New York Is Finally Taking Its Coffee Seriously
By OLIVER STRAND March 10, 2010, NYT
NEW YORK used to be a second-string city when it came to coffee. No longer.
Over the last two years, more than 40 new cafes and coffee bars have joined a small, dedicated group of establishments where coffee making is treated like an art, or at least a high form of craft.
At places like Bluebird Coffee Shop in the East Village, the espresso is so plush and bright that it tastes sweet on its own.
The elaborate designs in the cappuccino’s foam at Third Rail Coffee in the West Village aren’t just to show off, but are a sign that the barista properly steamed the milk so that it holds its form.
At Abraço in the East Village, you can get drip coffee brewed by the cup, not drawn from an urn.
For years New Yorkers had to look to places like Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Ore., or Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco for this kind of quality. Now both companies have opened roasters and coffee bars in New York. Four Barrel Coffee of San Francisco will be roasting here soon.
Meanwhile, some established cafes around the city have made moves toward roasting their own beans. Café Grumpy is already doing it, and Abraço will by the summer.
This means that New Yorkers can now drink coffee that is made from some of the best beans available in the United States, freshly roasted in town.
The difference between a cup of coffee from these new style coffee bars and what was available before is striking.
These shops use only beans that have been roasted in the past 10 days (though some say two weeks is fine), so the flavors are still lively.
The beans are ground to order for each cup. Certain coffee bars have a skyline of grinders: one for espresso, one for decaffeinated espresso, one for brewed coffee. If they offer more than one variety of espresso bean, that gets its own grinder, too.
Milk is steamed to order for each macchiato or latte. A telltale sign is an arsenal of smaller steam pitchers, instead of one big one.
And coffee bars reaching for the highest rung use only manual espresso machines run by baristas who, in the past three years, have been able to attend classes given by the leading roasting companies in the intricacies of these devices. Many chain stores are turning to automatic machines with preset levels for coffee, temperature and timing.
For brewed coffee, there are French press pots, filter cones or machines like the Clover or Bunn’s new Trifecta.
Some of the obsessiveness may get a bit off-putting. Want an espresso to go at Ninth Street Espresso? Forget it. The baristas there believe it should be drunk immediately from a warm ceramic cup. Want a cappuccino made from single-origin beans at Kaffe 1668? Sorry, you’ll be told, but milk would overpower the subtle flavors of the coffee. Wonder why the barista pulled and tossed out two shots of espresso before she served you yours? She was making sure it was perfect, the coffee evenly tamped, the water temperature ideal for the particular beans, the timing just right. (The best baristas will “dial in” throughout the day, tasting the espresso and adjusting the grind and dose.)
Want a double espresso? You’ll have to buy two singles.
Today, most of the chains use about seven grams of ground coffee for a two-ounce shot. Espresso pods are filled with around five grams.
Baristas at the best places in town, like Bluebird Coffee Shop or Joe, tamp down between 19 and 21 grams. Often the espresso is even more concentrated because it’s pulled “short,” with less water, so that the final volume is a thick 1.5 to 2 ounces.
With that much coffee — and care — put into each shot, baristas feel that a larger shot, with more water, would compromise the quality of the espresso.
This awakening has led some unlikely businesses to offer serious, artful drinks. Saturdays Surf, a minimalist surf shop in SoHo, has a vintage la Marzocco machine next to the cash register. At Moomah, a children’s center in TriBeCa, parents can enjoy one of the city’s more artful cappuccinos.
Even restaurants, where coffee has long been an afterthought, are getting in on the act.
Superior coffee, day after day: increasingly it’s the rule in New York, not the exception.
Here are places in New York serving the best coffee. Included are 10 outstanding coffee bars (listed with an asterisk) that not only produce extraordinary coffee at the highest standards, but also do so with consistency, day after day. There are also coffee bars that serve particularly good drip coffee, restaurants with great coffee, coffee bars with nice baked goods and places to buy beans, all of which are noted on a map, here.
The Best Coffee Places in Manhattan and Brooklyn
* ABRAÇO There’s barely room enough for six standing adults, never mind the dozen or more who can crowd in during prime time. And yet in this cramped space the baristas turn out some of the city’s best cappuccinos and drip coffee. There’s a small, exquisite selection of baked goods, including a memorable cookie with cured olives. The owner, Jamie McCormick, will start roasting beans soon in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
86 East Seventh Street (First Avenue), no telephone, abraconyc.com.
BABA A tasteful little Italian-accented specialty store that doubles as restaurant with a serious coffee setup.
502 Lorimer Street (Powers Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (347) 227-7133, bababrooklyn.com.
BAKERI Pretty and crowded, Bakeri produces an astonishing variety of pastries and breads (there must be elves in the basement) and coffee that is sometimes as good as what’s found at the city’s most serious spots.
