A few years ago, I may have been excited about a trip to New York, but it wouldn’t have been for the coffee. I (along with many others) have long lamented New York’s lack of good coffee, especially for a city of its size, density and culinary reputation. Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and the past couple of years have found New York City in the midst of a coffee revolution. New cafes serving coffee from some of the country’s best roasters have been bursting onto the scene at a near alarming rate with the coffee love spreading both beyond and within what I like to think of as the good coffee ghettos – south of 14th Street in Manhattan and a couple of discreet, trans-gentrified chunks of still hipster Brooklyn.
I was therefore more than ready to go back to New York City when the opportunity arose in January – even if the primary impetus was to go visit the in-laws. My previous trip happened a little over a year ago and gave me just enough time to visit the Chelsea location of Cafe Grumpy, but left me wanting more. I made up for this shortfall on this, my most recent trip, however. It was a whirlwind coffee tour – 15 stops plus some coffee purchased for home – that I’m planning to write about in the coming days.
Before I begin posting, however, I wanted to share the following list. It includes all the information I don’t feel like repeating in every subsequent post as well as a kind of New York coffee gestalt – cross-cafe realizations that are more than the sum of their posts.
- First, I want to thank Anne and company of Tamp Tamp for doing all the leg work. Instead of spending hours combing the wide world of the internets, I simply played the part of over-caffeinated tourist, shuffling through maps and printouts of their wonderfully detailed Manhattan and Brooklyn coffee walking tours.
- Of course, I see now that the New York Times has finally gotten into the game with a dedicated coffee page, although much of their collective advice ends up steering you to many of the same spots as the tour. Not to digress too much, but this is a great new collection of coffee information, even if it could use a bit more editing when it comes to the list of sites included in the “coffee navigator” (ahem…here…look here). I’m also eager to see more from the Time’s new coffee correspondent, Oliver Schwaner-Albright, who appears to be the first journalist for a major publication that I’ve seen who both knows something about coffee, while still approaching it with some humility.
- What I said earlier about cafes bursting onto the scene was only barely hyperbole: Ost Cafe, serving Intelligentsia, opened about three weeks before I visited it; Simon Sips, a Counter Culture purveyor, providing both food and drink, opened a new East Village location, possibly during my trip; and Second Stop Cafe, serving Stumptown, opened just after I returned.
- Notice the trend? Like the three cafes I just mentioned, the new norm for cafes and restaurants, appears to be coffee from one of the big three roasters – Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, and Stumptown. Like a coffee lovers version of Four Corners (err…three corners and six sides?…), you can now sample coffees from all three of these roasters within blocks of each other in the East Village at two Ninth Street Espresso locations (1,2), Abraco, Everyman Espresso, Simon Sips and Ost Cafe. Of course, you can also sample Intelligentsia qua Intelligentsia at their New York Training Lab, and this spring brings the opening of a Stumptown operated Stumptown Cafe in the new Ace Hotel.
- For a while now, New York has also offered some exceptional coffee from a few regionally based roasters. Gimme! Coffee from up in Ithaca has two locations while Joe the Art of Coffee‘s various and ever-expanding number of cafes all use coffee from Barrington Coffee Roasters in Massachusetts. If that’s not local enough, Kaffe 1668 now carries coffee from Plowshares Coffee Roasters (in addition to Intelligentsia). There are of course other outsiders trying to move into New York and a few local cafe owners reportedly contemplating roasting their own. A couple of other local roasters (1,2) have also piqued my curiosity.*
- In addition to the coffee, the cafes I visited were almost all top-notch in other ways. Most of the baristas were skilled and attentive, running test shots and ready to remake shots as needed. In an stereotype reversal, I also found most of these East Coast baristas surprisingly friendly, unharried, ready to talk coffee and a bit more approachable than the West Coast baristas I typically encounter. While I didn’t see any Kees van der Westen machines, my progressive tour resembled an espresso machine arms race with most cafes alternating between Synessos and La Marzocco GB/5s. Oh, and four independent shops (i.e. not Starbucks) – Cafe Grumpy, El Beit (which currently uses 49th Parallel and does not seem to have a website), Kaffe 1668, and Root Hill Cafe – all still own Clovers.
- In addition to the coffee, I also found myself wowed by the attention to design. You have to understand, some of these shops are standing room only and most aren’t very big – we’re talking New York real estate here. Yet the look and feel of even these tiny spaces was well thought through and most were fascinating to take in. I noticed that Michael Bauer appears to have had the reaction to New York restaurants during his recent trip east. I’m not sure if the customer expectations are higher, the competition more fierce or the supply of good designers more excessive, but this nearly commonplace high level of design is something you typically only observe in the fanciest shops around here.
- My one complaint (besides the slightly frightening rapid expansion of Intelligentsia, Counter Culture and Stumptown) was that while the espresso I tasted was consistently good to great, the brewed coffee was often not much better than merely good. Don’t get me wrong, the state of affairs is leaps and bounds better than it used to be, but even high quality coffee brewed via pour over or French Press often failed to impress. I did have a few wonderful cups (typically when served on the clover), but it left me wondering. Perhaps barista skills are simply espresso-centric, or maybe New Yorkers simply like their coffee brewed differently (i.e. weak). Or perhaps it was some other variable such as the water.
- Overall, I have to say that I’m very impressed with the state of New York Coffee. Any of the cafes on the above walking tour in most American cities would represent a tremendous shot in the arm. Add to that the fact that the sheer number of quality places combined with the selection of coffees from quality roasters puts just about every other American city to shame (even if on a per capita basis, other cities might still be better). Oh, and it’s hard not to make comparisons. While I have by no means covered the city nor explored any of these places in depth, I am ready to declare my current short list of favorites. I’ll tell you more in the next couple of weeks, but if I had to recommend a small number of top spots to anyone, my current top picks would be: Cafe Grumpy (either location), El Beit, Gimme! Coffee (either location), and Kaffe 1668.
Happy coffee consuming.
* New York, of course, has its own big three roasters – Porto Rico, Oren’s Daily Roast and Rohrs (am I missing any others?). While it seems like Porto Rico and Oren’s might be trying to evolve, I mostly tend to lump these three roasters together with the wave 2.0 crowd: respectable, but not particularly good coffee – usually over-roasted.