Brooklyn Makes Coffee Anything but Regular

The West Coast craft coffee craze has made it to Brooklyn – and Brooklyn has made it unique.

coffee

Was it only in 1984 that a campaign slogan put an actor in the oval office by optimistically avowing that it was morning in America? Twenty-five years later we’re here to tell you, it’s morning in Brooklyn. By which we mean—after years of brewing the city’s long-awaited coffee revolution, it’s a really great time and place to drink coffee.

Brooklyn has long been at the forefront of New York City’s burgeoning coffee movement, pioneers tamping out espresso in Williamsburg and Park Slope in the early 2000s with only a few comrades across the East River to look to for inspiration. Shops like Oslo, Gorilla Coffee and Gimme! Coffee crept up on Brooklyn quietly, creating community and challenging each other at their art, until one day it seemed the borough had grown a fancy coffee bar on every block. And depending on your block. . . maybe two.

Now neighborhood-minded brew bars abound, built on the cozy community, exacting craft and entrepreneurial innovation that define the borough’s food and drink scene. If Manhattan is an island of to-go drinks, Brooklyn is the land of café-to-stay. These coffee bars are no errand stops: They’re community centers, places to build your mornings (or afternoons or evenings) around; watering holes that combine connoisseurship with camaraderie.

In a few short years, the brew in borough cups has improved considerably. An international awareness of coffee’s next-level potential, its promotion from biological need to object of culinary desire, ushered in game-raising measures and new standards of excellence. Baristas became more curious about beans. Customers became versed in flavor profiles and trade history, and the drinks themselves soared in quality. Coffeehouses that had started as community outlets became nodes on a globally emerging subculture, and finding a French press of an amazing single-origin coffee or that perfect triple ristretto shot became as easy as finding Berkshire belly. Of course, it didn’t happen quite overnight, nor did we quite invent it—in fact the West Coast beat us by decades.

Pioneers like Alfred Peet, founder of arguably the United States’s first true specialty coffee company, began roasting and selling coffee in Berkeley in the 1960s, but up the coast a piece, things really got steaming in the ’80s. David Schomer rolled out the first Vivace cart in Seattle in 1987, and across the Pacific Northwest specialty cafés soon popped up like mushrooms after the region’s famous rains (as did Starbucks, widely credited even by detractors for popularizing the notion that “fancy” coffee could be an everyday luxury).

From these origins came the traditions and concerns of the so-called “third wave” modern-day coffee movement: the promotion of sustainable production, socially conscious trade, the elevation of espresso and the introduction of latte art.

The scene gave rise to now-venerated shops and roasteries like Victrola and Vivace in Seattle and Stumptown in Portland. Eventually entrepreneurs elsewhere bet (correctly) that the third wave might fly outside the foggy sensibilities of the Northwest. In 1995 a little company called Intelligentsia Coffee fired up the North Side of Chicago, gradually drifting from a simple neighborhood coffeehouse toward a groundbreaking trader and roaster. In 2002, Blue Bottle Coffee began roasting its own boutique coffees in the East Bay, and a year later an ambitious pair of coffee lovers opened Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco’s Mission District.

But here, as recently as five years ago, options beyond the deli or the borough’s few Starbucks were small in number—until a handful of pluckish cafés made gutsy attempts to serve straight-up, no-bull-shit, sophisticated espresso and coffee drinks, even as naysayers predicted New Yorkers would give up their brew only when you pried the Greek bodega cups from their cold, dead hands.

Gimme! was then, and is now, a real bean leader: the small Ithaca-based company deployed their first lonely New York City store (there’s now another in Nolita) at the Williamsburg corner of Lorimer and Powers in 2003, when the area was a good deal sleepier than it is today. The company’s master roaster at the time had a daughter who happened to live around the corner, and felt the space at 495 Lorimer would be a fine spot for a coffee shop. She was right. As the neighborhood boomed around them (another café even opened across the street last winter) the proprietors’ crystal ball revealed something more valuable (to us) than real estate. They realized that here coffee could be done in a special way.

“I think at the time, we thought we were pretty awesome,” admits Mike White, who hand-built the Lorimer shop with Gimme! owner Kevin Cuddeback. Back then, syrupy coffee drinks with names like “Crazy Fiona” that made sense for a college town upstate worked in Brooklyn, too. But as the West Coast’s coffee renaissance hit Eastern shores, frivolities like flavor shots went the way of nondairy creamer in a world of unhomogenized grass fed milk.

“Our standards have changed and our perspective has changed. We’re more refined,” says White, who in the last six years has watched Gimme! overhaul everything from the quality of beans the company is sourcing and roasting to the espresso machine. As the game has changed, he says, the attitude remains the same. “We were focused on quality, to do the best job that we possibly can, while engaging and creating a community around us.”

