Espresso in the City
Before moving to New York City, I had read article after article about a new coffee movement sweeping the five boroughs: a resurgence in cafés that are completely and utterly dedicated to the art of espresso. Perhaps it’s a backlash against the chain-that-shall-not-be-named dominating almost every street corner in Manhattan. It could be a response to New Yorkers’ advancing coffee tastes, or maybe someone slipped something into the water supply. Whatever it is that has spurred on this exciting java trend, once all of my worldly possessions were unpacked, I knew I had to hit the pavement and check it out for myself. After surfing the net and talking to some of my friends that have lived in New York for a while, I decided to try out two hot spots: Café Grumpy and Joe, The Art of Coffee.
My first stop was Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a celebrated fixture of the artisan coffee movement that lucky for me, is just a few blocks from my new apartment. The brainchild of husband and wife team Chris Timbrell and Caroline Bell, Café Grumpy opened in Greenpoint in 2005, and a branch in Chelsea opened in November of 2006. The Greenpoint café’s laid-back atmosphere reflects the semi-residential area around it, offering anything but the rushed feel of many cafes in this city. During my mid-morning visit, customers clicked away on laptops and chatted on couches throughout Café Grumpy’s spacious and bright interior, while a steady stream of customers stopped in for their morning cup.
Signs on the counter weren’t promoting a panini special or value prices, they were announcing the arrival of Esmeralda Especial, a microlot from Panama that created serious buzz at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s yearly conference. Clearly, this café was serious about their beans. Their equipment reflected this as well, with a two group Synesso semi-automatic, Mazzer grinders, and an array of Monin syrups.
This level of quality equipment is also found at Café Grumpy’s Chelsea location, and is taken a step further with the two Clover 1s machines found behind the counter. These innovative new machines let customers get filter-brewed coffee made-to-order, not just espresso. Ideal for cafés that offer a selection of rare single-origin beans, Clovers are single-cup brewers that grind and brew a cup of coffee in under a minute using vacuum-press technology. The baristas control every aspect of the coffee, including temperature, grind fineness, and more, so they can completely customize brewing for each variety of bean to create the best possible taste.
Researching filter-brewed coffee in the city is for another day though, it was time to get down to business: trying the espresso. Café Grumpy’s menu features a selection of espresso-based drinks, loose-leaf teas, and an ever-changing list of beans to choose from for a French press. Despite being tempted by the Nutellaccino, which must involve a delicious combination of espresso, milk, and the flavors of my favorite hazelnut and chocolate spread, I chose a macchiato to get a sense of both the Café Grumpy Espresso Blend and milk frothing. A few minutes later, the friendly and knowledgeable barista served up my macchiato complete with a heart. The flavor was outstanding, full-bodied with notes of chocolate. I grabbed a seat with my laptop and savored every sip while I made use of Café Grumpy’s free wireless Internet. It’s hard to find a café that creates a macchiato I don’t have to add a bit of sugar to, but the Grumpsters pull a subtly sweet and balanced shot.
Before I could leave though, I had to pick up a sample bag of Esmerelda Especial. Co-founder Caroline Bell had just arrived and measured out the beans, recommending that French press was the best way to enjoy their flavor. She also said that a few Saturday mornings a month, Café Grumpy holds cuppings (in-depth coffee tasting sessions) at their location in Chelsea, and customers can check out their website for a list of dates.
Stop number two was Joe, The Art of Coffee, in Manhattan. A former talent agent with a passion for coffee, when owner Jonathan Rubenstein decided it was time for a career change, opening a coffee house seemed like a natural choice. Joe opened at its Waverly Place location in 2003, and with the help of Rubenstein’s sister Gabrielle, the business has expanded with two more coffee houses. They’ve even expanded into fitness, and have their own running club called Team Joe that meets every Saturday morning at Waverly Place. I stopped by their second shop on 13th Street near Union Square to check out this coffee house known for its high quality espresso, celebrity clientele, and cupcakes made by actress, writer, and comedienne Amy Sedaris.
With its yellow walls and tables, Joe’s interior was a welcomed ray of sunshine during a rainy Friday afternoon. It was bustling with activity as people came in for caffeinated pick-me-ups before their commute home. While a few customers worked alone on laptops or poured over manuscripts and presentations, most people were discussing weekend plans or holding interviews over their latte cups. Shelves over one wall of tables held coffee books, bags of freshly roasted beans, and a selection of Joe-branded mugs.
I hopped in line and immediately noticed the centerpiece of the bar: a La Marzocco Linea, a true Italian machine that’s hailed as being one of the best semi-automatics on the market today. The barista quickly switched back and forth between the machine and a Mazzer grinder, and in a few moments, I was up at the register. Their menu has the standard café offerings, along with loose-leaf tea and freshly squeezed lemonade. I ordered my standard macchiato, but unfortunately, there weren’t any Amy Sedaris cupcakes that day to accompany my drink.
However, once my macchiato was up and I took a sip, I got over my cupcake disappointment. With a nutty flavor and light fruity notes, Joe’s house espresso blend lived up to its reputation as being one of the best in the city. A delicate heart topped the shot, and as I finished my drink, the late-afternoon rush was really starting to pick up. By the time I left, the line was about eight people deep and the two baristas behind the counter quickly and expertly served up drinks.
The Proof is in the Cup
At both Café Grumpy and Joe, attention has been paid to every detail of the beans and equipment, settling for nothing less than the best. But, the true key to the success of these two cafes lies not only their choice of coffee and machines, but in passion and knowledge. The baristas and owners have studied and trained for years to master the art of espresso, and without that experience, outstanding beans and equipment can be rendered meaningless.
Café Grumpy and Joe aren’t alone in their dedication, and cafés like Gimme! Coffee, Ninth Street Espresso, and more continue to pop up around the city, offering a personalized and delicious espresso experience. You can join in the movement by checking out the cafés below, or by visiting our commercial site where you can learn about opening a café of your own. If you’re a home brewer and want to bring the art of espresso into your own kitchen, check out David Schomer’s videos Techniques of the Barista and Caffe Latte Art for step-by-step guides for brewing and frothing. So, whether you’re a New York City resident, someone there for a visit, or an aspiring home barista, you can get a fresh take on the time-honored art of espresso.
Café Grumpy locations:
- 193 Meserole Ave (at Diamond St.), Brooklyn, NY 11222
- 224 West 20th St. (between 7th & 8th Aves), New York, NY 10011
Joe, The Art of Coffee locations:
- 141 Waverly Place (between 6th Ave and Gay St.), New York, NY 10014
- 9 East 13th St. (between 5th Ave and University Place), New York, NY 10002
- 130 Green St. (In the Alessi store between Prince St. and Broadway), New York, NY 10012
- 495 Lorimer St. (between Grand and Powers St.), Brooklyn, NY 11211
Ninth Street Espresso:
- 700 East 9th St. (between Ave C and Ave D), New York, NY 10009