Ripped at the Black Cat in 2001

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Twenty years ago he filed a report from Ashland, where he visited the Black Cat Coffeehouse, which remains in business. The article appeared in the May 30, 2001 issue of the Ripsaw newspaper.]

So I’m in Ashland visiting my mom, and after three or four days of listening to her rant about some “potato bug infestation” while under the influence of Tequila Rose and Aunt Jenny’s George Jones records, I decide to walk around and discover all that “alternative” Ashland has to offer. Namely, “alternative” Ashland consists of that hippie college, the co-op and the Black Cat Cafe. My instincts tell me that only one of these places is going to serve up any kind of booze, so I skip the first two and jump right to the Black Cat.

The Black Cat is among the growing number of regional coffee shops that have discovered the obvious: Coffee shops that serve booze are some of the most comfortable places in the world. I’ve said this a million times, but here’s all you need to make an outstanding drinking establishment in this area: good beer, great live music, couches and dim lighting. Of course, reasonable prices help, too. The Black Cat has all of this in spades.

The guy and girl ahead of me each order a “Mount Vesuvius,” which at first I take to be some flavor of coffee. But upon hearing the words “Mount Vesuvius,” the woman behind the counter gets extremely excited and asks, “Do you want them made with Huber Bock?” The guy says hell yes, and other customers begin to crowd around to watch. Things are getting interesting.

The woman takes out two big coffee mugs and two bottles of Huber. She opens the bottles and then simultaneously fills the mugs with beer. Then, in each mug, she dumps two shots of espresso, causing the concoction to “erupt.” The look on her face is one of pure glee. She’s absolutely ecstatic that she got to make not one but two of these things. The couple is ecstatic that they get to drink them.

Me, I’m ecstatic that the Black Cat sells Huber Bock, and sells it cheap. I don’t know why more places haven’t discovered its merits. Huber is an anomaly among cheap American beers in that it doesn’t taste like it’s been run through a horse. I plop down a buck and a half for a Huber and head over to talk to the couple.

“So what does it taste like?” I ask.

“We don’t know yet,” the guy says. They’re both too mesmerized by the “activity” on the foamy top of the drink to taste it. Little cracks and patterns are forming in the “lava.” It’s pretty.

Eventually, they sip some of it and nod approval. “It’s really strong, and you can distinguish the coffee from the beer,” the girl says. “The only bad thing is, it’s lukewarm.”

“That makes sense, though,” the guy says. “The beer is cold, the coffee is hot; it’s part of the experience.” It’s a necessary evil.

This is weird. Normally, I’m an observer, not a mingler. I prefer to sit in a dark corner and take mental notes. But it’s hard to sit by yourself at the Black Cat. In a town this small, I’m sure all the people at this place know one another, and this familiarity predominates the room. It’s a constant game of musical chairs: Every time you get up, you find that someone has taken your seat and is talking to your newfound friend. So, you find yourself sitting somewhere else and making new acquaintances. And everyone acts like this is the most natural thing in the world. It’s fun.

Before long the entertainment starts up, which I learn is to be a band called Shastatown out of Fargo, N.D. I learn this when some guy hands me a photocopied flyer that appears to have originally been written with a very sharp pencil. The flyer states that, basically, if I love my country, drive an SUV, live for television, etc. that I will hate Shastatown and best leave now. I stick around.

Before the band starts, however, some guy starts showing some short movies that he made. I don’t understand them, but they’re funny as hell. One of them has a really horny guy watching his girlfriend eating ice cream. Trust me on this, here’s what you want to see when you’re three sheets to the wind: a really horny guy watching his girlfriend eating ice cream. Try it some time.

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