150 Wythe Avenue (North Eighth Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (718) 388-8037, bakeribrooklyn.com.
BEANER BAR So small, it’s really a coffee counter. There’s a vivid Mexican theme: chili in the hot chocolate, skeletons on the wall.
447 Graham Avenue (Richardson Street), Greenpoint, Brooklyn, no telephone, beanerbar.com.
BIRCH COFFEE With its plywood seating and dark-roast beans, Birch Coffee feels like it belongs in a college town instead of the ground floor of the Gershwin Hotel.
5 East 27th Street, (212) 686-1444, birchcoffee.com.
BLUE BOTTLE COFFEE The sleek Williamsburg location of this San Francisco import has single-origin espresso from a vintage San Marco lever machine, five Japanese slow-drippers that take 12 hours to make iced coffee and other unusual gadgets. All beans are roasted on the premises.
160 Berry Street (North Fifth Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; (718) 534-5488, bluebottlecoffee.net.
* BLUEBIRD COFFEE SHOP So pleasant, it’s disarming — tiny and flooded with sunlight, it’s easy to sit and linger over one of the pastries baked here daily. But the coffee is exceptional. Katie Duris, one of the country’s most respected baristas, sets a high standard: the espresso is bright and lush, the cortado a sublime balance of coffee and steamed milk.
72 East First Street (First Avenue), East Village, (212) 260-1879, bluebirdcoffeeshop.com.
134 Kingsland Avenue (Beadel Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (718) 963-0656, brooklynboneshakers.com.
764A Franklin Avenue (St. Johns Place), Crown Heights, Brooklyn, (718) 789-7070.
BROOKLYN LABEL A cavernous restaurant in a quiet corner of Greenpoint. You can have a shot of espresso standing at the bar.
180 Franklin Street (Java Street), Greenpoint, Brooklyn, (718) 389-2806, brooklynlabel.com.
CAFÉ 474 Overstuffed couches and great beans almost in the shadow of the elevated Fourth Avenue subway station.
474 Fourth Avenue (11th Street), Park Slope, Brooklyn, no telephone.
* CAFÉ GRUMPY Café Grumpy always offered the city’s widest variety of coffees by the cup. Caroline Bell, one of the owners, is still committed to bringing in selections from some of the country’s best roasters. Grumpy recently inaugurated a roaster at its Greenpoint shop. A third location, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is more coffee bar than cafe, and better suited to standing when you drink your flat white. 224 West 20th Street, Chelsea, (212) 255-5511; 383 Seventh Avenue (11th Street), Park Slope, Brooklyn, (718) 499-4404; 193 Meserole Avenue (Diamond Street), Greenpoint, Brooklyn, (718) 349-7623; cafegrumpy.com.
CAFÉ PEDLAR A joint venture by Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo (Frankies Spuntino and Prime Meats) and Duane Sorensen (Stumptown Coffee Roasters), with a Cobble Hill location that’s large, airy and popular with the stroller set, and a Lower East Side space that’s more intimate.
210 Court Street (Warren Street), Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, (718) 855-7129; 17 Clinton Street (East Houston Street), (212) 253-2303, cafepedlar.com.
CAFÉ REGULAR A dark and moody sliver of a space so narrow, all the seating is side-by-side. Dark roast beans from La Colombe Torrefaction.
318 11th Street (Fifth Avenue), Park Slope, Brooklyn, (718) 768-4170.
CAFÉ REGULAR DU NORD The more cheerful sibling of Café Regular. There’s a chandelier, a full-scale reproduction of James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” and a few tables on the terrace out front.
158 Berkeley Place (Sixth Avenue), Park Slope, Brooklyn, (718) 783-0673.
CAFFÉ MOCIAS This tiny kosher coffee bar observes Shabbat. Drip coffee is made with beans from PT’s Coffee Roasting Company from Topeka, considered to be one of the country’s best artisanal roasters. Plans are to turn the cafe into a Screme Gelato Bar, though the coffee will stay.
711 Amsterdam Avenue (94th Street), Upper West Side, (347) 533-2800, mocias.com.
CHAMPION COFFEE A sleepy neighborhood spot tucked away in the northernmost end of Greenpoint. Might be the only place in New York to use beans from the notable Seattle roaster Caffé Vita.
1108 Manhattan Avenue (Clay Street), Greenpoint, Brooklyn, (718) 383-5195, championcoffee.net.
CITY GIRL CAFE A cramped room with flea market furniture, it feels like a throwback to a cobbled-together SoHo that existed before the boutiques.
63 Thompson Street (Spring Street), SoHo, (212) 343-0110, citygirlcafeny.com.
CLOVER CAFE AND ART GALLERY There’s a coffee bar pulling shots in the front this large art gallery on a busy stretch of Atlantic Avenue.
338 Atlantic Avenue (Hoyt Street), Boreum Hill, Brooklyn, (718) 625-2121.
LA COLOMBE TORREFACTION A Philadelphia company known for its darker roasts. It opened a loft-like TriBeCa storefront in 2007 and a more streamlined coffee bar in SoHo in 2009.
