Arcade Fire’s Win Butler Made Coffee: A Barista Weighs In

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On Friday, February 13, Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler helped lead his team to a 59-51 victory in the NBA All-Star celebrity game, scoring eight points and snagging 12 rebounds. The next day — Valentine’s Day — he popped into La Colombe Torrefaction‘s new Hudson Square location, brewed his own Haitian coffee in a Chemex, and served it to customers in small, demitasse-sized takeaway cups. As a professional barista, the juxtaposition was surreal to observe, though the results were mostly ordinary.

When Butler emerged from the back of La Colombe, the small crowd of media people erupted. Haitian music sounding not unlike Reflektor B-sides, as selected by the cafe’s staff, blasted through the store. Camera flashes lit up the store as Butler skulked his way to a chair, mounting it to make a brief announcement. He explained that he would be serving RaRa coffee, a Haitian blend created as a collaboration between himself and La Colombe, with proceeds going to Partners in Health and the Haitian Coffee Academy.

Butler spoke passionately, but nervously, about how coffee is impossible to ignore in Haiti. He went on to lament the fact that few people know anything about Haitian coffee, and that that needs to change. (Haiti has been Arcade Fire’s cause for some time now; Régine Chassagne, a singer and instrumentalist in Arcade Fire — as well as Butler’s wife — is the daughter of Haitian immigrants living in Canada.) He ended his speech by saying he was about to brew some Haitian coffee for everyone, and that we were all free to try it. Or, he said, everyone could just continue plonking away at their computers. When he finished, he jumped down and walked quickly behind the bar. He lifted his Bonavita kettle with a noticeably shaky hand, understandably nervous to perform an unfamiliar task in front of people who love him for reasons entirely unrelated to coffee.

I’d never tasted Haitian coffee before. My coworker, who is a trainer and educator at Joe Coffee and who also works as a consultant for prospective cafe owners, has never tasted Haitian coffee. It is an apparently bountiful thing that few people in America know about, and so I went to this event curious. I maybe went in skeptical, like this guy, aiming to tear apart the “hipster bourgeoisie,” but Butler’s charitable ambitions rightfully immunized that kind of cynicism. Regardless, what I wound up confronting was not an army of bearded plaid, but instead the immense, niche fame of Win Butler, and how someone of such status can turn such an everyday, plebe thing — such as making coffee — into an act worthy of documentation.

This is to say, in a way, it made me confront my own everyday-ness. Win Butler made pour-over coffee in a Chemex for people and we photographed it and made Instagram videos of it. He poured the coffee and handed it to the willing masses and said under his breath that he “felt like a Catholic priest,” giving communion to worshipers. Meanwhile, nearly every day I make pour-over coffee for people and beg for tips; pour them rosettas and hope they ask me for my Instagram handle. For me, making coffee is a job, but also a kind of asking for approval: “Here’s this coffee, please like it.” For Win Butler, coffee is offered with a knowing silence, his fans the ones instead asking for approval: “Please let me drink your coffee, which was made with the same hands that scored eight All-Star points and also wrote ‘Wake Up.’”

To his credit, and to the credit of the coffee-growing folks in Haiti, RaRa was pretty OK. For a Chemex cup, which is typically over-sweet for my taste, this thing had a nice bit of spiciness, though it was ruined by an overwhelming roasty flavor and over-extraction. Butler’s pour-over technique, it must be said, was spotty, with a flow rate as inconsistent as the back end of The Suburbs, though he did allow for a proper bloom period. At any rate, he seemed a little giddy to be doing it, and it was fun to watch. But it was also confusing to watch.

I’m not angry at Win Butler for being a famous person. (I’m also not angry for the 25 percent of people in the cafe who took up space while remaining completely oblivious to the fact that a Grammy-winning musician was making coffee for them.) I’m not angry about anything — not even that I serve coffee to make a living. I’m not even angry at “modern culture,” as a friend was when he commented on Facebook, “People are seriously photographing a guy pouring coffee?” I’m mostly perplexed by the whole thing. A famous person is a famous person, regardless of the context — but making coffee?

Maybe it was the planned synergy of the event, an indie superstar making coffee at one of the industry’s trendiest shops. Maybe it wasn’t “Win Butler is making coffee!” but rather, “Win Butler is making coffee at La Colombe!” Or, maybe it was just, “Win Butler!” Most likely, it was all of them for different people. But, for me, it was, “Win Butler is making coffee! And everybody loves it! And they’re all taking pictures! And this is confusing!” And it still is. Because the next day, Win Butler was on SNL‘s 40th anniversary special, standing next to Candice Bergen and introducing Miley Cyrus, as if he had never made coffee at all.