Having recently returned from New York I thought it might be a nice idea to write a few words about the coffee ‘scene’ there. Well, that’s as much as I had written when I started to write this article several weeks ago. The trip is now only recent if we’re speaking in terms of seasons or longer. It’s been so long, Dave has even stopped asking me how it’s coming along. He hasn’t stopped writing snarky remarks about me on boards.ie as one of my colleagues pointed out to me the other day.
[Ed: It’s called motivation!]
I’m writing from Managua, Nicaragua, one of the world’s coffee capitals – where it’s nigh on impossible to get your hands on a good cup of coffee. The crème-de-la-crème is exported – it’s just too valuable for local consumption. I guess Iraqis have a similar problem with oil. I’m home in a few weeks so expect a Nicaraguan article say…around Christmas!
My trip to NY was hastily planned so Dave furnished me with a list of must-visit cafes and street numbers which I thought was very nice of him. That is until I went looking for 9th Street Espresso. 9th street stretches the entire width of Manhattan Island as do all the other streets. What’s absolutely essential is to find out what Avenues the place you’re looking for is in between. So 9th St, between C and D Avenues is helpful. 9th St. is not so much. Cheers Dave. It took a while to get there but boy was it worth it. 9th St Espresso exclusively serves Stumptown coffee and its signature blend is the Hair Bender Blend. They buy in small batches and get deliveries every week. You barely notice the shop until you’re right upon it and at first it appears very welcoming. There’s a wooden bench all along the store front for customers to sit and relax in the sunshine. We went in an ordered an espresso. The staff were friendly but were not overly enthusiastic about putting up with my inane questions. They were quite busy, but still, didn’t they know it was my first time in The Big Apple? It was my first New York espresso. And, as I was soon to find out, my first triple ristretto. I found out that serving triple ristrettos as the standard espresso was quite the norm in New York. These people are die-hard.
Ristrettos are a strange beast. You see, I like coffee a lot and I like a lot of coffee. I like volume in my coffee – americanos, lattes and filter coffee all tick this box. Each sip brings a little bit of pleasure, which added up over a mug is a lot of pleasure. The thing with espressos is although they are beautiful and intense, they are small. A couple of sips, sweet, sweet sips, and they’re gone. They suck you in and leave you desperate for more. And ristretteos are espressos squared. You take one sip and and it’s smooth and magical and intense. Soon you begin to doubt yourself – can it have been that good? You go for a second sip. But the cup’s empty and you’re left feeling a little empty too. The perfect tease. So, when I go around to Dave’s and he says ‘Coffee?’ followed closely by a disapproving ‘I suppose you want a latte?’ and I accept, it’s not just because I like to see him work that little bit more, or even because I like to laugh at his latte art attempts (he swears it’s gotten better since I’ve left..we’ll see) but because it’s so damn good I want it to last that bit longer. Potential solution: mug of ristretto (TheOtherBlackStuff.ie in no way condones drinking a mug of risretto). But I digress..
Having been walking all morning we were tired and hungry so we decided to check what they had in the food department. To my surprise all I found was some croissants and biscuit type things (biscuits I guess). It began to sink in: it’s the coffee, stupid. Anything that wasn’t about the coffee, detracted from the coffee. If it couldn’t be prepared, put on a plate and given to the customer in the time it took for your shot to pull then it wasn’t for sale. It wasn’t just 9th St either, it was the majority of places I went to. Not cafes, but speciality coffeehouses. I was trying to think of similar Irish examples and Butlers was the closest I could think of – although they hardly use Intellegensia or Stumptown, or Bald Barista due to the fact that the coffee making is kept in isolation from the food. Americans are the kings of speciality. They have that sort of narrow focus and determination to do something really, really well. We were in one bag shop that can’t have had more than ten bags for sale. Ten really nice bags apparently.
Another stop on my itinerary was Cafe Grumpy in Chelsea. This is a really great cafe (or coffeehouse – damn, I’m confused). Its signature drink is a coffee called Heartbreaker and is roasted by Novo and yes, they serve it triple ristretto style. This seems to be the only constant on an ever changing menu. They also do guest coffees by Intellegensia and Verve. The cafe itself is long and narrow and the bar runs nearly the entire length of the shop. Mid-way down the bar I caught my first glimpse of a Clover coffee machine: an $11,000 one cup at a time coffee machine that allows infantismal degrees of control over the whole brewing process. They have two of them. I had to try it. Based on the baristas recommendation I had a cup of Columbian coffee and I can safely say it was the best cup of filter coffee I have ever had. I got talking to some of the staff there and they were all really friendly. Not in an American “Have a nice day, Sir” sort of way – but in a genuine and interested way. I talked to both Caroline the owner (co-owner perhaps) and another chap called Ed and they seemed as eager to talk to me about coffee as I was to them. What became clear very quickly was that these people were very enthusiastic about their coffee. Both Caroline and Ed (whose role is not exactly clear – Barista, cupper, scout – all of the above) had been to source and further trips were planned. They weren’t content with letting the roasters have all the fun. They hand-selected the beans used for their Heartbreaker blend. I believe they have plans for their own roastery in the pipelines too. As it happened there was a free, open to all, cupping session going on in the cafe later that evening. It must have been my birthday! Well, actually it was and that earned me a free cup of Joe! Nice, nice people. Although it might have had something to do with the half-dozen of their custom cups that I bought from them!
Later that same night..
My first cupping session. I was a bit apprehensive going back to the cafe that evening. I still hadn’t gotten much further than “it tastes like coffee”. I was wired from drinking too much coffee which probably didn’t help my cause either. About 10 people showed up in the end, many first timers, and Ed started us off. We had a tasting chart to guide and Ed made us feel perfectly at ease, insisting that there were no wrong answers. We were to taste 3 different types of coffee and there were 4 batches of each. One bad bean in a batch could throw off the taste of the whole cup so it’s best to taste different batches. I won’t go into the details as we were following standard cupping procedures: smelling the dry, ground beans; smelling the brewed coffee and then tasting the brewed coffee. Afterwards we compared notes, talking about different things we tasted and smelled and debated which coffees were the nicest. Ed picked up notes of strawberries and cream in one of the coffees. I did not. And that’s no reflection on Ed!
Coming home from New York I was left deeply jealous of the coffee scene there. It wasn’t just the two cafes I mention, but a whole host of them using premium beans from the best roasters. Manhattan does have the right ingredients to make speciality coffee work: high population density, high disposable incomes and people willing to pay a premium for the best. Could it work in Ireland? I wish someone would grasp that nettle and let us find out..