I’ve only been on one coffee crawl before. It was kind of impromptu and only included two coffee bars. After our typical bi-weekly meetup at Culture Espresso, my brother and I headed downtown to do I-don’t-remember-what. Lucky for us (and thanks to Google Maps), I found Everyman Espresso. And then we went home. Two coffee bars is just barely a crawl.
Fast forward a couple of months and I finally took the time – and had the opportunity, schedule-wise – to put together an improved Manhattan Coffee Crawl. I’ve been keeping a map of coffee bars in my area, tagging ones that I know of or hear good things about. Some of these I have been to, others are on the “need to go there” list. And some of those can be moved to the “been there” list after this recent tour. I used this map to pick the bars along the most logical route. Or at least the most logical route I could think of in the five minutes I took to plan this trip.
We visited the following coffee bars, in this order.
Joe The Art Of Coffee – Pro Shop
Joe The Art of Coffee operates a handful (or so) locations in the NYC area. Recently – quite recently – they opened up their Pro Shop at 131 W21st Street. This location is pretty much their office-slash-HQ onto which they have placed a storefront. This isn’t a typical “morning rush/afternoon cappuccino” type NYC coffee shop. With a Kees van der Westen 2-group lever machine and a rotating supply of roasters from around the US, as well as a decent stock of coffee and espresso supplies and accessories, this shop appeals to the home barista probably more-so than the average coffee connoisseur. Whoever happens to be on the levers that day is always willing to chat extensively about anything coffee.
On this day they were serving their own espresso from Ecco Caffe alongside MadCap Coffee Ethiopian. We went with the MadCap.
This shot was really delicious. Well balanced and incredibly smooth. It was a little sweet, a little punchy, and the barista was friendly and pleasant.
The Joe Pro Shop is a great spot to hit if you like delicious coffee and chatting with knowledgeable people. The ever-changing shelf of roasters ensures that you’ll be able to try lots of different coffees both at their shop and in the comfort of your home with the help of all the supplies they sell. (All signs point to me picking up a Hario Woodneck from them in the near future.)
Based out of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Cafe Grumpy also operates a cafe on West 20th, just two short blocks from Joe Pro. The aesthetic is cozy and comfortable with lots of exposed brick and a relatively small, friendly vibe. There’s a larger area toward the back with some more spacious tables. They are outfitted with a delightfully shiny Synesso, some Chemex’s with Kone filters and two – count ‘em two – Clover brewers.
Since this opportunity had never presented itself before, we couldn’t help but order a cup of Clover coffee. They roast their own beans out in the Greenpoint location and we opted for their Piatã, Bahia, Brazil. For espresso we were served their Heartbreaker – a blend of Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia and Monserrate, Columbia.
The espresso was kind of like a ristretto. Granted, I don’t have anything “traditional” with which to compare, but they’re definitely shorter, more concentrated shots. Rather than a dense extraction, it almost tasted like they pulled a standard double and just pulled the cup early, leaving only the first 1/2 or 2/3 of a double shot. Although more than likely, it’s just their ristretto profile. Whatever they’re doing, it’s delicious. Very punchy with a good amount of syrupy sweetness.
The Brazil in the Clover was also quite good and in fact very reminiscent of an Aeropress brew, unsurprisingly, since the extraction process is very similar. There are amped up sweet, fruity flavors that I’m used to experiencing out of my own Aeropress brews. It did seem a little watery. I’d guess that the coffee:water ratio was a little low for my liking.
Cafe Grumpy is making some great coffee in a sweet space. They’re built for both speed and comfort: even though their coffee is top notch and the space is relatively small, they crank through customers like nobody’s business.
Joe The Art Of Coffee
A dozen or so streets down from Cafe Grumpy we stopped in to another Joe The Art Coffee down on Waverly Place. It may seem counter-intuitive to stop in to two locations of the same chain on one coffee tour, but the Pro Shop is a special place. It was only fair to get a taste of the classic Joe-The-Art-Of-Coffee experience.
The espresso here is solid. They’re using their house espresso blend from Ecco Caffe. It’s a straight-forward shot, well-balanced with just a touch of sweetness without being syrupy. It has good body and a creamy texture. A great house espresso. It’s definitely not a personal favorite of mine, but I imagine it’s quite a crowd-pleaser.
The space is small, with seating for about 10 people tops. It can hold maybe a handful of people waiting before the line pokes out the door onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately, the plastic cups they use for water remind me of my childhood. I hated those cups. The contrast between this Joe Shop and the Pro Shop where we started is striking. Everything about it is different. It truly highlights what Joe is about and how they’ve successfully created a great NYC coffee chain as well as a hub for the home-barista (the Pro Shop).
Third Rail Coffee
This is sort of the reason we organized this coffee crawl. Third Rail Coffee just came off their appearance at The Great Googa Mooga, a food and music festival in Brooklyn. They were there with a spacious setup, supported by La Marzocco and Stumptown Coffee. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend, but my brother was. His description of the Third Rail made them a definite stop on our tour.
The staff was incredibly friendly. I noticed the barista weighing the shots before serving them to us, and in fact dumping one and re-pulling to ensure quality. This struck me as odd, but as it turns out they were using a unique coffee on that day – Stumptown’s Peru Cesuvo. He explained that this coffee was a favorite with the attendees of Googa Mooga, but unfortunately the standard timing and visual cues did not seem to apply. Well-timed and good-looking shots tasted terrible, and ones that did not seem so good were tasty. He had to resort to weighing the final product to ensure deliciousness.
And it worked. I’ve had the Peru Cesuvo as coffee, but as espresso it was (unsurprisingly) a whole different animal. It was a little sweet, tart and savory. Grapefruit umami. This is what I love in an espresso. Uniqueness. It’s great that a shop is really exploring coffee and sharing it with their customers. It’s great to share that experience with them. It made for an excellent visit and some delightful conversation.
The last stop on our tour was La Colombe. If you don’t know of La Colombe, you should. It’s founder Todd Carmichael is some kind of important coffee person. (Look for his new reality show soon! That’s no joke!) Based in Philadelphia, they operate several coffee bars in NYC. We chose the SOHO location (270 Lafayette), which may not have been in our best interest. Their NOHO location, just a few blocks north and also on Lafayette, is much larger and classier.
I’ve been to La Colombe in Philly. It was a pleasant experience overall: the barista was quite friendly and helpful and the cafe was comfortable and spacious. The SOHO location on the other hand is a much different affair. As a long, narrow cafe, customers flow is in a “U” pattern. There’s minimal seating (half a dozen or so) and customers file in on one side, travel the “U” that is the counter setup and funnel right back out. I’m certainly not against “grab-and-go” cafes, especially in La Colombe’s case where they are operating more than one and it is clearly a satellite location to support the larger cafe. In fact, for a small space, it’s darn good. A hugely high ceiling and a mirror wall expand the space significantly as well as keep it cool (the high ceiling, not the mirror). You can’t fault them for equipment either, sporting dual Faema Legend 2-groups. (Google Image that. It’s a doozy.)
As for the coffee, it seems…(pause to imply that I am taking time to consider and choose my words carefully)…traditional. It’s a litte dark, considerably punchy and not entirely sweet. Frankly, it seems a bit out of place alongside bars like Third Rail and Cafe Grumpy. Maybe that’s just the Philly style. Or maybe that’s just the La Colombe style. (Well, obviously it is the La Colombe style.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of their dating system on their bagged beans. Instead of a “roasted on” date, they are using a “best by” date. I noticed some bags had a “best by” date that was a couple of months out. This strikes me as odd, considering the reputation that La Colombe and Mr. Carmichael have. I could write pages and pages on this, outlining various reasons both in support of and opposed to this practice, but in the interest of time I will not do so.
The coffee isn’t really my style, but on the upside I’ll say that I’m into their ceramics. The white straight-walled demitasses are nifty, and they rock some seriously colorful cappuccino cups.
And then we went home.
If I learned one thing, it’s that Manhattan has some damn good coffee. And these bars are but the tip of the iceberg that is the coffee scene in New York. (I haven’t even touched Brooklyn yet.) It’s interesting to see how each place has carved out its own niche. With the lack of head-to-head competition you really get the feeling that everyone is in it for the community: to provide great coffee to the area. It’s refreshing to see specialty coffee on the rise, to see these bars full of a wide range of customers, from coffee snobs to connoisseurs to everyday people who just want a good cup. It’s a good sign for the industry and for the community in general.