Food

Stay Woke: Inside the Third-Wave Coffee Revolution

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Photograph by Brian Kelley
Photograph by Brian Kelley

Not so long ago, New York City coffee was almost uniformly no-nonsense: commodity-grade brown stuff proudly purchased from the deli or diner, and consumed more for maintenance than pleasure. But in a shift that seemed to take place almost overnight (but in reality took a decade), specialty coffee shops have nearly saturated the city, spreading out into all five boroughs with single-origin espressos, $5-and-up filter brews, and poignant stories about the coffee farmers’ families. It’s a movement that’s been fueled by a worldwide rise in the popularity of top-tier coffee, coupled with our culture’s shift toward celebrating food and drinks (and pictures of ourselves enjoying them).

The “third wave” style of coffee sets out to encompass a higher echelon of importing, roasting, and brewing that focuses on retaining the specific terroir-driven flavors of each coffee. At its best, the approach boasts a more thoughtful, environmentally sustainable approach to sourcing coffee, and aims to increase financial security for those farming it — all while highlighting this more quality-driven process, and engaging the customer with the coffee’s backstory. (You know that overenthusiastic barista wanting to tell you all about the processing.) The specialty coffee movement has grown in tandem with the ascendance of “craft” everything, and created a global phenomenon of, yes, artisan roasters and coffee purveyors who showcase coffee with as much nerdiness and nuance as some reserve for wine or cheese.

Yet despite having flourished under the banner of the independent café, specialty coffee in New York has taken on a subtly corporate flavor as it’s sped forward. While true indies still survive, more and more coffee-business owners have found themselves turning eagerly to investment capital, partnership, and even outright sale to corporate owners, an evolution that’s created mixed feelings among coffee snobs particularly those living in New York’s rapidly Chipotlifying landscape.

“I always expected that specialty coffee would grow,” says Ken Nye, founder of East Village mainstay Ninth Street Espresso, one of the city’s first “serious” coffee shops, along with Gimme! Coffee, Joe, and Café Grumpy. “If the public likes something, it’s gonna pop.” At the same time, he didn’t anticipate the size of some of the entities getting involved: “To see large global companies say, ‘Yeah, I wanna be involved in specialty coffee’ — yeah, that surprises me.”

While specialty coffee took off in San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, New York City quickly became the place where every specialty coffee player wanted to be. Nye and his peers were soon joined by Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee (which first arrived at the Ace Hotel in 2009, and subsequently opened a roastery in Red Hook), Philadelphia’s La Colombe, Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee, and Bay Area boutique roaster Blue Bottle Coffee. By 2015, all these players would find themselves, as one might say in Blue Bottle’s homeland, hella funded: Chobani yogurt mogul Hamdi Ulukaya purchased a large share of La Colombe, Blue Bottle completed a venture capital funding round (not their first) totaling nearly $75 million, and both Intelligentsia and Stumptown were bought outright by Peet’s Coffee & Tea, a subsidiary of Luxembourg megacorp JAB Holding. (You may know JAB more distantly as the parent of such companies as Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, Panera, and Jimmy Choo.)

This shift has shaken many coffee drinkers who wish to cling to remnants of an espresso-based counterculture. But their once-niche interest is now considered a profitable national phenomenon, and its corporatization — in New York, at least — seems inevitable in a city with tough customers and a tougher real estate landscape, particularly given the business’s tiny profit margins here.

“It’s not an inexpensive place to operate,” says Doug Zell, CEO and co-founder of Intelligentsia Coffee, which opened an outpost in the High Line Hotel in 2013, after years of quietly operating a training lab in Soho. “It’s not an inexpensive place for people to live, as well. All of those challenges existed and continue to exist to open and operate a viable coffee bar.”

Which perhaps makes it all the more impressive that the city’s fancy-coffee pioneers took the plunge when they did. “It was crazy talk that made perfect sense,” says Kevin Cuddeback, owner of Ithaca-based Gimme! Coffee, of his decision to open his fourth café in Williamsburg, more than 200 miles from his hometown, in 2003. Gimme!’s Brooklyn incursion was soon joined by Café Grumpy, opened in 2005 in what was then way-out-there-past-McGuinness-Boulevard Greenpoint. Grumpy set down neighborhood roots and soon expanded to Manhattan, where it would join Ninth Street Espresso and Joe the Art of Coffee (now simply Joe Coffee, a company for which — full disclosure — I do freelance social media work) as novelties that paid close attention to preparation (and, ooh, latte art!), and also to the provenance and sustainability of their beans’ origins. Meanwhile, the rest of the city still clung tightly to its Greek “Anthora” cups of commodity sludge.

Café Grumpy co-owner Caroline Bell says she and her husband, Chris Timbrell, felt the landscape changing when they opened their second café, on 20th Street in Chelsea, in 2006. “People were surprised by the price points,” says Bell, “But I really think the big deal was the brew-to-order menu, the fact that people could pick their own coffees themselves.”

