What do a mathematician and a computer scientist in training do on their day off? Drink all the coffee, of course.
Well, not quite all the coffee, as we had only 8 hours and countless choices in this great City where there are thankfully plenty of independent and mini-chain cafes brewing up the good stuff.
Because of time and caffenation constraints, this coffee tour was limited to four shops : Stumptown at the Ace Hotel, Joe the Art of Coffee (Pro Shop), Cafe Grumpy (Chelsea Location), and Blue Bottle (Chelsea).
BACKGROUND AND JUDGING CRITERIA:
I have no formal knowledge of coffee tasting, only that I drink it every morning, and that I love a good cup. A great cup of coffee, to me, is worth every cent and is miles away from that of the Green Mermaid.
At work, we have Stumptown Hairbender Espresso beans, and that’s what I use to make my iced latte every morning, so think of that as the control bean.
During the school year, I frequently drink the house blend at Joe the Art of Coffee on Columbia’s campus, so that’s my standard for hot coffee.
Judging cafes is a little difficult because the quality of the beans is an entirely different animal from how well it’s brewed. Below, I’ll focus on two aspects: the ambiance of the location itself, and commenting on the actual coffee brewed in the store– which is not necessarily a reflection of how good the beans themselves are, although in the best-case scenario, it should be.
Stumptown at The Ace Hotel
The Ace Hotel
20 W 29th St
New York, NY 10001
Crowded, small storefront next to the lobby of the hotel with no seats and a long, busy line. You can take your mug inside the lobby of the Ace Hotel, which is cool, dark, and hip. A little too hip and too dark for a morning cup of joe, in my opinion, but I imagine this would be a sexy place for a late-night rendezvous. But in that case, you’d probably have other plans than caffeinating.
We were sort of disappointed by this cup. Since I drink it every morning, Stumptown is very dear to my heart– but service was rushed and a bit sloppy. They do french-press over here, with Costa Rican beans. The cup was lighter than I’m used to (which might be due to personal preference), mildly acidic, and creamy. However, there was a thick layer of bitter dregs from the french press on the bottom of the mug, ruining the last sip. Now, a little bit of sediment might be a good thing, but this was a bit too much grit.
Joe the Art of Coffee (Pro Shop and Columbia University)
Several Locations (see http://www.joenewyork.com/locations/), including:
550 west 120th street (northwest corner building)
new york, ny 10027
Joe Pro Shop
131 west 21st street
new york, ny 10011
Ambiance (Columbia University)
Joe’s a mini-chain, so there are many throughout the City, and Philly, too.
Of the Manhattan locations, this one’s the best for studying: it’s by far the largest one, with some sort of odd modern airplane-hangar design, and decorated with stressed Columbia students. Like most specialty coffee shops, it has a very hipster crowd (how did they manage to do that inside the Science building?).
Ambiance (Joe Pro)
The tiny headquarters shop, filled with pretty gadgets (Chemex? French press?) and equipment behind the counter. As usual, extremely hip (the guy has a full-on mustache, for heaven’s sake), and knowledgeable staff. Not much room nor ambiance for sitting and staying, it’s more for shopping.
Tasting Notes :
This is my favorite mini-chain in the City, in terms of accessibility (they have locations in every major transit area, plus Columbia, to my benefit) and consistently good quality and service. You can always depend on a quality cup of coffee– even when the line goes out the door during midterms time. The house blend is very rich, fruity, and a bit more on the acidic side.
Cafe Grumpy (Chelsea Location)
4 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011
(See more locations: http://cafegrumpy.com/locations)
Beautiful location– very spacious, local art on the walls, and a cute little garden in the back. When we went, it was fairly empty, but it seems spacious enough to avoid overcrowding. There’s a “no-laptop” policy, making for a less stressful environment, and draws more attention to the excellent coffee and delicious, creative pastries. Of course, it’s on the hip side, but more in a Chelsea than Williamsburg way.
We chose a cup of the Don Pepe, with notes of chocolate and pineapple. For $4.00, it’s on the more expensive side of things, for one mug of individual drip-filtered joe. The coffee lived up to it’s price tag: there was indeed rich notes of chocolate and pineapple, but most importantly it was very, very clean: they served it in a glass mug, which really helped keep the flavors pure. At the bottom of the cup, you could see the sheen of the coffee oil. They use metal filters here, which I believe leads to a better taste and retention of more of the oil. Recommended.
Blue Bottle Coffee (Chelsea location)
450 W 15th St
(between 10th Ave & 9th Ave)
New York, NY 10011
(see more locoations: http://www.bluebottlecoffee.com/)
This is a little storefront near the highline in the Milk Building. There are a few stools in front of the glass windows up front, and a cool siphon bar upstairs that was unfortunately closed when we got there. More of a pit stop, then a sip-and-stay.
We got the 3 African Blend, which they made as a pourover with a paper filter. There was, unfortunately, a mildly-charred aftertaste, accentuated by the taste of the paper cup, and overall the flavor was not as clean. But still, a solid cup of coffee, with rich flavor.
Hands down, Cafe Grumpy wins this round. With wonderful individualized service, homemade pastries, plenty of seats, and a cute back garden, it’s hard to beat. The coffee itself was the cleanest and richest cup all day.
BONUS EDITION: COLD BREWS
368 Graham Ave
(between Conselyea St & Skillman Ave)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Neighborhood: East Williamsburg
This one’s not in Manhattan, but I thought i’d throw it in anyway, since it’s my default cafe near my apartment.
Free wifi, nice tables and benches, outlets, well-dressed hipsters. A great place to get some errands done with a laptop.
This hip cafe near the Graham Ave. stop uses Stumptown Beans for their cold brew.
On first sip, the taste is overwhelmed by a strong acidic/sour note– with the sweetness of the beans coming in afterwards. Offending coffee aficionados everywhere, I poured in a little milk to counterbalance the acid.
Note that the cafe is cash-only.
Birch Coffee / 7th Avenue
56 7th Ave
New York, NY 10011
(between 13th and 14th streets)
Many claim that this coffee mini-chain has the best iced coffee in Manhattan– and it’s one of the few to sell it in 64-oz jugs, or growlers, for convenience at home.
Small, friendly, hip.
Birch Coffee’s coffee captures all the essence of summer, and the true spirit of cold brew, in a cup.
Now, that doesn’t mean necessarily it’s my favorite bean, or that even I loved it on first sip– it’s very light, and i’m a fan of strong, earthy brews when it comes to the hot stuff– but it has the cleanest flavor– floral and refreshing– that I’ve sampled. This is the perfect cup for a hot summer’s day– which is what cold brew’s all about.
750 Columbus Ave
New York, NY 10025
5 East 27th Street
New York, NY 10016
(at the Gershwin Hotel between Fifth Ave & Madison Ave )
In a sample size of two, Birch takes the boat. Although, I have a feeling it’d still hold out with more competition!
The City is full of great cafes, and unfortunately, I didn’t get to review them all in this go. Post your suggestions, in the comments, for future reviews!
Shops that I plan to try and re-try are: The Roasting Plant, La Colombe, Irving Farms and more.
Also welcome: San Francisco suggestions, since I’ll be traveling there at the end of the month.