“My ninety-two-year-old mother and I have a ritual of afternoon sourj and listening to her great Armenian stories, same as her and her mother once did. I cherish these as these are the moments I will live for years to come over a simple cup of sourj,” reads Hrag Kalebjian from a folded-up piece of paper he keeps in his wallet.
Kalebjian received this note from a customer, and his viewpoint on Armenian coffee was changed forever. Kalebjian runs Henry’s House of Coffee in San Francisco — one of two coffee roasters at INNOVATE ARMENIA. Along with musician and activist Serj Tankian’s new venture – Kavat Coffee – they brewed over 5,000 free cups of Armenian coffee for thousands of festival goers.
Organized by the USC Institute of Armenian Studies on May 18, INNOVATE ARMENIA featured fifty participants, from six countries, and nearly 4,000 attendees. This is the fourth time in five years that this unique festival of ideas and action has been staged by the Institute.
The “Dialects of Coffee” space was new to INNOVATE ARMENIA this year.
“The appetite for high quality coffee has been on the uptick for the past decade and Henry’s and Kavat present the age-old beverage to a new generation of drinkers,” said Silva Sevlian, associate director of the Institute.
Hundreds lined up to taste free samples of Armenian coffee from Henry’s House of Coffee and Kavat Coffee, while journalist Liana Aghajanian talked and recorded conversations about the memories that Armenian coffee evoked.
“Coffee is a big part of Armenian culinary and social life, and it’s a great example of how all kinds of narratives can be unraveled through one food,” Aghajanian said. “Innovate Armenia’s ‘Dialects of Coffee’ provided the perfect opportunity to record these stories, many of which were touching, surprising and sometimes heartbreaking, too.”
Aghajanian, an Armenian-American writer, documents the Armenian experience in America through food.
The “Dialects of Coffee” recording space attracted many visitors, one of whom happened to be Kalebjian.
Since 1965, Kalebjian’s father, Henry Kalebjian, and his family have been roasting and serving coffee – now for three generations. Today, Hrag continues the tradition of serving Armenian coffee at Henry’s House of Coffee in San Francisco.
When asked, “What is Armenian coffee?” Kalebjian said, “Obviously it’s the technique and preparation, but for me, the more important is the tradition that’s passed on from one person to the next.”
Kavat Coffee, a new Armenian coffee brand, was also brewing their socially conscious, premium, ethically sourced and certified organic coffee.
“To have thousands of people from communities near and far taste our modern take on Armenian coffee at Innovate Armenia was a wonderful experience for us here at Kavat Coffee,” said George Tonikian, manager of operations at Kavat. “One of my favorite aspects of drinking Armenian coffee is the communal aspect to what is a daily ritual for so many of us.”
Those who tasted the Armenian coffee listened in on Aghajanian’s conversations next door. Many of them shared heartwarming and compelling stories about their own memories of coffee.
“Armenian coffee is one of those things you drink that goes way deeper into [one’s] memory bank,” said Lara Vanian Green, host of the Armenian Enough podcast.
Aghajanian, whose project Dining in Diaspora traces the intersection of cuisine and agriculture with genocide, immigration, and identity, said the global Armenian story is perfectly suited to be explored through cuisine.
“For me, food is the most well understood language through which stories about history, politics, immigration, identity and a plethora of other subjects can be told,” she said.