The Coffee Chronicler
When food writer Oliver Strand wrote his first article about coffee six years ago, he had no idea how quickly the subject would consume his life. Since then, Strand has become known as the country’s preeminent coffee writer, his articles in The New York Times and T Magazine constantly shared, praised, debated, and, yes, ridiculed. Now writing a book about coffee around the world, Strand sat down with Narratively to chat about the past, present, and future of coffee in New York City and beyond.
How did you become “the coffee expert?”
The first article I ever wrote about coffee was small, but it put me in touch with this world and made me realize how little I knew about coffee. Like a lot of people, I thought I knew everything because, you know, I’m an adult. I was once an intern at the Guggenheim in Venice, so I knew everything about coffee, and I went to school in Berkeley, so I double-knew everything about coffee, right? But over the course of reporting the story, the people I spoke with were using terms I didn’t understand, which I kind of glossed over. I did an O.K. job, but it really stuck in my mind that you wouldn’t do that to a chef. If a chef starts to tell you about a technique, you wouldn’t say, “I’ll stop listening to you because I’ve already eaten this.”
I realized there’s this tremendous gap between the expertise at their level and the public discourse in media. There are super-enthusiastic amateurs out there on blogs and discussion boards who are having very advanced conversations, but the conversations in the media were pretty rudimentary, and also pretty insolent. If you write about coffee, you make fun of it because of the price, because of how ridiculous the drinks are—a mocha frappuccino latte with caramel pumpkin seed or whatever—and you make fun of the practitioners because they’re really rude and always trying to tell you how complicated everything is, even though you just want a coffee because it’s the morning.
So when I had a chance to write a second coffee story—about the Japanese-style siphon bar at Blue Bottle in San Francisco—I just treated it as if I was writing about anything else. I spoke to the practitioners in the industry, researched it, and got supporting quotes. And it just exploded like no story I wrote ever had. It was the #2 most emailed on the Times. People re-reported it all over the place. At one point, I put the headline into Google and it got like 75 million hits. I’ve never seen a conversation take off like this. It was just amazing to see how hungry the public was for more information.
So, it chose me. I didn’t go after it. I could have been the pizza crust guy. I wrote a pizza crust article that was #1 most emailed, but nobody wants to talk about pizza crust for weeks and weeks. People really want to talk about coffee for a long time.
What’s going on in New York coffee right now?
New York is interesting because it was late to the dance. There was a lot of coffee that was happening in the Bay Area, in Portland, Seattle and other places well before New York. Washington, D.C., had better coffee than New York in 2000.
Why did we miss that first wave?
Part of it is that real estate in New York is always a bit of a driver. It costs about a million dollars to build a roaster for an independent shop here, once you factor in rent and the gas line and the foundation that invariably sucks and you are obliged to shore up. Not a lot of shops have a million dollars. In Durham, North Carolina, a roaster out on the edge of town is not going to cost a million dollars. Not in Portland or Chicago, either.
So we don’t have a home team—and that is turning out to actually be one of the greatest strengths of New York, because there’s no dominant player. Instead, now you’ve got the best of Portland; the best of L.A.; Blue Bottle from the Bay Area; Toby’s from Sydney, Australia; Café Vita, which is kind of the standard-bearer in Seattle; Caffé Bene in Times Square—they have hundreds of locations in Seoul, which has a crazy coffee scene. There’s a Greek guy who is the six-time Greek barista champion and he’s now working at a Greek restaurant on 23rd Street. So this is what New York has that nobody else has. They’re all here—there’s no other place in the country like that.
And now people are starting to roast in New York, so we’ll have the development of whatever the local style is. That hasn’t really happened yet—we’re in the middle of figuring that out.
The other thing New York has is consumers who like good stuff. If it’s good, they’ll pay. And for all the harping on the Internet and all the tweets and all the comments from people who just hate on coffee—and I have been on the receiving end of many of those comments—that pales compared to the enthusiasm of people when they taste it and they like it. They say, “You know what, that was so good, that’s worth an extra dollar.”
