The Coffee Scene in North Brooklyn
Coffee, once the expression of freedom (America switched from tea to coffee during the American Revolution when they rebelled against the British tax on tea), quickly descended to happy to serve you coffee in old-fashioned coffee shops where you got bottomless cups of muddy Joe for next to nothing. If not for Starbucks popularizing high-end coffee, we’d not be talking about how hipster, grab-the-pulse of a neighborhood coffee shops became as ubiquitous as a barbershop.
“It is a modern day hair salon in a way,” says JD, owner of Oslo, one of the first new wave coffee joints to open in trendy northside Williamsburg, adding that it seems there’s one on every corner and they have become the new place for people to hang out. Six years ago, Oslo opened their first branch just on Robeling at 4th St, just off the corner of Metropolitan Avenue. And Oslo is just the tip of the iceberg.
Cafe Grumpy was one of the most audacious pioneers. Located at the obscure corner of Meserole Avenue and Diamond Street, in the then not-so-trendy Greenpoint neighborhood, they survived early on by becoming coffee fashionistas. They roast their own beans now, but back in the day, they were rabid about which coffee roaster they would use, and would change in a heartbeat if they thought the bean had become inferior.
You could go crazy just listing all the small shops opening up all over Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, and Greenpoint. It seems that any commercial or semi-commercial location is good enough for a java cafe to open, touting the latest roast from Stumptown or local favorite Porto Rico Roasters.
On Graham Avenue in East Williamsburg, one can travel from the BQE to Broadway and find several coffee shops. Variety, just off the corner of Conselyea, and a block away from the L stop on Graham and Metropolitan, is one of the early places. Owner Gavin Compton has already opened his second cafe (Lucky Shot in Greenpoint) and says it is a struggle there because the foot traffic, while increasing, is not at the herd level that characterizes the major avenues in the hot Northside of Williamsburg. “The thing that would stop me [from closing] is the neighborhood,” he says. “I’d rather people come here and get really good coffee than have to go anywhere else.”
Oslo’s JD says that being a pioneer in Williamsburg years ago had its share of strange moments in the beginning. Locals, he says, were used to the deli experience of coming in and asking for coffee, light and sweet, and an egg with cheese on a roll. “If you want us to worry about a schmear of cream cheese, we won’t be able to focus on the coffee,” he says.
Developing a Buzz-Worthy Brew
Variety’s Compton says the “hardest part of the whole thing is making the coffee taste good.” With over 800 flavor profiles to choose from, Compton says that coffee has a greater complexity than wine. The outcome is determined by the espresso machine, the water, the humidity in the air, the grind for each batch of beans and of course, the quality of the beans themselves.
Every brewed ounce embodies a journey that began months before on a farm in Latin America, Africa, or Indonesia, and newer regions like Australia and Vietnam.
Wherever the coffee plants are grown and cultivated, it is the nuances of the local soil, sunlight, and agricultural finesse that are the variables that lend themselves to making a unique taste. Then the beans are harvested and sold wholesale to roasters who batch roast coffees to reach different profiles such as dark, light, or espresso blends. The roasted beans are sold wholesale and retail, while green beans find their way to local roasters everywhere.
Oslo, Porto Rico, Gimme! Coffee, and Cafe Grumpy roast their own beans. Farmers deliver samples of their beans to the shops in Brooklyn, and each place discerns which type of bean they want to showcase at their counters. “Cupping” events are held, which are really the roasters’ chance to experiment with each bean, and taste-test it with different roasting methods to find the best way to bring out it’s flavor.
Cafe Grumpy hosts cuppings every week in the back room of their Greenpoint shop and invites customers to sit behind a wooden bar that faces the roasting machine, and partake in the tasting. Oslo also is ready to open their roastery doors to customers, giving them a chance to connect with the coffee, and understand where it’s coming from and what goes into the process before it’s poured in a mug. Other shops that don’t have their own roaster (a very pricey investment) buy their beans strictly and proudly from one supplier.
Compton only serves Stumptown coffee at his two shops, buying from its local Brooklyn outlet (Stumptown started in Portland, Oregon and quickly rose to national prominence). He holds them in high esteem, and particularly likes having a local roaster who is willing to provide expertise as well as sell him coffee beans. Stumptown offers barista training which he employs monthly to keep his baristas at their best. “They’re the only company that puts their money where their mouth is when it comes to coffee quality,” he says.
When it comes time to brew, beans at Variety get weighed by the ounce and timed by the second to ensure each cup reaches its full potential. Most coffee shops keep a brewing cheat sheet behind the counter for baristas to reference throughout the day to deliver consistent java joy in a cup.
Keeping the Crowds Coming
To differentiate themselves even further, some cafes offer specialty drinks that go beyond coffee. Verb serves up “steamers” which consist of steamed milk with added flavors like hazelnut, coconut or mint (kind of like a glass of warm milk for grown-ups). El Beit has rich hot chocolate, which drinks like a spiced Hershey’s bar, but the chocolate is better.
For those looking to grab a seat and stay a while, a bite to eat is a nice compliment to a hot beverage. While places like Oslo and Variety try to stick to coffee as much as possible, others like Second City offer a comforting brunch of French toast, or a homemade muffin. Verb cafe is always stocked with bagels for a quick morning grab, and offers their signature JohnnyBoy sandwiches made from organic peanut butter, bananas, cinnamon, and honey on pumpernickel bread.
To Wi-Fi or Not to Wi-Fi
Mike Weiss, a Williamsburg resident for eight years, has been loyal to Verb Cafe from its start in 1999, and plans on keeping it that way. One of the most appealing things for him there is that they don’t offer free wi-fi, which can be both a draw and a curse for coffee shops.
Wi-fi nomads are everywhere these days; the economy has created an overflow of freelancers looking for somewhere to sit and work. A walk into Second City on a Sunday feels like a college library during finals week, with laptops on every table. While this guarantees at least one cup of coffee per table, that one cup can last over a three-hour period, as people sit and linger.
“You’re not going to get rich selling coffee,” says Caroline of Cafe Grumpy, acknowledging the ups and downs of every store’s decision-making process. Ultimately, owners get their satisfaction from making a place where people are coming to hang out. “You’re creating a community,” she says, and that sense of family and networking is exactly what people want to latch onto.
To read more about the cafés listed in this article, see “The Caffeine Chase”.