Coffee Conscious

Day Seven 12 Sips of Brooklyn
The author relaxes at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint.

The author relaxes at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint.

OUTSIDE THE CITY LIMITS, businesses and commuters rely on fossil fuel. Here in New York, we know the true engine of enterprise is coffee.

Years ago, while studying graphic design in Greenwich Village, I frequented a diner on Waverly Place that had a unique dispensing system for its coffee. Order a cup and the counterman would turn the tap on what looked to be an ordinary kitchen faucet sticking from the wall. Out came black java. How cool was that! I visualized this vast network of pipes running through the city parallel to the Catskill water lines, and plotted how to get it supplied to my kitchen. Eventually, I realized it was merely a clever positioning of their coffee urn in the kitchen behind, maximizing space in the limited serving area (my naïveté is best explained by two words: art school).

In the past two decades, coffee in the city has gone from commodity to connoisseur. On the one hand, there is the ubiquitous Starbucks, basically a slicker, upscale Chock Full o’Nuts. For mocha’s sake, there are Starbucks in shopping malls (!) and thruway rest areas. Good enough for a quick joe, but basically homogenized brown water dispensed by undertrained baristas. On the other hand are the coffee bars with more highly trained staff, higher quality product and various levels of design finish or stylish marketing as product differentiators.

I prefer my coffee from what I call the roaster/merchant. These shops work on the assumption that there is a market in consumers who want to drink their java not in some plush salon, but in the roastery itself. These are not your fancy wineries perched at the edge of the vineyard, with peacocks wandering about and classical music piped in. No, these are a few tables pushed up against bean bags hard by the coffee roaster. A certain industrial esthetic predominates.

Grumpy-roasted

Café Grumpy in Greenpoint is an excellent example of the roaster/merchant. Here you know the roasted beans are fresh, having travelled all of 20 feet from roasting to cup. Grumpy embodies a trend in the coffee trade that won’t be unfamiliar to other artisanal businesses. The menu in the shop provides some basic information about the origins (country and region—often down to the specific valley) and its website links to photos of the coffee growers in their plantations, taken by staff who are obviously inspecting the product and working closely with the farmers.

I think this trend appeals to a modern desire by sophisticated buyers to be conscious of where a product is from, who made it and how it was made. In another industry, Apple Inc. has lately been beset by bad press covering the working conditions at its Chinese contractors plants. There is a developing insight that our Western consumption practices have real world consequences for people thousands of miles away, and we want and need businesses to care about this.

Bkly-Roasting-signBrooklyn Roasting Company is located on a cobblestoned street in DUMBO crisscrossed by old train tracks that used to serve the factories of an earlier era. Its  shop has a hard-edged factory feel, with a gorgeous Loring Kestrel roaster and industrial drums under stark lighting at one end and café seating at the other. Its website quotes its “coffeelosophy,” a listing of coffee awareness buzzwords: “best quality Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and Organic certified and sustainable coffees.” Currently, it also shows pictures of co-owner Jim Munson on a coffee expedition in Sumatra.

Brooklyn Roasting Company

The roaster at Brooklyn Roasting Company

Today’s coffee houses are open about the details of their production, extending down to their care and concern for the small growers that supply them. That vision appears to go beyond mere coffee political correctness or a clever marketing ploy. The American Revolution (and the modern world) was hatched in the coffeehouses of Boston, London and Philadelphia. The concern shown by these new coffee merchants is for a sustainable future for the entire supply chain that leads to the consumer. That vision deserves to be central to any manifesto crafted in the coffeehouses of the artisan/maker movement growing here in Brooklyn.

For the anthem of the movement, I propose the KaffeeKantate by Johann Sebastian Bach, here performed in a coffeehouse by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir:

Brooklyn Roasting Company
25 Jay Street, Dumbo
718-522-2664

Cafe Grumpy
193 Meserole Avenue, Greenpoint
718-349-7623

Photographs by Basia Hellwig. Date stamp typographic design by Joy Makon Design. The font is Gill Sans Ultra Bold, by Eric Gill, Monotype, 1928. 

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