I often complain to friends and family about the poor quality of New York City coffee, especially given how it’s a city with so much good food. It’s not so much that there is a lack of good coffee. In fact, good coffee seems to be experiencing something of an explosion that I’m long overdue to experience first hand. It’s just the same old problem of distribution. As is nicely illustrated here, there’s very little good coffee north of 14th street in Manhattan or outside the up and coming parts of Brooklyn.
It’s time to admit that in all my rants, I somehow overlooked that New York institution known as Zabar’s. Well, I didn’t actually overlook it, but gave it a quick, negative assessment based on a couple of bags of frozen, pre-ground, dark roasted beans in my in-law’s freezer and the baked stuff in glass carafes I once bought years ago in the Zabar’s cafe. It wasn’t until recently when some friends of mine sent me this bag of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, that I stopped long enough to give Zabar’s coffee a real second chance.
Most humbling was this video in which Saul Zabar discusses coffee production for the store. I was fascinated with his brazenly old school approach to cupping and to hear about Zabar’s philosophy of lighter roasts, practices typically on mentioned these days in the hype that surrounds coffee’s third wave. At the same time, I couldn’t help contrast these nods to quality with images in the video of those glass carafes baking their coffee on burners in the cafe.
As promised in the video, these beans are a lighter roast (probably around a city+) which you’d never expect to find in such an old school grocery store setting, even a quality grocery endeavor like Zabar’s. I think Zabar’s really did hit the sweet spot for these beans. The coffee had a good med-light body with some chocolate notes and a very mellow, white wine like acidity, like a fruity, somewhat inexpensive chardonnay. This coffee reminded me a lot of a slightly lighter roasted, and slightly better version of the Yirgacheffe I tasted from Michael Thomas Coffee. Of course, I should note that Zabar’s also has its fair share dark roasts and flavored abominations.
I won’t extol the virtues of Zabar’s Yirgacheffe too much except for the fact that it costs so little. This coffee sells for $7/pound in the store or, oddly enough, $9/pound online(?)! Either price is nearly unheard of for such decently drinkable coffee that’s freshly roasted each week. Zabar’s price for this coffee is several dollars cheaper than the less good Michael Thomas Yirgacheffe I tried and the many thousand of bags of far inferior, over-roasted chain store beans that so many New Yorkers regularly purchase (you know the ones).
This would probably be a good time to acknowledge James Hoffman’s insightful piece on the importance of proper price, if it weren’t for the fact that price doesn’t quite capture the concept I have in mind. It seems to me that this coffee’s forte is embodied by a slightly trite, deeply American concept: good value. It’s not a top tier coffee, but it probably is top tier in its class, and is underpriced for what you get. This coffee may not be great, but it sure is a good bargain.