319 Church Street (Lispenard Street), TriBeCa, (212) 343-1515; 270 Lafayette Street (Prince Street), SoHo, (212) 625-1717, lacolombe.com.
CULTURE ESPRESSO BAR Culture is part of the Australian coffee diaspora (one owner is from Down Under) and one of the few serious coffee bars in Midtown.
72 West 38th Street (Sixth Avenue), Midtown, (212) 302-0200, cultureespresso.com.
ESPRESSO 77 Child-friendly, small, and crowded, Espresso 77 is on a side street in a busy part of Jackson Heights. There’s beer, wine and Gimme! Coffee.
35-57 77th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens, (718) 424-1077, espresso77.com.
EVERYMAN ESPRESSO It’s little more than a handful of tables and a coffee counter in the lobby of the Classic Stage Company, an Off Broadway theater, but its owner, Sam Penix, is much admired by espresso-heads.
136 East 13th Street (Third Avenue), East Village, (212) 533-0524, everymanespresso.com.
FIVE LEAVES The baristas at this restaurant can hold their own with the city’s leading coffee bars. The affogato is transcendent: two shots of espresso served with vanilla ice cream from the General Greene, it is the best in the city.
FORT DEFIANCE In a part of Red Hook that feels like a sleepy Maine port, Fort Defiance is part bar, part restaurant and part serious coffee joint with trained baristas. In the morning there’s pour-over coffee made with single-origin beans.
365 Van Brunt Street (Dikeman Street), Red Hook, Brooklyn, (347) 453-6672, fortdefiancebrooklyn.com.
* GIMME! COFFEE Ithaca-based Gimme! Coffee has been counted among the city’s best coffee bars since it arrived in New York in 2003. The baristas balance the espresso with expertly steamed milk for an intense, rich cappuccino. It recently started offering single-origin coffee brewed by the cup.
228 Mott Street (Prince Street), NoLIta, (212) 226-4011; 495 Lorimer Street (Powers Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (718) 388-7771; gimmecoffee.com.
GLASS SHOP A storefront kept attractively raw. There’s a full lunch menu and flat whites — one of the owners is from Australia.
766 Classon Avenue (Sterling Place), Crown Heights, Brookyn, (718) 450-8905, glassshoplocal.com.
GORILLA COFFEESome of the best baristas in the business, working with the best machines. Gorilla Coffee roasts its own beans, and it goes for a flavor profile so dark its almost ashy. Still, this Park Slope coffee bar, a neighborhood favorite, is always busy.
GROUND SUPPORT It has the airy feeling of the art gallery that once occupied the space. Tourists and locals sit at rough wood tables and enjoy well-crafted espresso drinks, single-origin Chemex drip coffee, cold-brew iced coffee and a range of pastries and sandwiches.
399 West Broadway (Spring Street), SoHo, (212) 219-8722.
INDIAN ROAD CAFE & MARKET In a part of Manhattan that feels less like a metropolis than a quiet Hudson Valley hamlet, the macchiato is solid, and a nominal market has a good selection of beans from Counter Culture Coffee.
600 West 218th Street (Indian Road), Inwood, (212) 942-7451, indianroadcafe.com.
IRIS CAFE Hidden in one of the prettiest corners of Brooklyn Heights, Iris Cafe has a simple menu (fresh sticky buns are a must) and a serious coffee bar. The macchiato can be great.
20 Columbia Place (Joralemon Street), Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn, (718) 722-7395.
JITTERY JOE’S Based in Athens, Ga., it opened its first New York branch in the gloomy lobby of a fashion business school in Midtown East — it’s a makeshift setting and the beans are dark roast; the baristas are talented.
216 East 45th Street (Second Avenue), (646) 218-7729, jitteryjoes.com.
* JOE Joe reinvented itself last year: it started buying beans from Ecco Caffé, a highly regarded roaster; it retrained its staff; and it streamlined its locations, giving extra space to upgraded coffee gear. You can taste the difference. The macchiato is a work of art, and in the late morning when the crowds die down, some branches offer pour-overs, with single-origin beans. Last year, a Joe opened on the Upper West Side, bringing serious coffee to an underserved neighborhood.
141 Waverly Place (Sixth Avenue), Greenwich Village, (212) 924-6750; 9 East 13th Street (University Place), Greenwich Village, (212) 924-7400; 405 West 23rd Street (Ninth Avenue), Chelsea, (212) 206-0669; 89 East 42nd Street (Grand Central Terminal), (212) 661-8580; 514 Columbus Avenue (West 85th Street), Upper West Side, (212) 875-0100; joetheartofcoffee.com.
* KAFFE 1668 In some ways, Kaffe 1668 is a neighborhood cafe; in other ways, it’s an orthodox coffee bar. For New Yorkers on the run, there are lattes in paper cups and jumbo cookies. But for the obsessed, there is drip coffee from a Clover machine, or seasonal single-origin espresso, which the baristas refuse to serve in a cappuccino because the milk would mask the flavor.