Within a borough of communities, cafés have become microcommunities: people aligned around a common taste sensibility that can gather and relate, paired with a New York pursuit of the best.

On the other side of Williamsburg, Oslo Coffee opened up six years ago with a similar vision of superior brew—owner J. D. Merget sourced beans from as far as Seattle before roasting their own on the Williamsburg-Greenpoint borderlands. Though he was new to Brooklyn back then, he fell in love with his clientele’s dedication to quality and familial feel.

“You couldn’t get me to go into Manhattan now,” says Merget, who opened a second store, also in Williamsburg. “Even though I think I could make it work in Manhattan, I wouldn’t go.”

Is the coffee scene really that much better here than on the skinny isle across the East River? Maybe, says Darleen Scherer, who along with partner Carol McLaughlin runs Gorilla Coffee, the neighborhood anchor on Park Slope’s busy Fifth Avenue and whose boldly branded bags of beans line the shelves at Whole Foods stores citywide. But this taste artisan sees her clientele more as community than as consumers.

“I think there’s so much more potential in Brooklyn,” says Scherer, who ought to know: She lives in Manhattan but reverse-commutes to the Slope to run the café and roastery. “Manhattan doesn’t have the loyalty. I’ve lived in my apartment [in the East Village] for 15 years, and I don’t really know anyone in that building—it’s a four-story brownstone. I know my super,” pauses Scherer. “It’s just a totally different feel here.”

The three dudes—and they are definitely dudes—who founded Southside Coffee a year ago where Greenwood Cemetery meets South Slope agree.

“One of the things that’s hard about the service industry that can be alienating is the anonymity, and we don’t have that here,” says Ben Jones, whose homelands on the South Side of Chicago were as much an inspiration for the café’s name as its relationship to Prospect Park. “It’s nice knowing the people we serve, finding out what’s going on in their lives, having an actual relationship that’s more than just commerce.”

But despite all this close-knit community kum-ba-yah, it all comes down to what’s in the cup. And while backstory and provenance are critical ingredients, delectable is more important than didactic.

“We have a really high standard, but the thing we don’t want to do is make it unapproachable,” says Jones, who sources beans from Chicago-based superstar roaster Intelligentsia. “You can do really high quality without over-the-top presentation, without lecturing. People want to be more connected from a taste and sensual standpoint, not feel overwhelmed by all the craftsmanship that’s gone into it.” Even with the ideal coffeehouse vibe, your carafe is only half full. “It’s as important for us to make really excellent coffee as it is to be nice to everybody and create that atmosphere,” chimes in Jones’s partner Ramin Narimani (who worked variously as a beekeeper, massage therapist, chimney sweep and factory worker before returning to the barista trade at Southside.) “It just kind of goes hand in hand.”

And while you can’t grow coffee in our climate, ingredient obsession and the pursuit of bean perfection have fueled the fires of the next best thing: DIY roasting. Oslo, Gorilla and newcomer Kitten Coffee make up a small but growing contingency of coffee experts who’ve braved city bureaucracy to fire up the burners close to home. Their roasteries buy “green,” unroasted beans from importers like Staten Island’s Royal Coffee, then roast them and prepare them for brewing in such exotic locales as Sunset Park and Bed-Stuy. Greenpoint’s Café Grumpy—long known for its rotating selection of seasonal beans from roasters all over North America—joined the ranks of the local roasters in early September, firing up local flavor to fill its grateful grinders.

And then there’s the coffee revolution that’s dropped anchor in Red Hook. If ever an appearance was anticipated, it’s the arrival of Stumptown Coffee in our fair borough. The venerated Pacific Northwest institution hopped the popular Portland-to-Brooklyn pipeline last spring, and this summer saw the long-awaited opening of their roastery on Van Brunt street; it’s now furnishing fresher, locally roasted beans to the company’s already-numerous Brooklyn wholesale accounts. Though Stumptown doesn’t have its own Brooklyn café (the company has an outpost in Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, and will be opening a small food-and-coffee spot adjacent their roastery), their beans are available everywhere from Diner to Baked, Hotel Delmano to Brooklyn Standard. Stumptown roasts for of an ever-growing roster of Brooklyn coffee shops, too—Variety Cafe in Williamsburg and its sister Greenpoint store, Lucky Shot, were among the first to adopt the Northwest infiltrator, while Stumptown itself looked to like-minded Frankies Spuntino for partnership in the airy Cobble Hill Café Pedlar earlier this year.

