Burning Man’s Center Camp Café Brings Coffee to the Playa

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Our dear friend Jamie Rice just wrote to me with news of her experience at Burning Man this year—August 26 to September 2—where she worked as a barista at Center Camp Café, the full service coffee shop erected for the duration of Burning Man right on the Playa, located 2.5 hours miles outside of Reno, Nevada.

Cnetr Camp Café, where citizens of Black Rock City congregate for relief from the hot sun and also terrific coffee.

Center Camp Café, where citizens of Black Rock City congregate for relief from the hot sun and also terrific coffee.

“I’ve just returned from almost two weeks at Burning Man, located in a dried up lake bed,” says Jamie. “Volunteering at Center Camp Café is an experience, for sure! This will be my second year and I hope to do it again for many years to come.”

Jamie making coffee on the Playa.

Jamie making coffee on the Playa.

Nearly 500 volunteers came together to brew coffee, clean, be runners, spread word to the citizens of Black Rock City about the awesome coffee service at Center Camp Café, as well as create original artwork and performances for the café.

Manual brew on the Playa.

Manual brew on the Playa.

At 38,000 square feet, the Café offered .65 of an acre (or 2/3 of a football field) worth of shade from the blistering sun. The structure was held up by two concentric wooden rings and secured to the earth by high-tension cable, capable of withstanding 120-mph winds and drastic temperature and weather changes.

Jamie, Burning Man barista extraordinaire.

Jamie, Burning Man barista extraordinaire.

The Café is a community driven adventure, from which a unique and colorful creation blooms every year. Members of this community travel from all over the world to the Black Rock Desert to create the Center Camp Café.

The lines for coffee at Center Camp Café never end, but the vibe is happy.

The lines for coffee at Center Camp Café never end, but the vibe is happy.

The Café is the center of the city, hence the name. The remarkable story behind its inspiration and development is as follows from the Burning Man website:

“Early in 2000, a young restauranteur presented an idea for a huge “Cafe” at Center Camp. His premise was “the larger the structure, the more coffee would be sold”, so if it was big enough it would much more than pay for itself. However, even if this formula didn’t prove out, a grand central meeting space would still be a fine community asset.

The cafe from above

The cafe from above.

A 3/4 sphere of glued toothpicks was the model for a one to two hundred foot high dome, this to be built of timber bamboo shipped up from Mexico. The proposed structure was evaluated by our City Designer, Rod Garrett.

Jamie behind one of the many espresso machines.

Jamie behind one of the many espresso machines.

This design proved not entirely practical, as it would have an enormous surface area compared to the usable area within its footprint, and might roll through the city like a giant potato masher in high winds. Further, we had no expertise in building high in the air with bamboo, possibly having to import a crew from Asia. Lastly, the bamboo would simply explode into cracks and splinters in the extreme low humidity and heat of the high desert.

Rod was asked to come up with an alternative design. Without any knowledge of precedents for very large temporary structures built quite inexpensively in the middle of a vast desert having occasional hurricane force winds, this took some study.

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Jamie treating guests to beautiful latte art.

Jamie treating guests to beautiful latte art.

 

It seemed prudent to design a structure which could be taken down, transported, stored and reassembled every year; therefore, it should be composed of durable and modular, replaceable elements. As the winds could come from any compass direction, the structure should be able to effectively disperse potentially great forces.

This resolved to the idea of a large diaphragm, a round ring pulled into compression by a membrane which distributed loading from any point. Being slightly peaked in the center, the deflected wind would tend to hold everything down. However, with the outer ring elevated for access, it could become a giant Frisbee.

Set aflame!

Set aflame!

Bedouin tents came to mind, developed over eons in similar conditions. So, in profile, another line was angled from the post supported outer ring down to the ground, but would remain partly open for access. This would anchor the structure in place, as well as deflect the wind upward.”

About the Author

Sarah

Sarah Allen is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.