Chris Newhard sips coffee while listening to musician Michael Carpenter perform at Aqus Cafe on Saturday Morning.

Cafe Society –  Where have you bean hanging out?

Local venues blend caffeine, conversation

Ask any two Petaluma coffee drinkers which coffeehouse is the best in town, and you’re likely get three opinions.

This town takes its coffee, and its community, very seriously. And, increasingly, the two go hand in hand.

Maybe it’s because so much of our life is spent alone in front of computers or commuting to and from work. Perhaps it’s our overstressed lives that require increasing amounts of caffeine and a respite from work, or maybe it’s a perceived need created by the Starbuckization of our world. Then again, maybe we just like hanging out together.

Whatever the reason, Petalumans appear to be spending increasing amounts of time and money in coffeehouses and drinking various types of coffee drinks.

And while Petaluma café society isn’t Paris of the ’20s, or even Seattle or San Francisco of the modern day, it certainly has a very strong coffeehouse culture that continues to thrive, despite the notable absence of the Deaf Dog coffeehouse chain, which closed three stores and a cart late last year.

Although “What is a coffeehouse?” is a topic that could start its own coffeehouse conversation, this town of 56,000 has roughly 20 coffeehouses and six coffee carts, each with its own particular congregation.

Depending on the situation, local residents may go to a coffeehouse to spend time with friends, read the paper, have a business meeting, work on their laptop, listen to music or perhaps even plan a protest. And, of course, many get their coffee to go, but usually not without a smile from a friendly face.

John Crowley, who owns the new Aqus Cafe at Foundry Wharf with his wife, Anne-Laure, feels that a coffeehouse is best when it’s a setting for people to talk and connect with each other. Crowley, whose father ran a pub in Ireland, says one of his goals is “getting people to get to know each other better, like in the old coffeehouses a couple hundred years ago in Austria and London, where people used to go to get together to talk about ideas, from the banal to the interesting.”

Aqus has different community-building activities every day, from writing circles to live music performances.

Claus Brigmann, who has been protesting the war in Iraq in Helen Putnam Plaza every Friday for four years, calls Aqus a great place for “fomenting” civil actions and art-related projects. Brigmann is a multimedia artist and activist who usually drinks two lattes a day. His favorite coffeehouses include Aqus and the Tea Room Cafe on Western Avenue. He also likes Peet’s, but says it’s a little cramped.

Ed Courtway, a first class petty officer in the Coast Guard at Two Rock, recently discovered the Petaluma Coffee and Tea Company on Second Street with his family. Owners Gardner and Sheila Bride, longtime coffee wholesalers, once had a café in the Aqus location, and have again begun serving espresso and pastries.

“It appeals to me because it’s not a chain store and feels a lot less sterile and a lot less planned,” Courtway said. “It’s just a different atmosphere. There’s big roasters in there and bags of unroasted coffee.”

Jordan Pepper, a local oil painter and janitorial maintenance business owner, has made many friends over his morning latte at the Apple Box, and now also enjoys Aqus.

“I would say that coffeehouses are gathering points,” Pepper said. “When I go in, typically in the morning, I go for conversation.”

And Yvette Preute loves Della Fattoria, where she recently held her birthday party with friends. Preute, who teaches private cooking classes at Ramekins Sonoma Valley Culinary School, appreciates the café’s artisan breads and pastries made with in-season ingredients. And, of course, it’s a place to meet friends.

“It’s a place to gather, which sets it apart from Peet’s or Starbucks,” she said. “It’s a special place.”
But Jeff Grove prefers the Water Street Bistro. Grove is an artist who appreciates Water Street for the good coffee, good light and the friends from many nations he’s made there over the years. For a self-employed person, it’s good to get motivated by being around others to begin the day. He’s at the café every morning.

“Unless it’s Tuesday,” he said, when Water Street is closed. “If it’s Tuesday it must be the Tea Room.”

Diane De Martini enjoys going to the Bus Stop, a drive-through cart next to the Petaluma Mail Depot that has such a communal feel that many customers prefer to get out of their cars. Those less pressed for time might sit all morning at the outdoor table with their dogs, having what De Martini called “intelligent gab fests.”

And if you think the coffeehouse culture is limited to adults, think again. Jessie Gallagher, 17, a senior at Casa Grande High School, said that many students get a coffee drink before school, often a mocha or Frappuccino, either from Starbucks or the nearby coffee cart, “You Mocha Me Crazy.”Gallagher said that teens enjoyed hanging out at Deaf Dog, but really haven’t found a replacement meet-up joint since that chain closed.