One of those coffees — a $9 cup of drip coffee from El Salvadorian farmer Aida Batlle — made national press, in the first of many “and you won’t believe how much it costs!” coffee stories to come out of New York over the ensuing years. (And from one of the most expensive coffeemakers in the city: Café Grumpy was among the first to debut the Clover machine, an $11,000 box that brews a single cup of coffee at a time.)

Slowly but surely these cafés opened more locations, while nearby blocks filled in with this new style of “better” coffee from interlopers like Stumptown and La Colombe, and smaller-scale operators like Abraço, Third Rail Coffee, Variety, Culture Espresso, Everyman Espresso, Kaffe 1668, spacecraft-themed Voyager Espresso, Scandinavian-themed Budin, and about a billion places opened by Australians. There are even more-mainstream chains like Fika, or Gregory’s, a twenty-plus-store local roaster with insouciant AeroPress stations. To some, the overwhelming growth seemed like an explosive response to a heretofore unspoken need.

“What happened is [New Yorkers] held on to a traditional way of drinking coffee longer than any other city, which kind of compressed this massive spring, and when that spring let go, it was a thing of beauty,” waxes Todd Carmichael, co-founder of La Colombe and the star of the Travel Channel’s coffee-adventure reality show, Dangerous Grounds. “The city and the businesses and the coffee people all reacted to this next level of coffee in a way that only New York could do it, and it felt like just taking on ten Gs.”

So now that the momentum is here — and the corporate bandwagoneers along with it — what does that actually mean for coffee? It’s one thing to understand that a company has sold out based on what you read in the papers. But does that translate into a noticeably different experience when you visit a beloved café that’s changed hands?

“I think that it’s really hard to distinguish a coffee company that’s owned by JAB versus a coffee company that’s an independently run operation,” says Zachary Carlsen, co-founder of coffee-news website Sprudge.com. (I work there, too, as associate editor.) “Often JAB will buy a company and not change the interior or the face of the company, and you’d have no idea that the company was owned by a German multinational.”

Indeed, it may take a more discerning palate — both for coffee culture and for the end result in the cup — to identify the differences nowadays. (Personally, I’ve seen some of these companies improve coffee sourcing, at least at first, while others may tilt toward more crowd-pleasing approaches like offering nearly a dozen varieties of cold brew.)

But Aleco Chigounis, founder of Oakland-based green-coffee importer Red Fox Coffee Merchants, says things are getting neither better nor worse, from his perspective.

“It’s kind of surprising,” says Chigounis of some of his now-corporately owned clients that continue to buy the same quality of coffees they did as feisty independents. But he cautions that the humanitarian ideals so prized by the independent specialty movement are unlikely to be on any corporate board member’s wish list. “I’ve never felt that they were consolidating because they wanted to give more to coffee farmers, because that’s never happened in the history of coffee. It’s not like a bunch of old, white, rich German dudes want to suddenly give some money back to the Third World.”

If there’s hope for benevolence to come out of upscale coffee’s moment in the limelight, it may lie in the hands of restaurateurs. Danny Meyer, who recently invested in Joe Coffee, is among the growing ranks of those who are most passionate about food — and most political — and who may lead the way in elevating coffee’s social consciousness.

“I can make it more interesting for people to have a cup of coffee,” says Copenhagen-to-NYC transplant and NoMa founder Claus Meyer, whose plans for a locally staffed restaurant in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn include an already operating coffee roasting operation called Brownsville Roasters. “Unlike crude oil, [which] is also a very big industry, the coffee industry has potential to [be] a vehicle for creating a more equal world. You can find a way where coffee’s being produced and traded where a bigger chunk of the value can be in the hands of the producer.”

And as once-special specialty coffee now veers toward the mainstream, appearing at local-focused food stalls at Grand Central Terminal (where there’s a Joe, a Café Grumpy, and a Brownsville Roasters) and the curated faux-neighborhood retail worlds within new condo developments, a funny thing is happening. And it’s not so different from what happened when Starbucks created a space in people’s lives for its then-extravagant-seeming coffee in the Nineties; the spectrum of coffee offers a little something for everyone.

Over on East 7th Street, neighborhood favorite Abraço — founded in 2007 by Jamie McCormick and Liz Quijada — is quietly, independently, still there. Admittedly, last year it did move across the street to a bigger space. But compared with McCormick’s onetime employer Blue Bottle’s 15,800-square-foot expansion to Bushwick, it’s a whole different world.

“I feel like, quite truthfully, all of the corporate homogenizing of the other places kind of added a nice juxtaposition to what I’m doing,” says McCormick.

He pauses. “I think it’s been kinda good for our business.”

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