275 Greenwich Street (Warren Street), TriBeCa, (212) 693-3750, kaffe1668.com.
KNAVE Le Parker Meridien converted a soaring, vaulted corridor into one of the most ceremonious settings in New York for a cup of coffee. And at $6 for a cappuccino, it’s one of the most expensive cups as well — though the anise-scented cookie that comes with every cup takes away some of the sting.
118 West 57th Street (Le Parker Meridien Hotel), (212) 708-7392, parkermeridien.com/eat5.php.
MAIALINO This Roman-style restaurant turns coffee into a ritual: during the morning, a pour-over drip bar is set up in a sunny area up front.
In the Gramercy Park Hotel, 2 Lexington Avenue (East 21st Street), Gramercy Park, (212) 777-2410, maialinonyc.com.
MARLOW & SONS During the day, it acts like a cafe, with a full-service coffee bar that opens at 8 a.m. A selection of whole beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters is available at Marlow & Daughters, just down the street.
81 Broadway (Berry Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (718) 384-1441, marlowandsons.com.
MCNALLY JACKSON BOOKS This bookstore recently revamped its café, bringing in beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Drinks like the espresso and macchiato are well crafted; larger drinks like the latte are unfocused.
52 Prince Street (Mulberry Street), NoLIta, (212) 274-1160, mcnallyjackson.com.
MILK BAR Cheerful and family friendly, with a full cafe menu. One of the owners is Australian, which means there’s a flat white on the menu and cocoa powder on the cappuccino.
620 Vanderbilt Avenue (Prospect Place), Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, (718) 230-0844, milkbarbrooklyn.com.
MOOMAH CAFÉ An arts and crafts center for stylish TriBeCa children where the coffee is as good as at any of the hip spots in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Stroller parking out front.
161 Hudson Street (Laight Street), TriBeCa, (212) 226-0345, moomah.com.
THE NATIONAL At night, it is an intimate restaurant; by day, it’s a coffee bar with good cappuccinos and a small selection of pastries baked in house.
8 Rivington Street (the Bowery), Lower East Side (212) 777-2177.
* NINTH STREET ESPRESSO Each Ninth Street Espresso feels different, and yet the harried shoppers at the Chelsea Market, the parents with strollers across from Tompkins Square Park and the laptop crowd at the original Ninth Street location all enjoy uniformly excellent coffee. Last spring, the owner, Ken Nye, did the next best thing to roasting his own beans by creating the Alphabet City Blend with Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea. It’s good in a cappuccino, great in a macchiato and exquisite in an espresso — which is only available to stay.
700 East Ninth Street (Avenue C), East Village, (212) 358-9225; 341 East 10th Street (Avenue B), East Village, (212) 777-3508; in the Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Avenue (West 15 Street), (212) 228-2930; ninthstreetespresso.com.
ORTINE A rambling cafe with creaky chairs and mismatched vintage cups and saucers. A small selection of whole beans from Intelligentsia Coffee and tea is available.
622 Washington Avenue (Pacific Street), Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, (718) 622-0026, ortine.com.
OSLO COFFEE COMPANY A Williamsburg standby, Oslo Coffee Company started roasting its own beans in 2008. There’s a lever-operated espresso machine at the Bedford Avenue location, one of the few found in the city.
133 Roebling Street (North Fourth Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (718) 782-0332; 328 Bedford Avenue (South Second Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (718) 782-0332, oslocoffee.com.
OST CAFE Excellent coffee, including a fine cappuccino. Most people here seem to nurse their drinks, a tacit rent for the comfy chairs and WiFi.
441 East 12th Street (Avenue A), (212) 477-5600, ostcafenyc.com.
PRIME MEATS The restaurant still isn’t fully open, but its the restaurant’s coffee bar is running at full steam, with beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters and gorgeous German-accented pastries baked downstairs. It turns out a pretzel with butter and sea salt that goes nicely with a macchiato.
465 Court Street (Luquer Street), Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, (718) 254-0327, frankspm.com.
RBC NYC Slick and ambitious, RBC is best known for having New York’s only Slayer, a tricked-out variable pressure espresso machine made in Seattle. It should be known for its Vietnamese coffee, a short espresso-fueled version of the classic mix of coffee and condensed milk.
71 Worth Street (Church Street), TriBeCa, (212) 226-1111, rbcnyc.com.
ROOTS & VINES A wine bar and sandwich shop with serious coffee. It’s in a part of the Lower East Side that feels a world away from the trendy bustle of Clinton Street.
409 Grand Street (Clinton Street), Lower East Side, (212) 260-2363, rootsandvinesnyc.com.
ROOTS CAFEIt feels like a coffeehouse from the 1990s, with bordello-red walls and bookcases filled with paperbacks. There’s a good selection of whole beans.
