Coffee Groundswell: Gotham Joe Finally Catches Up

It seems like a problem for physicists rather than foodies: How could a city that moves so fast fall behind in something that actually makes us faster?

Despite our spot in the culinary vanguard, New York has clung to cups of Dark Ages deli coffee, its drinkers wed to the pragmatic romance of the fast and cheap rather than the sophisticated, taste and craft-based coffee long since standard out in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.

The disconnect between New Yorkers’ famous insistence on the best food and drink and our reluctance to elevate coffee beyond the most basic characterless commodity has baffled the coffeerati for years. But a few enterprising pioneers are persuading Gotham’s caffeinated masses to see coffee as a culinary course rather than a cheap drug habit. As blunt efficiency makes way for taste, New York coffee is finally catching up.
A coffee wasteland specked only by a few brave, high-end cafés even three or four years ago, nowadays one need only creep a few blocks (in lower Manhattan, anyway) to come upon a cup of conscientiously sourced, expertly prepared, deliciously complex coffee. Roasters and retailers like Durham’s Counter Culture Coffee, Portland’s Stumptown and Chicago’s Intelligentsia have flocked to the city to hang their shingles in a landscape that’s become noticeably crowded. And the wagers ride on what’s in the cup.

Last to the Party
The West Coast beat us by decades.

Pioneers like Alfred Peet, founder of arguably the United States’s first true specialty coffee company, began roasting and selling coffee in Berkeley in the 1960s, but up the coast a piece, things really got steaming in the ’80s. David Schomer rolled out the first Vivace cart in Seattle in 1987, and across the Pacific Northwest specialty cafés soon popped up like mushrooms after the region’s famous rains (as did Starbucks, widely credited even by detractors for popularizing the notion that “fancy” coffee could be an everyday luxury).

From these origins came the traditions and concerns of the so-called “third wave” modern-day coffee movement: the promotion of sustainable production, socially conscious trade, the elevation of espresso and the introduction of latte art.

The scene gave rise to now-venerated shops and roasteries like Victrola and Vivace in Seattle and Stumptown in Portland. Eventually entrepreneurs elsewhere bet (correctly) that the third wave might fly outside the foggy sensibilities of the Northwest. In 1995, a little company called Intelligentsia Coffee fired up the North Side of Chicago, gradually drifting from a simple neighborhood coffee house toward a groundbreaking trader and roaster. In 2002, Blue Bottle Coffee began roasting their own boutique coffees in the East Bay, and a year later an ambitious pair of coffee lovers opened Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco’s Mission District.

But here, as recently as five years ago, options beyond the deli or Starbucks were few—until a handful of pluckish cafés made gutsy attempts to serve straight-up, no-bullshit, sophisticated espresso and coffee drinks, even as naysayers predicted New Yorkers would give up their brew only when you pried the Greek bodega cups from their cold, dead hands. Earliest pioneers included Ninth Street Espresso, a shabby, tough outpost way over on Avenue C in 2000; Joe The Art of Coffee, which opened a cozy West Village spot at the corner of Waverly and Gay in the summer of 2003; and Ithaca’s Gimme! Coffee, which opened a lonely store over in Williamsburg the same year.

Ken Nye, founder of Ninth Street Espresso (originally Higher Grounds), left the bar business for coffee when the revolution had barely been whispered of on Eastern shores: “There was nobody doing anything progressive with coffee in New York at that time,” he says.

“It literally didn’t exist, the word macchiato,” recalls Jonathan Rubinstein of Joe The Art of Coffee. “No one had ever heard of these things.”

But Rubinstein had, and he was sure he could sell them. “It just seemed so painfully obvious that if even the bad coffee places had lines out the door, it didn’t seem like a very large risk. Even though everybody said ‘You’re crazy to start a thing like that, it’s such a crapshoot, New York costs are so high.’ It was with a little bit of hubris that we first opened.”

On that taste gamble, Joe, Ninth Street and Gimme! slowly began to shift New Yorkers’ perceptions of what coffee could be. Espressos became intense unadulterated double—or triple!—ristretto shots; cappuccinos abandoned sudsy froth for silky foam in intricate rosetta patterns. Historically obstinate drinkers who had recently been trained by the Starbucks boom to accept highbrow coffee as a legitimate section of consumable culture began to seek out specialty cafés.

And not just for espresso. Drip coffee—once the firm terrain of industrial brewers and cream-and-sugar-takers—began its own graceful evolution. Single-origin coffees with deep flavor began to gain prominence alongside blends, which had long been crafted with an eye toward balance and economy. Unique, high-quality coffees became more widely available, as did methods of brewing. Shops began to offer French press alongside regular brewers, and in 2006, when Greenpoint’s neighborhoodsy Café Grumpy opened an outpost on West 20th, it featured something revolutionary: an $11,000, automated, one-cup-at-a-time brewing device called the Clover. In fact, they had two.

“People were skeptical,” recalls Café Grumpy co-owner Caroline Bell, about the Clover’s debut, a risk which bet that edgy Manhattanites would wait for quality. It worked.

