement into business. I think we frustrated him a bit.”
Unsatisfied, Schomer worked with a former La Marzocco engineer, Mark Barnett, who had started his own espresso-machine company, Synesso. His research contributed to the development of the first PID-controlled machine.
Though it created a rift between La Marzocco and Schomer professionally, Monaghan still praises his friend’s innovations.
“For quite a while the Holy Grail in espresso machines was temperature stability, and David was the one who would continually point this out,” says Monaghan. “As a result of that, machines in general are more focused on temperature stability when the industry in general really didn’t take that issue very serious prior to David.”
THOUGH SCHOMER can expound at great length about every step of the coffee-making process, he has no use for the annual barista contests and doesn’t often participate in coffee conventions or trade shows. His baristas might train for six months before being certified to work full time on the bar, but Schomer thinks making coffee should seem effortless.
Most Read Stories
- Washington may become first state to legalize human composting
- Watch: Brandi Carlile and Dave Grohl busk at Pike Place Market
- What an Olympic medalist, homeless in Seattle, wants you to know
- Seattle's persistent crime problem demands change | Editorial
- Mayor Durkan asks state to investigate why Yakima County Jail inmates were released into downtown Seattle parking lot WATCH
“The critical thing is that I’m in the happiness business. I’m here to make you happy. I want to know what you want and I make it as quick and as fast as I can,” he says. “The espresso contest kind of sets up these young people to fail. It makes them feel like some kind of a rock star or something. And the customer is kind of left behind. I don’t like that.”
And there are now more customers than ever: According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, coffee is a $46 billion industry — specialty coffee comprising 51 percent volume share. As the trends have shifted from large milk-based lattes to pour-overs, Schomer has not been swayed by those fashions. Other self-styled coffee gurus have come along in the past 10 years, expounding on Schomer’s basic principles.
And while some would argue he’s stuck in the ’90s, says Nye, “That guy Schomer deserves a lot of credit. (He was) the first guy to stand up on a box and yell out loud, ‘This is what you should be doing. This is what it is. It should be something special and respected and treated with care.’ ”
Never satisfied, Schomer is onto his next project: “I’ve got to move forward on the grinder,” he says. “And it’s proving quite resistant.”