There are a couple of memories that linger from my first interview with Jamie Wolff of Chambers Street Wines. The sweaty late summer day having its way with some cheap maroon-ish fabrics from Anthropology. The sudden chill of the air conditioning. My overuse of the phrase “wealth of knowledge.” That Jamie asked if I sometimes wished wine didn’t have alcohol in it. What a bizarre question for the owner of the best wine shop in America to pose! The reply must be a truism “then it wouldn’t be wine!” Alcohol is an integral component; there would be no flavor of wine — not to mention far less conviviality — if wine didn’t contain booze.
I’ve been coming back to that moment with Jamie of late because I’m a little sick of alcohol, which for me means wine; hangovers have become intolerable both physically and psychologically, and — truth be told — I really like not drinking. Yeah. It’s a problem. But I still love wine! Not drinking wine makes drinking it even better, rarer, and therefore more delicious. Restraint and self-denial have their place heightening enjoyment like a judicious touch of volatile acidity. I usually console myself in these ponderings with some kick-ass ice cream and thoughts such as ‘meh. this is my fate, especially as a woman, to respect the necessity of calming down, cleansing, protecting my brain and my body, taking care of my health, consuming less booze, spitting more, swallowing less.’
It’s also the atmosphere. Serious wine drinking tends to come along with boisterous wine conversation and gossip, which is highly amusing (if you’re in on the joke), but when you talk about it all day long, sometimes at the end of the day it’s nice to chat about that local sports team or the latest New Yorker. And yet, cracking jokes about the Cul de Beaujeau, whole cluster, pyrazine struggles, what have you with fellow tipsy nerds is usually a side-splitting blast. We’ve gotten tons of mileage out of whether or not it’s acceptable to use having-one’s-hair-cut-by-a-relative-of-Christophe-Roumier as a selling point in an email blast. Getting animated about reduction, dosage, and sulfur is also pretty fun, but not in mixed company. In all things, balance must be found; Wine People (myself included) seem to forget that it’s healthy to cultivate interests outside of wine, also to drink things that aren’t wine.
It turns out that beverage geekery is hard to let go of, which is why as my drinking has decreased over the past few years I’ve gotten excited about some other liquids of terroir and process. The first is obviously coffee. Thus I present: “Coffee: A Wine Lover’s Guide”.
Coffee shares a lot with wine: a sense of place, the concept of varietal, the importance of high quality fruit, the difference processing makes, the rise of small importers, coffee cupping, which is sort of like wine tasting with little score sheets. Hell, coffee is even fermented! (The cherry around the bean.) There are also enormous differences between wine and coffee: coffee is produced in the third world; the economics are different; coffee commerce is contractual, often planned many months or years ahead. Crucially, much of coffee processing takes place on the state-side, at the roaster and cafe level, which radically changes the consumer’s experience. It’s not pulling a cork and busting out a casual carafe. (Incidentally, I cautiously recommend the movie “Barista” by the directors of “Somm” … if you enjoyed “Somm” that is.)
Coffee trends have evolved alongside wine trends, although I have the impression coffee is 5-10 years behind wine. In the golden era of Starbucks, the coffee was inky black and over-roasted. To make this sludge potable, you needed to add cream and sugar … or at least cream. This kind of coffee tastes good with pastries, doughnuts, sweet breakfast foods, the bitter cutting the sweet. (Incidentally the French also enjoy dark, bitter coffee, and what better pairing than the standard French breakfast of bread, butter, and jam? Unfortunately lots of French coffee is made from low quality robusta, rather than arabica beans. Robusta beans contain more caffeine, which accounts for that delightful jittery feeling you get at around 10 in the morning when all you’ve had is atrocious French coffee and sweet breakfast foods.) Coffees with this taste profile are like the wines that rose to prominence during Robert Parker’s era, when consumers bowed at the alter of Big Flavor. Analogously, big wines often have a convenient sense of sweetness that marries nicely with American food. We don’t actually go for foods that are 100% savory. We like our meats with some fruit, our pizza with some pineapple, our salad with a little sun-dried tomato. Wine that is totally dry doesn’t work with foods that are kissed by sweetness.
Fortunately for us consummate beverage snobs, styles have changed. Single origin coffees — like wines — have gotten considerably more elegant, and are readily available all over New York. Unfortunately, as wealthy a city as New York has become, consumers are rarely willing to pay for a very good cup of coffee, a geisha, a prized micro-lot. Geeks will seek out these unicorn coffees, but most will balk at paying in excess of $5 for a cup, and even $5 seems like a lot to most people. I’m not saying that coffee should be expensive, rather that I’d relish the opportunity to pay a few dollars more for something truly exquisite. Also unfortunately, cafe food trends are a little behind, and even cafes grinding up righteous beans and hiring experienced baristas, muddle along with their cold cases of muffins and danishes. (Let me tell you that a lively coffee from Yirgachefe pairs abysmally with a muffin; it’s like drinking Laval with sweet potatoes and a maple glazed pork loin.)