Deus ex Machina
The introduction of the Clover—this mythical machine perhaps known best for its grounds-sweeping squeegee accessory and uncannily clean brew, justifying prices as high as $9 a cup— signaled that serious coffee had arrived. (Though don’t expect the machine to show up at your local shop: Starbucks recently bought the brand for itself.)

“People got really interested in the coffee menu,” says Bell of Grumpy’s shift, “and in tasting different coffees from different farms. We had an all-Ethiopia month, and having people recognize differences in coffees from different parts of Ethiopia was really cool. People are willing to think about it as more than just a regular cup of coffee.”

And so the kettle tipped. Within the past two years more than a dozen coffee shops offering “more than just a regular cup of coffee” have started brewing, including Abraço Espresso in the East Village, an espresso-and-brew-to-order boîte founded by expat West Coasters; Everyman Espresso, a no-nonsense espresso bar inhabiting a space briefly run by Ninth Street Espresso on 13th; a second retail outpost on Seventh Avenue from the upstate roaster Irving Mill, which opened their first café on Irving Place a decade ago; and the Mercury Dime, a brocade-walled spot on East Fifth established by NYC’s mixologist of record, Sasha Petraske. Joe can now caffeinate you in the Art of Coffee at five locations, Gimme! converted a Nolita wine bar into their second city espresso bar and Ninth Street can also be found on 10th Street—and in the foodie bordello halls of Chelsea Market.

Why did it take a city of food snobs so long to get here? “It’s daunting,” offers Mike White, Gimme! Coffee’s New York City regional manager, by way of explanation. “Coffee is such a specialty item that the top cafés in the country do nothing else. It’d be like if Per Se only did foie gras and nothing else.”

The risks paid off. And though the city’s budding coffee culture has remained largely independent of the foodie phenomenon, it parallels that movement’s philosophies of conscious consumption, farm-to-table eating, quality ingredients and respect for craft.

Roasting Closer to Home
Which is why the next step is roasting. Though our finest cafés source beautifully flavored, ethically traded, sustainably grown coffees from award-winning farms, almost all of our city’s beans are roasted a great distance away: Counter Culture Coffee roasts in North Carolina, Intelligentsia in Chicago and L.A., and Barrington Coffee Roasters in Western Massachusetts—adding up to an economic and environmental cost that rings unpleasant to many. DIY roasting would offset those factors, while offering cafés more intimacy and control and less risk of losing flavor quality along the beans’ journey.

Joining a scant few regional and boutique roasters like Irving Mill in Millerton, Brooklyn’s Gorilla, the Finger Lakes’ Gimme!, and upstate’s Plowshares,
Portland’s venerated Stumptown planted a flag here late last year, peddling beans at light speed to restaurants and cafés in advance of establishing their roastery in Red Hook later this year, becoming one of just a handful of specialty coffee companies to set up a roasting works within the city limits. (Intelligentsia and Counter Culture have not formally announced plans to roast in the city just yet, but each has a private coffee lab in Manhattan.) Locals, too, are laying the groundwork to roast their own, as Café Grumpy gears up at their original Greenpoint space, and Abraço and Williamsburg’s Oslo make rumblings.

Stumptown is known best for procuring the finest possible green coffee, often well out of the purchasing range of its competitors. And it’s the company’s goal to get New Yorkers schooled.

“Producer and coffee-farm awareness is something I’d like to see improved here, that’s one of our missions,” says Duane Sorenson, owner of Stumptown Coffee, who took a Brooklyn apartment late last year. “We would like our customers—as well as their customers— to know more about coffee varietals, and know producers just as winemakers are known throughout the world.”

Doug Zell, whose Chicago-born Intelligentsia has grown to include shops and roasteries in L.A. and a training facility in SoHo, agrees that New York tastes and temperaments are ready: “There is a real thirst for knowledge, and that creates a great opportunity for tasting and education,” says Zell. “I don’t think everybody gets as excited if you open a coffee bar in Cleveland.”

Learning Beyond the Café
There’s a small army of educators working hard to raise New York’s coffee literacy rates, one drinker at a time. They’re called baristas.

This new, skilled class of coffee professionals delivers good coffee and its message to the coffee-curious on a daily basis. Café Grumpy lays claim to the two-years-reigning Northeast Regional Barista Champion, Amber Sather, who, along with scores of her brethren, has made preparing perfect coffee a legitimate career, the coffee bar’s equivalent of the wine world’s sommeliers.

Speaking of wine parallels, coffee tastings known as “cuppings”—traditionally used by those in the trade to determine which lots to purchase—are increasingly offered to mere mortals, free of charge, by roasters (Counter Culture Coffee hosts coffeewine pairings at its Friday Night Flights series) and cafés (Café Grumpy, Joe and Everyman Espresso all regularly invite the public to cup). The New York Coffee Society, an informal enthusiast group, has staged everything from food pairings to milk tastings, while classes like “How to Brew Great Coffee at Home” and “From Bean to Cup” sell out at Joe The Art of Coffee. And this May the French Culinary Institute convened its first-ever Coffee Summit, drawing together roasters and key specialty coffee players to advance what has been a long journey toward acknowledging coffee on a serious culinary level in this city.

It seems New Yorkers finally get it. And once we figure out how to grow oranges and raise salmon, we won’t need the West Coast at all.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell