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If you haven’t heard of suspended coffee yet, you will soon. No, it’s not a new method of brewing or drinking coffee – though the images that calls to mind are hard to resist. Rather, suspended coffee – or, as it’s known in Italy caffe sospesa, is a charming way for coffee lovers to “pay it forward.”
Tradition says – and Snopes.com more or less agrees – that the tradition of suspended coffee began in Naples “after the war,” when many gentlemen lost all they had and couldn’t even afford a cup of coffee. The more fortunate gentlemen of the city started a habit of ordering a coffee and paying for two.
The second coffee was “suspended,” to be made and poured later for an anonymous, less fortunate peer. The tradition is quintessentially Neopolitan, allowing charity to be both offered and received without injuring the pride of the recipient.
Whether that’s the true origin of caffe sospesa or a fanciful embroidering, there is more modern evidence that the practice of paying for future coffee for a stranger became more solidly entrenched as part of café society in Florence, Italy. The Florentine charity, Ronda della Carita e Soldarieta, called for its members to buy a coffee or cappuccino for those who couldn’t afford to buy one for themselves. A 2004 newspaper article about the charity for the homeless notes that the habit of paying for a suspended coffee began in Naples and spread outward from there.
In 2008, though, a Neapolitan reporter made a pilgrimage to cafés and coffee shops around the city, asking baristas about the suspended coffee habit. She learned to her dismay that the habit of buying a coffee for an anonymous indigent stranger had fallen into disuse. In fact, at three different coffee bars she was told that it had been nearly 15 years since anyone had ordered a coffee for now, and one suspended.
And then something happened. Here and there around the Internet, bloggers and reporters wrote about encountering people buying a suspended coffee in an Italian café and asking about the tradition. For some reason – perhaps the similarity of the economic times with the years after the World War and the Depression – the concept caught fire and exploded into an Internet meme. The more people heard about the idea of suspended coffee, the more they loved the pay-it-forward timeliness of the concept. Before long, cafés and café patrons around the world adopted the Italian tradition and made it their own. There are stories and reports of people ordering suspended coffee from Australia, Bulgaria, Russia, Spain, Costa Rica and, of course, the United States. One recent report comes from Canada, where an anonymous customer in Edmonton paid for $500 large coffees at Tim Horton’s.
While large corporations and coffee chains have tried to get in on the grass roots, many patrons see their efforts as PR stunts designed to increase sales. There have been some exceptions. In the UK, for example, Starbucks pledged to donate the value of each suspended coffee purchased at one of their stores with a cash donation to a charity. Overall, however, the suspended coffee movement has been seen as more of a statement of social solidarity, a way of acknowledging that we’re all in this together, and today, I have enough in my pocket to buy a coffee for someone else who is not as fortunate, a sort of tangible, palpable statement of “There but for the grace of God…”
Want to get in on the good feeling? You don’t need a coffee shop with a formal suspended coffee program to participate. Just tell the barista, the next time you order coffee, that you’d like to pay for two coffees, and that he or she should serve it to someone in need of a pick-me-up later. Chances are that the shop is already serving a few free cups of coffee a day to locals who are down on their luck, and your gesture may help formalize the kindness into an ongoing initiative in the kindness of strangers.