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America’s hottest coffee houses

On a recent rainy weekday morning in New York City, a man dressed in utility-worker garb stepped up to the counter at Café Grumpy, a cozy, brick-walled coffee house in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. We polled industry experts and coffee connoisseurs nationwide to find out where the best espresso artisans are serving up their creations.
Image: Albina Press Coffee
"Albina Press is as close to coffee nirvana as you will come in Portland," writes a reviewer at the Web site Portland Food and Drink. The Portland Mercury adds that Albina is a "gorgeous atmosphere and they always have some hot local artist showing off their work on the walls." Albina Press
/ Source: Forbes

On a recent rainy weekday morning in New York City, a man dressed in utility-worker garb stepped up to the counter at Café Grumpy, a cozy, brick-walled coffee house in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

“Just a cup of coffee,” he said.

The barista presented a menu of the café’s current selections: Tres Santos Dota Co-op, Cauca, Colombia; Mandheling Padang, Sumatra, Indonesia and several more “single origin” beans, which would be ground to order and then custom-brewed by the cup in a piston- and vacuum-powered machine called the Clover 1s.

In the new world of specialty coffee, there is no longer such thing as “just a cup of coffee.”

While Starbucks may have made venti non-fat lattes a staple of millions of Americans’ mornings (and afternoons, and evenings), a new wave of independent coffee roasters and cafes like Grumpy are re-focusing their attention on the art and craft of coffee selection, roasting, brewing and presentation. The post-Starbucks generation of coffeehouses have become both gathering spots for coffee connoisseurs as well as satellite campuses for educating newcomers about respect for the bean.

“Starbucks and [Berkeley, Calif.- based] Peet’s were trailblazers in the '60s and '70s,” says David Latourell of the Coffee Equipment Company, makers of the Clover 1s machine. “They were the first ones to say, ‘Let’s do specialty coffee.’ People hadn’t tried that before.” (And in case you were wondering, Peet’s actually opened in 1966, and Starbuck’s got its start in 1971.)

But the new independent coffee houses, says Latourell, “are focused on the smaller scale, and on de-commodifying the process. These smaller roasters are not buying coffee at volumes that efface the distinctions [between different places of origin]. They’re building direct relationships with coffee growers at the source. They’re also about bringing coffee out of the caffeine delivery mode and into the realm of culinary experience.”

“It’s about getting back to the basics,” says Eileen Hassi, owner of Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. “There’s a real emphasis on the flavors and terroir of coffee, and on brewing espresso for the taste of espresso, not just as the base for milkshake or big, sugary, milky drink.”

Hassi opened Ritual in 2005, and almost overnight the café was inundated with coffee aficionados and neophytes alike, who were lured by the smells—and sounds—of lovingly handled beans.

Gimme!'s "air-roasted" coffee has been winning accolades left and right since it opened its first espresso bar in Ithaca, N.Y. in 2000. There are now three more Ithaca-area Gimme! bars, and a Brooklyn outpost, which features an espresso machine from "Dutch master, Kees van der Westen" alongside '60s Mod black swivel chairs.

So what does a well-treated coffee bean sound like? “That clacking noise you hear when you walk into Ritual is the sound of us dosing the espresso into the portafilter basket,” says Hassi. In layman’s terms, that means the barista is grinding and releasing the beans gram by gram into the cupped handle that holds the grounds during the brewing process. The reason it’s dropped in such small doses, explains Hassi, is that if you put it in all at once, “static electricity would cause the espresso to clump and then it wouldn’t extract perfectly evenly.”

She admits, “We're a little obsessive.”

What fuels this kind of obsession—beyond a steady diet of caffeine—is a passion for coffee, on multiple levels. Latourell explains that, in the new generation of independent coffeehouses, the true barista “is not just a fast-food worker. They care about all of the links in the chain, starting with the farmer who grows the coffee trees, and they can talk to you knowledgeably about all of those links.”

James Freeman has developed a cult following for his "artisan microroasted" beans, which are prepared in Oakland and sold from a tiny garage-front kiosk in San Francisco's Hayes Valley as well as at area farmers' markets and restaurants. When he started Blue Bottle, Freeman vowed to "only sell coffee less than 48 hours out of the roaster to my customers, so they may enjoy coffee at its peak of flavor [and] only use the finest organic, and pesticide-free, shade-grown beans." Freeman's followers are eagerly awaiting the opening of the Blue Bottle café in downtown San Francisco.

Connie Blumhardt, publisher of Roast magazine, agrees that the denizens of today’s specialty coffee world are much more informed than their predecessors. “Specialty coffee was in its infancy 20 years ago,” she explains. “Today, with internet blogs, industry trade shows, barista competitions and regional roaster trainings, education is passed from industry professional to industry professional with ease, and most are very willing to share their knowledge.”

Luckily for those whose vocabularies don’t yet include terms like “dosing” and “portafilter”—or for those who may need help discerning between a Tres Santos Dota Co-op and a Mandheling Padang bean—this new crop of coffee lovers are eager to share their knowledge with customers, too.

This is what happened to the unsuspecting gentleman who tried to order an old-fashioned cup of joe at Café Grumpy. The barista enthusiastically explained the characteristics of the different single-cup options on the menu. In the space of a few minutes, the customer’s order transformed from “just a cup of coffee” to a custom-brewed, medium-bodied roast with mild acidity, a blueberry fragrance and lingering chocolate on the finish.