Photo: tyrone warner, Flickr
Lattes are so last year. As a matter of fact, so are cappuccinos and macchiatos.
At least, that's what the emergence of a new kind of coffee bar suggests. Oh, this new breed has the requisite La Marzocco machines for those who really must have their shot, but the emphasis is on brewed coffee made using a variety of venerable counter-top contraptions, from the simple ceramic cone to the laboratory-like siphon, two glass bulbs perched above a Bunsen-burner. (Sorry, Mr. Coffee: the automatic drip still hasn't made a comeback.)
One of the latest entries into this category is WTF Coffee in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. The bar, which opened late last year, is a sleek little storefront with no seating, only narrow shelf-like bars along the walls. All the action happens at the counter, where customers choose from a long menu of beans and roasts, and half a dozen ways to have that coffee brewed, including the siphon and pour-over cone, as well as the Chemex, a modernist hour-glass, and the more popular French press.
Billing itself as a "coffee lab," WTF invites patrons to watch as their java is made on the other side of a glass sheet. (Behind all of this, one might catch a glimpse of the espresso machine.) Not coincidentally, owner Asio Highsmith, is also behind the nearby Hideout, a modern speakeasy that also draws an audience interested in old-fashioned, fussed-over drinks. A newcomer to coffee, Highsmith cast WTF as kind of café-cum-educational center, noting that all of its coffee-making devices are available online and most cost little more than $20 a piece. In a kind of anti-marketing pitch echoed at other home-style brew bars, he added that anyone could recreate their WTF experience home.
Cult roaster Stumptown is another pioneer. It opened its first "brew bar" in Portland, Oregon six years ago and another in 2010 at its newest location in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Neither have espresso machines. (The company now offers manual devices like the Chemex at all nine of its locations, most of which are in its hometown, Portland.) And over the last year, Chicago-based roaster Intelligentsia Coffee added counter-top options to each of its six bars scattered across the country. Even 11 Madison Park, Danny Meyer's Michelin-starred New York restaurant, recently introduced a coffee-cart service with a choice of siphon or Chemex.
The return to seemingly humble brewed coffee might seem puzzling, but coffee experts say the trend has been driven by the increasing connoisseurship around the beverage and, as with food in general, a greater interest in its provenance, with all the accompanying talk of terroir. Quite simply, they say, brewing coffee is the best way to taste the nuances of a particular variety or roast, an idea that is gaining currency with the growing taste for single-origin beans. (Espresso, by contrast, tends to be a blend of different beans, although this too is changing.)
"It's one of the best ways to see what's going on in a cup of coffee," Matt Lounsbury, Stumptown's head of operations, said. (Of course, not all brewing methods produce the same results; a French press, for example, delivers a full-bodied brew, while the siphon offers a crisper, cleaner-tasting cup.) Lounsbury also thinks the recession has helped spur the popularity of these preparations, with more people opting to make coffee at home instead of plunking down $3 for a double latte.
Not all brewed coffee is so modest. When the Clover, an $11,000 computerized brewing system that that makes coffee by the cup, was introduced several years ago, it was instantly fetishized by coffee obsessives willing to pay $10 a cup for its precious yield, and helped kick start the brewed coffee movement. But Starbucks' acquisition of Clover's manufacturer in 2008 triggered a shift toward simpler, cheaper methods, said Kyle Glanville, Intelligentsia's "director of innovation," who has built the company's countertop brewing program. For one, the purchase posed practical issues; it became harder for independents and other coffee chains to buy Clover machines and obtain parts. (Glanville should know: for a time, Intelligentsia served as a distributor.) It also triggered a backlash, he said, sending the indies back to brewing basics. Besides, Glanville added, Clover's vaunted rapid brewing system imposes its own limitations, quickly extracting a strong but somewhat one-dimensional brew. "Ultimately, all Clover coffee takes like Clover coffee," he said.
And here's where the story twists again, like steam curling from a hot mug of joe. Starbucks, perhaps yet again trying to catch up to the indies, is now testing a Clover model that incorporates – what else? – pour-over brewing.
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