639A Fifth Avenue (18th Street), Park Slope, Brooklyn, (205) 246-2149, rootscafebrooklyn.com.
SATURDAYS SURF If you’re going to open an upscale surf shop in SoHo, why not turn the front into a coffee bar? The baristas are so good you don’t mind the paper cups — which are easier to carry to the deck in back anyway.
31 Crosby Street (Grand Street), SoHo, (212) 966-7875.
SECOND STOP CAFE Decorated with furniture that looks as if it was just pulled down out of the attic. It’s as much a cafe as a coffee bar, where patrons angle for a prime seat and spend the day working on their laptops.
524 Lorimer Street (Ainslie Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (718) 486-6850.
SIT & WONDER A large and dimly lighted room that feels a little like a bar, the kind where you get beer. It’s serious about coffee, with a rotating selection of serious origin espressos.
688 Washington Avenue (St. Marks Avenue), Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, (718) 622-0299.
THE SMILE This stylish, dimly lighted basement restaurant has a vintage Faema from 1963 (not the reissue), regarded as the first modern espresso machine. But even if you don’t care about the mechanics you can appreciate the aesthetics — the dials look as if they’re from a Fiat Spider. And everybody can appreciate the plummy espressos.
26 Bond Street (the Bowery), NoHo, (646) 329-5836, thesmilenyc.com.
SOUTHSIDE COFFEE This friendly, bare-bones coffee bar opened in 2009 and is already a neighborhood fixture. The chairs out front fill up when the weather is nice.
652 Sixth Avenue (19th Street), Park Slope, Brooklyn, (347) 599-0887.
* STUMPTOWN COFFEE ROASTERS With its travertine floors, walnut bar and natty staff, this is a striking setting for a cappuccino. The drink is up to the surroundings. Cold-brewed iced coffee tastes as bright and fruity as berries steeped in water, while a shot of espresso is so sweet and plush you’ll wish it lasted longer. Starting at $3.70, the mocha, made with Mast Brothers Chocolate, is one of New York’s most reasonably priced luxuries.
18 West 29th Street (Broadway), no telephone, stumptowncoffee.com.
SWEET LEAF This wedge of a coffee bar sits at a traffic-clogged crossroads in Long Island City, though once you’re inside the airy room, it feels like a sanctuary. The baristas know coffee, and there’s an excellent selection of whole beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Pastries are baked fresh all day.
10-93 Jackson Avenue (49th Avenue), Long Island City, Queens, (917) 832-6726, sweetleaflic.com.
THINK COFFEE All three Think Coffee locations are large and well run. The espresso is a custom Italian-style dark blend from Porto Rico Importing. More interesting are the brewed-to-order coffees made with beans from different artisanal roasters.
248 Mercer Street (West Fourth Street), Greenwich Village, (212) 533-3366; 1 Bleecker Street (the Bowery), NoHo, (212) 228-6226; 123 Fourth Avenue (East 12th Street), Greenwich Village, (212) -614-6644, thinkcoffeenyc.com.
* THIRD RAIL COFFEE Third Rail Coffee punches above its weight. It’s one of the city’s smallest coffee bars, and its most focused. The owners, Humberto Ricardo and Rita McCaffrey, offer at least two different espresso blends (each needs its own grinder, a commitment of capital and counter space), single-origin coffee in a Chemex and a full range of espresso drinks. The cortado is memorable.
240 Sullivan Street (West Third Street), Greenwich Village, no telephone, thirdrailcoffee.com.
VAN LEEUWEN ARTISAN ICE CREAM Last year Panda and Roo, two of the Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream trucks, were outfitted with Kees van der Westen espresso machines, and what they make is about as good as you’ll get in a paper cup. Now they have a permanent location in Greenpoint, too.
632 Manhattan Avenue (Nassau Avenue), Greenpoint, Brooklyn, (718) 701-1630; Panda truck (@VLAIC), Fifth Avenue and 15th Street, Flatiron district, Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Roo truck (@VLAIC), Sixth Avenue and West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., and at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., vanleeuwenicecream.com.
* VARIETY COFFEE AND TEA Both locations of Variety Coffee and Tea look a little ramshackle — mismatched furniture, stacks of fliers by the door — but the baristas are professionals, and serve coffee with an endearing formality more in keeping with Milan and Rome than Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Just as important, the staff is highly skilled, and they serve as artful a cappuccino as you’ll find in New York.
368 Graham Avenue (Conselyea Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (347) 599-2351; 145 Driggs Avenue (Russell Street), Greenpoint, Brooklyn, (347) 689-3790, varietynyc.com.
VILLAGE TART The menu is still a work in progress, but the coffee is serious. Espresso drinks are made with Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea and guest coffees from different artisanal roasters brewed-to-order either on a French press or in a Clever Coffee Dripper. Some baristas are skilled, but some could use more training.
86 Kenmare Street (Mulberry Street), NoLIta, (212) 226-4980, villagetart.com
An interactive map of the coffee bar and cafe listings can be found here.
Decaf With Pedigree and Flavor
By KIM SEVERSON March 10, 2010
AT coffee drinkers’ high school, the decaf crowd always sits at the losers’ table.
They know coffee geeks call their double-shot decaffeinated cappuccinos “why bothers.” They lie awake deep into the night, pondering whether the waiter was spiteful or just lazy when he poured what was evidently a cup of regular.
But things are looking up for coffee’s least respected fans. The latest wave of niche coffee roasters — the small companies that brag about their Bwayi beans from Burundi and their ceramic V60 coffee dripper from Japan — are committed to finding a more delicious decaf.
“We have a special obligation to the decaf drinker,” said Peter Giuliano, director of coffee and an owner of Counter Culture Coffee, based in Durham, N.C. “Those guys are the true believers. They’re not drinking coffee because they need to wake up. They’re only drinking coffee because they like the taste.”
Since the early 1900s, when commercial decaffeinated coffee was developed and sold under the brand names Kaffee HAG and Sanka, coffee without the buzz has been more of a chemistry experiment than a vehicle for flavor.
Later, as more companies got into the premium-coffee game, the best beans usually went into signature blends and single-origin offerings. Second-rate beans went to the decaffeination plant. “I think there was and still is an idea in the trade that it’s just decaf, so use what you can get away with,” said Doug Welsh, the vice president for coffee at Peet’s Coffee & Tea and a pioneer in better-tasting decaffeinated coffee. “That’s why the vast majority of decaf isn’t very good. They didn’t start out with the same coffee.”
The decaffeination process itself doesn’t help. There are only a few methods to remove the caffeine, but they all begin the same way: with soaking in water or steaming. That means raw beans arrive from the decaffeination plant in a kind of prebrewed state, their flavor already compromised.
Now, the new breed of boutique roasters who focus extraordinary levels of attention on finding good beans are changing the art of decaf. As a result, decaffeinated coffee can have all the pedigree and, often, all the flavor any coffee geek could want.
First, they select raw coffee that retains its flavor, acidity and body even when it is roughed up in the decaffeination process. Then they roast with a gentle hand. And they try to make sure the beans move from farm to cup as quickly as possible, because coffee is an agricultural product and its quality declines with time.
“If you drink it strong, store it carefully and use it up quickly,” Blue Bottle Coffee advises customers who buy its Decaf Noir beans, “you will be rewarded with very big flavors.”
The roasters at Intelligentsia, based in Chicago, brag that their decaf La Tortuga from Honduras has a mouth feel “that remains sturdy through the captivating finish of dried figs and caramel.”
Jeremy Tooker, the owner of Four Barrel, a small roaster in San Francisco, discovered clean, sweet and potent beans in the Nyeri region of Kenya. He thinks their bright citrus and deep fruit notes survive the harsh decaffeination process quite well.
“You’ll never find a more articulate decaf,” he said. Mr. Tooker has more than a passing interest in good decaf. Like many of his customers, he was advised by his doctor to limit caffeine.
The National Coffee Association puts the population of coffee drinkers who drink decaf every day at about 10 percent. But the niche roasters say that decaf consumption is higher among their customers.
An informal survey of roasters, restaurants and coffeehouses backs that up. At Counter Culture, about 18 percent of total sales come from decaffeinated coffee. At Jardinière, a California-French restaurant in San Francisco, 33 percent of the coffee is decaf.
Baristas at a Starbucks near Grand Central Terminal said recently that about a quarter of the coffee they serve is decaffeinated. And at the Cocoa Bar in Brooklyn at about 9 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, the people behind the counter said every cup in the place was filled with decaf.
The numbers reflect the appeal of a well-made cup of coffee without the buzz, which — especially in New York — is getting easier to come by.
At Maialino, the restaurateur Danny Meyer’s new Roman trattoria in the Gramercy Park Hotel, an elaborate coffee bar is set up every morning. In addition to pulling espresso, baristas manage a long pour-over bar, where cone filters are set up over cups and streams of precisely heated water are poured over the grounds.
Managers selected Four Barrel as Maialino’s house coffee after a double-blind tasting. The company’s decaffeinated offerings, of which the restaurant orders about 30 pounds a week, were part of the attraction.
“One of the greatest compliments we’ll get is from people who get a latte in the morning and it will be so good they’ll have a decaf latte as a follow-up,” said Sam Lipp, the assistant general manager.
And then there are people like Chuck Vanderberg, who works at an information technology job in Atlanta. He’d been a serious caffeine connoisseur since his days in Austin in the mid-1990s.
“I was doing pour-over before pour-over was cool,” he said.
But things change. He was approaching 40 and developing anxiety problems. His doctor suggested switching to coffee that didn’t pack as much punch.
“My immediate gut reaction was the typical coffee snob reaction: ‘I don’t touch decaf. What’s the point?’ ” he said. “And then I decided after the umpteenth day of getting angry in rush-hour traffic that I should probably check it out.”
Over the course of two months, he slowly lowered the ratio of caffeinated to decaffeinated beans in his daily grind. “I have not really been able to discern a difference in the taste,” he said. He gets his stash from Dean’s Beans in Atlanta, which sells six different kinds of decaffeinated coffee, or from Porto Rico, because he grew up near the Manhattan coffee supplier.
Elite roasters don’t agree on which method of removing caffeine is best, and some even use more than one, depending on the characteristics of the bean.
The “direct method” sends the steamed beans through a rinse of methylene chloride, which pulls out caffeine. The process leaves hundreds of other flavor compounds intact and only bare traces of the solvent, which drying and high roasting temperatures eliminate.
Mr. Welsh, who was traveling to coffee fields before many of the new wave of young roasters even had their first cup, prefers it.
“The solvents don’t solve for the tasty things in coffee,” he said. “You can get in and out fast without damaging the flavor.”
Some newer roasters like Stumptown prefer the “mountain water process,” saying it preserves the sweetness and balance in coffee. The name was coined at a plant in Veracruz, Mexico.
It’s a new challenger to the Swiss Water Process, which the coffee roasters who came of age in the 1980s embraced. Swiss Water Process is actually a trade name used by a decaffeinating plant in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Whether it has the name Swiss or mountain attached to it, the industrial water process works through osmosis. A batch of green coffee beans is soaked in hot water and discarded. The brew is then sent through a carbon filter to remove the caffeine but leave the flavors and oils. A new batch of green beans gets soaked in the water, which draws out only the caffeine.
Removing caffeine — a bitter-tasting chemical that is in every part of the coffee plant and acts as a natural deterrent to pests — is also expensive. It can add a dollar or more to the wholesale cost of a pound, although decaf drinkers at the coffee bar pay the same for a cup as everybody else.
For all that, decaf still has a little caffeine. Amounts vary depending on how the bean is processed and how the roasted coffee is brewed. In 2007, Consumer Reports measured the caffeine in 36 small cups of decaffeinated coffee from restaurants and coffee shops in Yonkers. Levels varied from 5 milligrams at McDonald’s to 32 milligrams at Dunkin’ Donuts.
That touch of caffeine is negligible to dedicated coffee lovers like Sterling Mace of San Francisco. She has been drinking decaf since January. She feels better, she said. No more of those afternoon dips in energy.
But the woman likes her coffee. So every morning she walks along the edge of the San Francisco Bay to the Blue Bottle Coffee Company in the Ferry Building, just as she did before she quit. She jokes with the people in line and shares the news of the day with the baristas.
“What was I going to replace that with?” she asked. “A trip to the gym? I don’t think so.”
Ms. Mace likes that the people behind the counter apply the same measured focus to her decaf Americano as they do to every other drink they make. There is no losers’ table here.
But she’s not kidding herself. She knows the rest of the coffee world can still be a cold, humiliating place for someone like her.
“I think it will change,” she said, “but until then I’ll drink my decaf in the shadows.”
Just How Bold?
How good is the new breed of decaffeinated coffee? To find out, The New York Times held a blind tasting of seven decaffeinated coffees. Some were rare, single-origin beans, others were more familiar blends. For reference, there was a pot of Chock Full O’ Nuts. All coffees were ground fresh and brewed in press pots for four minutes using water that had just come to a boil. Over all, the tasters were disappointed with the coffees, but did find some worth trying.
1. STARBUCKS SUMATRA Great aroma and a smooth, chocolaty finish, if slightly over-roasted; $11.95 a pound.
2. PEET’S MAJOR DICKASON’S An earthy, drinkable coffee from a medium roast. A touch barnyardy; $13.95 a pound.
3. (TIE) FOUR BARREL NDIANI-KIAGUNDO FROM KENYA A rich, lightly roasted brew with a sharp licorice edge; $12.50 for 12 ounces.
3. BLUE BOTTLE COFFEE COMPANY DECAF NOIR A dark, almost astringent cup; $18.75 a pound.
4. COUNTER CULTURE VALLE DE SANTUARIO FROM PERU. The unusual flavor and aroma reminded several tasters of Chinese takeout; $12.25 for 12 ounces.
5. (TIE) STUMPTOWN HOUSE DECAF Thin and one-dimensional, putting one taster in mind of bank coffee; $10.75 for 12 ounces.
5. CHOCK FULL O’ NUTS Reminded tasters of grandmothers and affordable hotels; $5.19 for 12 ounces.
A Glossary of Coffee Terms
By OLIVER STRAND March 10, 2010
AFFOGATO Ice cream (traditionally vanilla) “drowned” with a shot of espresso.
AMERICANO A shot of espresso diluted with hot water.