Stumptown’s leather-and-plaid-clad chief Duane Sorenson would have you think all it takes to run one of the most successful specialty coffee companies in the country is a chill attitude and an enthusiasm for the fine art of kicking back. “I’m excited to make people coffee, man! It’s one of the few things I do that keeps me out of trouble,” he says over lunch at Frankies 457, a few blocks from the Court Street crash pad he shares with other Stumptowners when not in Portland. “I love Brooklyn. It just feels right,” he says, perhaps comparing the scene here to Stumptown’s six cafés in Portland and two in Seattle. (The company roasts in those cities, too.) “Hearing ‘Your coffee tastes amazing’ for years and years was part of why I wanted to come to New York. People have tongues!” Though the people’s tongues will surely have the last word, the company’s reception in Brooklyn has occasionally been less than warm. Is it good old-fashioned East Coast skepticism of laid-back West Coast standards—or a sense of encroachment? Sorenson says the coffee-drinking public has responded with nothing but excitement, but allows there has been, “maybe from other coffee companies, drama and defensiveness. But you know . . . I come in peace.”

Now that everyone seems to want a piece of the coffee game, Brooklyn’s blocks of uncharted—and sometimes even affordable—terrain have become proving ground for dozens of café entrepreneurs. In the last two years alone, Brooklyn has born a staggering number of high-end, innovative cafés: El Beit, Root Hill, Roots Café, Southside Coffee, Variety Coffee, Café Pedlar, Second Stop, Lucky Shot, Sit and Wonder, Clover’s and Milk Bar, the last of which sources its beans from celebrated Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C. Meanwhile, established cafés like Café Grumpy, whose first shop opened in Greenpoint in 2005, opened their third store in Park Slope early this summer.

“One of the reasons for [the growth] is that you’re not squeezed into this tiny little space that squeezes out the independents and small business owners, you can afford a little more room, or do a little more with your space,” says Gimme!’s White, contrasting the real estate here to the considerably pricier scene in Manhattan. “Brooklyn offers more opportunities for first-timers. You really have to be professional to do something in Manhattan, but here you can have a lot more independence, new ideas.”

Gavin Compton, who opened Variety Coffee on East Williamsburg’s charming “Via Vespucci” strip of Graham Avenue with a small savings, a credit card and a double shot of fancy footwork, agrees that opportunity here is easier to come by. “I lived off the Graham stop for five years, and I really wanted to get coffee in the morning and there was nowhere to get it, so I opened up a coffee shop. It was basically a selfish indulgence,” shrugs Compton, who worked in restaurants for years before deciding to build his neighborhood—or rather, himself—the shop. “The entire café was haphazard, like a slow build. There was never a real initial startup cost of millions of dollars because the place looked like shit for nine months.” But a lot of brew passed across those crooked countertops and within less than a year Compton opened a second outlet near McGolrick Park.

But will cafés soon outnumber customers? “I think there’s pockets of saturation,” allows Mike White. “But I see demand increasing. Brooklynites are proud to support small businesses that are doing an amazing job, and they’re proud to be part of a community.”

“People in Brooklyn have better taste, as obnoxious as that sounds,” echoes Compton, whose stores focus on a no-nonsense selection of espresso drinks and French press coffees. “People will walk to Variety to get a cup of good coffee whereas people in Manhattan are not going to walk out of their way. Manhattan has Ninth Street Espresso and Joe and then the offshoots of what started in Brooklyn,” he continues, referring to Gimme! and Grumpy, whom he credits largely for educating the borough on good coffee in the first place. “The people in Brooklyn just seem a lot savvier.”

Scanning Brooklyn’s café landscape, one thing is clear: No one in this discerning borough need drink a mediocre cup. Whether you’re downing an iced Clover coffee from chic El Beit on Bedford Avenue or sipping a velvety cappuccino on the bench outside Court Street’s sunny, rustic Café Pedlar, commitment to care, craft and locality rings through each sip, emblematic of a hyperlocal culture, but also a product of simplicity and directness, something both old-fashioned and completely modern.

“It’s just the nature of the borough, it’s much more attached to a craft spirit, to kind of make something,” says Gorilla’s Scherer.

“It’s kind of back to basics.”

The Cups of Kings County: Some of the East Coast’s best-brewed cutting-edge coffee is poured right in Brooklyn.

Café Culture: Brooklynites caffeinate at spots like the old-schoolish Variety Coffee in Williamsburg or the white-tiled and bright Café Pedlar in Carroll Gardens, run by the boys at Frankies down the block.

Liz Clayton is a writer, photographer and occasional Canadian translator living in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Her blog, twitchy.org, monitors the coffee microculture.

Editor’s note:  Second Stop and Lucky Shot have closed.

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Liz Clayton is a writer and photographer living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. She is co-author of a world guide to the best coffee places to be published by Phaidon in July, 2017.