Diesel and 1369 represent a certain slice of Boston’s coffee scene. As one Boston coffee person put it, a lot of people in Boston are into cafe culture more so than coffee culture. That’s not to say that these two venues ignore coffee. They do a decent job, but performance falls short of the steps being taken elsewhere in the city.
While Diesel and 1369 are different shops they do share a number of similarities.
- Both shops come in pairs. Diesel is the older sibling of Bloc 11 while 1369 on Mass Ave is the second of two locations. The first is at namesake 1369 Cambridge Street.
- Both shops are decidedly casual and coffeehouse-like with chalkboard menus and a variety of coffee specialty drinks. Diesel offers a bigger food menu and more closely resembles a bar with pool tables, high-backed booths and decorated with chotchkies and street signs. 1369 goes more traditional with wooden cafe tables, original building features, and a wall-sized mural of the nearby area.
- Each cafe uses a LaMarzocco GB/5 for espresso (good) and brews a multitude of coffees (good) on their Fetco brewer and stores them in thermal carafes (could be better).
- The choice of filter coffees (at least based on my single visit) consisted of a French Roast, some sort of medium to dark origin or blend (Colombia at 1369 and Black Cat at Diesel), a lighter roasted single origin (Tanzania Peaberry at 1369 and an El Salvador at Diesel) and a decaf.
- Both produced above average, but could-be-better coffee.
It’s worth noting that Diesel uses coffee from Intelligentsia while 1369 uses coffee from Khave, a local Boston coffee roaster that seems to have some quality coffees but also caters to a wider, less coffee conscious audience. As evidence, I point to their stock of flavored coffees, multitude of dark-roasted blends and the implication on their website that “varietal” refers to a country of origin rather than a type of plant. (8/25/10 correction: as noted above and in the comment below, 1369 uses coffee from Barrington Coffee Roasters as well as Khave).
Diesel’s use of coffee from Intelligentsia ought to give it an edge and I think it does, but only barely. The shot of Black Cat I had at Diesel had some really nice pear and cocoa notes and a subtle sweetness like a delicate white wine despite a minor alkaline bitterness up front and a slightly thin body. (3)
The only El Salvador currently on Intelligentsia’s menu is the Finca Matalapa, Guayabo, which someone handed me a cup of the other day. I didn’t catch whether the El Salvador at Diesel was the Guayabo, but if it was, it fell way short of that coffee’s potential. My cup at Diesel was sour rather than tart and lacked the requisite sweet and fruity qualities it should have possessed. (2+)
I didn’t catch which Kahve blend 1369 uses for their espresso, but despite reservations I may have had about this roaster, the shot I had wasn’t bad (8/25/10 correction: as noted in the comment, the espresso is Barrington Coffee Roasters Gold Blend, which may explain my surprise at the better quality.). It had a silky mouthfeel and a tea-like body. The thin but enduring, reddish crema gave way to a shot with toasted marshmallow sweetness that was, unfortunately lacking acidity to balance. It also left a slightly ashy aftertaste. (3)
The cup of Tanzania Peaberry was a perfectly pleasant coffee with some nice acidity and mildly sweet notes. Unfortunately, this coffee has something of a muted, flat quality that I couldn’t easily pin on brewing, storage or coffee quality. I suspect, though, that this coffee might have fared better if brewed to order. (3-)
What’s difficult with both cafes is that they are doing a a lot of things right. They are offering options, decent coffee, have good equipment and staff appear to have a decent degree of skill at their craft. At the same time, I had some issues with coffee quality and felt only the illusion of choice. While both cafes had many coffees on tap, most were not one’s I’d pick bases solely on the roast levels of these coffees.
If made to chose, I’d probably lean towards Diesel given the fact that Intelligentsia coffee is likely to be better on average. Plus, pool tables and a bigger food menu make it seem like a more fun place to hang out. It’s also easier to get to, if a little farther out from the center of things, given that it’s located right at the Davis street T stop. Bottom line is that both shops are fine and serve above average coffee, but I can’t say that either shop impressed me, especially given the other, better options that now exist in Bean Town.