BARISTA The person who prepares coffee at a coffee bar.
CAPPUCCINO An espresso shot combined with foamed steamed milk. Five to seven ounces total.
CHEMEX The classic hourglass-shaped filter coffee brewer. Chemex filters are denser than other paper filters, and many believe that this creates a sweeter, well-balanced cup of coffee.
CLEVER COFFEE DRIPPER Recently introduced, a filter cone with a stopper that lets coffee steep before dripping, extracting more flavor.
CLOVER High-tech single-cup brewing machine. Company was bought by Starbucks in 2007.
COLD DRIP COFFEE Coffee grounds are steeped in cold water for about 12 hours, then strained to make a concentrate that’s used for iced coffee and cut with milk or water. It’s associated with New Orleans.
CORTADO Espresso topped with flat steamed milk, 4 to 4 1/2 ounces total.
CREMA Thick, caramel-colored emulsified oils that sit on top of an espresso.
CUP OF EXCELLENCE A competition to determine the best coffee bean grown in a particular nation. The top Cup of Excellence (C.O.E.) lots fetch significantly higher prices at auction.
CUPPING Tasting method used by coffee professionals. Coarsely ground coffee is steeped with hot water in shallow bowls, then slurped from flat spoons.
DARK ROAST Coffee beans roasted until they exude oils. The style has fallen out of favor among many artisanal roasters who think it overwhelms certain flavors.
DIRECT TRADE When coffee roasters buy directly from farms rather than from brokers. Proponents say it increases coffee quality and gives farmers more power.
DRIP COFFEE Coffee made with a filter, a press pot, a percolator or a countertop coffee maker. Flavor is extracted by contact with water not under pressure.
ESPRESSO Concentrated coffee made when hot water is forced at pressure through fine coffee grounds. Usually slightly less than 2 ounces total. Baristas prefer 8 to 10 bars of pressure and 15 to 25 grams of coffee.
EXTRACTION Drawing flavor from coffee grounds. Coffee can be underextracted and taste sour or overextracted and taste bitter.
FAIR TRADE A private program that certifies that farmers or coffee growers are paid a minimum price for coffee.
FILTER COFFEE Drip coffee made with a ceramic, glass or plastic cone lined with a paper filter. Favored by professionals because it gives them control over water temperature — ideally 200 to 210 degrees. This coffee is sediment free, though some believe the filters add unwanted flavor.
FLAT WHITE Espresso with flat, steamed milk, about 5 to 7 ounces.
FRENCH PRESS Coffee made by steeping grounds with hot water in a vessel with a plunger and metal filter that pushes the grounds to the bottom. Often used in coffee bars for limited-edition coffees. Also called a press pot.
GREEN BEANS Unroasted coffee beans.
LATTE Espresso with steamed milk, 8 ounces or more total.
LATTE ART The pattern formed by rhythmically pouring steamed milk into an espresso drink. Decorative and demonstrative; only properly steamed milk will hold a form.
MACCHIATO Espresso topped with a dab of foamed steamed milk, about 2 to 3 ounces total.
MICRO-LOT Coffee from a single farm, or a specific part of that farm.
MOCHA Espresso mixed with chocolate syrup and steamed milk.
NEL DRIP Short for “flannel drip,” it’s a form of drip coffee that uses flannel filters imported from Japan. The filters are temperamental, and must be washed by hand and kept chilled when not in use.
PORTAFILTER The filter basket and handle on an espresso machine.
POUR-OVER COFFEE A method of drip coffee developed in Japan in which the water is poured in a thin, steady, slow stream over a filter cone. One cup of coffee takes as long as three minutes to brew. Some coffee bars have pour-over setups with several cones and distinctive swan-neck kettles from Japan.
PUCK Spent coffee from a portafilter or Clover.
PULL Espresso shots are “pulled.” The term is a holdover from when machines were lever operated.
REDEYE A cup of brewed coffee with espresso.
RISTRETTO Espresso pulled short — with less water — for a smaller, more concentrated drink.
ROAST Unpalatable green beans are heated to create complex flavors that are extracted during brewing.
ROAST DATE Most small-batch roasters print the roast date on bags of coffee. The rule of thumb is that coffee should be used within two weeks, and some coffee bars won’t sell beans more than a week after they have been roasted.
SEASONAL COFFEE Coffee beans ripen at different times of the year in different regions, and can appear in markets and coffee bars for limited times.
SINGLE ORIGIN Coffee from a particular region, farm or area within a farm.
SIPHON A coffeemaking device, using vacuum pressure and a series of vessels, that originated in the 19th century. It recently gained popularity in Japan and is being used more in the United States. Despite its complications, it is known for producing fruity, bright coffee.
SLOW DRIPPER Unusual devices imported from Japan with a glass sphere and a series of tubes and valves that make coffee with cold water in about 12 hours.
TRIFECTA A high-tech single-cup coffee brewer introduced this year.