Coffee Chronicles: Reconsidering New York's Coffee Identity

Editor's note: Longtime Serious Eats contributor Allison Hemler knows her coffee, having spent two years as a barista and more than five in the service industry. She'll be joining us each week with Coffee Chronicles, taking a look at the New York coffee world, one espresso at a time. Please welcome Allison!

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Serious espresso. Photograph: tonx on Flickr.

Learning about coffee comes from hours of lingering near bags of green coffee beans at a roastery, spending days behind the bar watching espresso develop its creamy caramel hue, and forming what's known as the "barista muscle" on your dominant arm. Learning how people consume coffee is an ongoing observation from visiting other cafes, restaurants, and brewing it at home for visitors.

Between the two, in the years I've been serving both terrible and mind-blowing coffee, I've witnessed a steadily mounting coffee craze. New York has started to look at coffee in the way of cities such as Seattle, where espresso is served at gas stations and strip clubs. The problem in the city is that most of us are constantly on the go, and since most coffee out there is brown sludge, we don't take the time to discover that it can be enjoyable. Here, it's about getting it fast, dark, and cheap. It's the caffeine New Yorkers care about--we think it's supposed to taste bad. When was the last time you were able to savor every sip of coffee like a glass of a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir or a Vermont hard raw-milk chevre?

New York didn't see quality coffee until around 2000, when independent shops highlighting small roasters surfaced and delivered a consistent cup. In a city of cutthroat competition for the dollar and favorable reviews, a consistent and high-quality product is a goldmine. That's why Ninth Street, Joe, Grumpy, Gimme, and Abraço are now household names--and still in business. But not every patron is here for a cappuccino in a porcelain mug. Our pace in New York hasn't slowed. We still want the "large coffee" to go, from whatever roast is the freshest.

So how can we get New York to actually enjoy coffee, when they do find a moment to relax? Introduce coffee as a well-crafted beverage in the city's most popular industry--restaurants. If the job of a good restaurant is to provide an amazing experience from beginning to end, then coffee, as the token end to a meal, should be just as memorable as that amuse bouche.

20090825gramtav.jpgTake Gramercy Tavern. About one year ago, they brought Blue Bottle trainers out from San Francisco to teach baristas on a manual La Marzocco, provided them with beans (with a known bean-to-cup trail), and started pulling high-quality shots to finely tuned palates. I took my friend Erin Hulbert, a Seattle native with over ten years in the coffee industry, on a weekday excursion to Gramercy Tavern to sip some 'spro and brainstorm on serving coffee to the masses.

We began with a Blue Bottle double ristretto shot ($5) which was brought to the bar at least 15 seconds after it was pulled. In that time, espresso tends to lose its flavor as the crema fades, but we still couldn't find much to complain about. ("Good enough for a dead shot," Erin commented.) I doubt diners would notice--it'll probably still be the best espresso shot they've ever had.

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Then we ordered a cappuccino ($6), which brought out some of the dirtier characteristics of the espresso, and possibly the machine. Erin always tells me a clean machine is a happy machine. Still, by its appearances, the cappuccino seemed pretty damn happy to be there.

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While the espresso drinks aren't listed anywhere on the menu, the dessert menu features press pots with beans from Queens-based Dallis Coffee. We tried the Harrar (Ethopia), brewed in a French press with cinnamon, cardamom pods, and orange peel ($6, can serve two at about 6 oz. of coffee per person). This is the effort you expect to see from Gramercy Tavern--a crafted cup from a restaurant with an incredible beverage program. While the cup doesn't highlight the bean or represent its origins, it's a cup that forces you to reconsider the placement of coffee in a meal. Why must coffee be listed beside a graham cracked crusted strawberry shortcake, when it may go just as well with a pork chop or risotto? Brunch may be the place for coffee paired with savory items, but it may be just as interesting at 5 p.m. or 10 p.m. It's difficult to popularize a coffee like Blue Bottle espresso if it can't be seen on the menu, but word of mouth and blog coverage seems to be enough for frequent diners.

Gramercy Tavern isn't the only restaurant pulling decent shots of espresso--but they're one of the most well-known. A strong coffee program in restaurants is possible even with smaller establishments, who don't have the money for a $15,000 machine, if they research and plan into a reasonable machine, grinder, and choice of roaster, and master the techniques. French press coffee is unbelievably easy to brew--restaurants just need to have enough presses, timers, and hot water. The infusion highlights the inherent flavors of the bean, especially with freshly ground.

If Gramercy Tavern, Brooklyn brunch hangouts, Stumptown's Brooklyn roastery, and other roasters planning relocations and shops all work together to develop a new respect for coffee in this town, maybe we'll all start taking a minute or fifteen to enjoy our coffee, whether it's espresso-based, drip, or press-pot. I'm not claiming we'll be the next Seattle, but we'll form our own identity in coffee--brewed with plenty of sass.

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