I’ll insert here a little note about the kinds of foods I like to eat with light roasted, terroir coffee: scrambled eggs with sriracha, avocado toast with feta, pastries with spinach or green vegetables inside, even a bagel with smoked salmon pair better with a cup of terroir coffee than a muffin. Back in the winter my roommate Susannah, who works in wine but used to manage a retailer specializing in both wine and coffee, got all up in arms about the fact that there are no cafes in New York offering chickpea samosas. It sounds like a lot to ask, but a chickpea samosa would be fantastic with an African coffee.
This brings me to my next point: Wine People love African coffee. It’s something about the bright, herbal, and fruit forward profile of Ethiopian coffee that channels our inner Pineau D’Aunis lover. And Kenya? Well that savory tomato thing is quite Sangiovese like, isn’t it? African coffee lends itself well to light roasting, which is obviously very popular these days. Light roasting aligns nicely with concepts of terroir and anti-spoof (No charred oak … or beans!). Many of the best natural process coffees are Ethiopian. (“Natural” in this contexts refers to the practice of leaving the whole cherry to dry around the bean, as opposed to washing or removing the (get ready for this fun coffee word) mucilage some other way. Natural process coffee and natural wine provide convenient comparison, and it’s uncanny how much the blueberry poop funk of natural Ethiopian coffee can resemble the reduction of natural Ardèche Syrah.)
While the roaster isn’t everything, the roaster has the power to make or break your experience with a cup of coffee. I recommend finding a roaster whose style you like, and drinking across the origins they work with. Parlor Coffee has been doing a great job in New York, and their African coffees are some of my favorites. They may be the epitome of a hipster roaster, but Parlor sources excellent beans and roasts them well. Their style is light-handed and acid-driven with an emphasis on purity. Even though I most often drink their African coffees, Parlor also has a line on some amazing Colombian micro-lots, which remind me of Burgundies in their ability to be densely packed with fruit flavor, deep, dark, and suave, yet never ponderous or heavy.
This is George Howell. Based in Boston, George Howell appears to be on the rise in in New York (I’ve seen Rouge Tomate posting Howell coffees, and we all know if there’s one Manhattan restaurant geeking out about bean sourcing it’s RT), and I’ve so far been impressed by the beans I’ve picked up at Marlow and Sons recently. Incidentally, Marlow is one of the best local places to shop for coffee, to drink coffee, and to eat savory snacks; their coffee counter is always laden with gougères, mini-quiches, and such. (They have yet to offer a chickpea samosa.) Posting up at Marlow is a unique delight because I don’t have to drink wine, which means it’s barely even work! They clearly take coffee seriously, and I trust their wine director John Connelly equally to pick me out good beans as to pick me out a tasty Gamay. My observation based on only a tiny sampling is that George Howell extracts more bass notes from their African coffees than Parlor, and gives less emphasis to the lean, ethereal, herbal notes these coffees often have.
Finally I’ll take a moment to talk about Spectrum. Spectrum was started earlier this year by my ex-boyfriend Jay Murdock, who is the primary reason I became interested in coffee, and was the early source of all my transcendental experiences with this beverage. When I started at Chambers Street many moons ago, Jay was managing Kaffe 1668, a once great coffee shop that has since slid off the quality coffee radar due to the greed and incompetence of its owners. As vivid as the memory of drinking Vincent Laval’s Cumières for the first time, is the recollection of my first Yirgachefe, its aromas of lemon grass and jasmine wafting from the paper cup as I walked down Greenwich Street on a crisp, fall day.
Over the course of his career, Jay has done pretty much everything in the coffee trade short of importing green coffee. He’s roasted, competed in barista competitions, opened multiple cafes, consulted for some of the busiest cafes in the city, and now he’s schnooking his own beans! I like to support Jay because of our history, but also because I believe he’s an inspired coffee professional who is doing a fantastic job. His first coffee was Indonesian — Sulawesi as I recall, which is surprising because we don’t actually see much Indonesian coffee in these parts. The processing in Indonesia is less clean than in Africa and South America, and finding high quality green coffees from these islands is challenging. Before Jay picked his first coffee, he solicited samples of “spot” coffees from all the green coffee importers he had relationships with, cupped them blind with his colleagues, and picked the Indonesian. (A “spot” coffee can be purchased immediately, without a contract.) The coffees are dark, funky, and earthy, like old school Châteauneuf-du-Pape with more than a hint of bret. They stand up well to dairy.
The coffee I’ve grown fond of recently from Spectrum is this Costa Rica. Jay seeks a darker style than Parlor, which works particularly well for this hazelnut-y and less-fruit forward coffee. It’s got Christmas spice notes, and reminds me of putting my nose in a cedar chest.
There are many other very good roasters to experiment with. These are merely three that have been on my mind (and in my Hario V60 dripper) recently. I’m sure I’ll circle back to wine before long, but in the meantime it’s nice to have another beverage to write about, one that pairs with my favorite time of day, which is morning.