In the case of New York, that might be worth an extra $5 or $15 or $30. To buy one of the best coffees in humanity, it’s probably $75 for a twelve-ounce bag. It’s a lot of money. But in New York, where your average one-bedroom is, what, $1.5 million? To have the best coffee in the world for $75 is nothing.
Are there New Yorkers who pay $75 for coffee?
Oh, totally. Intelligentsia just opened in the High Line Hotel. Within that first week they were selling more whole beans at that Intelligentsia, which is very, very small, than at Intelligentsia in Silver Lake, which is a beautiful, enormous store—one of the great coffee bars in Los Angeles, I think one of the great coffee bars in the world. I’d say it’s five times the size of this shop in the back of the lobby of the High Line hotel—which is still under construction, you hear saws all the time—but in a week they were selling more whole beans than Silver Lake.
People in coffee who aren’t in New York coffee do not understand how busy New York coffee spots are. They can’t conceive of it. In New York, a neighborhood coffee shop will do between 300 and 500 customers a day. If you go to the world-renowned places in Oslo, on a beautiful Saturday they’ll do as many as 500 people. So the busiest day at these destination coffee shops around the world is only as busy as a normal day at a neighborhood coffee shop in New York. Stumptown at the Ace Hotel does 1,200 customers a day; Joe at Grand Central Station will do 2,000. I was there one morning timing it and they had a new customer every fifteen seconds. So they’re making about 180 an hour—just cappuccinos and other espresso drinks, not counting the people out in the hallway getting drip coffee—and at a really high level of execution.
So New York is interesting because it’s younger than other places, and at this point one of the most active. Although not the largest—there are about 1,000 shops in New York, but 4,000 in Seoul. Seoul has much more espresso going on than New York does, which is kind of awesome and humbling. In Seoul the shops are big. The one in Times Square is easily one of the biggest in New York, and it would be kind of mid-range in Seoul, where it is not unusual to have a five-story coffee shop. And the coffee is really well executed, it’s really good.
"There’s a very powerful popular company whose identity is wrapped up with coffee being this Italian art that was perfected in Seattle and then exported in the world. That’s a corporate story; that’s not the story of coffee."
If you’re not aware of it, it’s all kind of mind-blowing that people are paying attention to Seoul and Tokyo and not caring at all about Madrid or Barcelona or Milan or Rome. Everyone thinks coffee is Italian or French because there’s a very powerful popular company whose identity is wrapped up with coffee being this Italian art that was perfected in Seattle and then exported in the world. That’s a corporate story; that’s not the story of coffee. Japan has a coffee culture that goes back to the 1600s—they’ve been doing coffee as long as pretty much anybody.
Seattle was very important in the ’70s and ’80s and Seattle is still where a lot of the equipment comes from, but in terms of pushing flavor profiles, people are paying much more attention to what they’re doing in Oslo and in Copenhagen.
What’s so different about Oslo and Copenhagen right now?
Extraordinary quality. Pushing the flavor profiles up to the lighter end of the spectrum. They’re moving so far away from the dark roast and playing with a roast that’s about as light as you can possibly be while still having a fully developed coffee. So if you have a green bean, it’s basically stone—it’s like jade. If you were to put it in a grinder, your grinder would break. As you roast it, it gets to the point where it’s kind of grassy and it starts to break apart and then it starts to brown. There’s a very, very small window where it’s developed enough that you’ll taste the sugars, you’ll taste the other flavor compounds, but you really won’t taste the roast. In the U.S., most of the coffee is really dark and starts with you tasting the roast. In Scandinavia, they stop it before that point. It’s a tiny, tiny sweet spot. How you get there has to do with temperature, air flow, thermal mass, all of this stuff. It’s not hard to get coffee brown. It’s very hard to go in and develop all the flavors with a flavor profile in mind, make it pass through all that and then stop on a dime. We’re not quite doing that in the U.S.
What coffee shops do you like in New York?
There’s one that opened a few weeks ago in Greenpoint that I really like. It’s called Propeller, it’s run by a woman from Canada who spent some time in London working at two great shops: Lantana and Tina We Salute You. There’s something very low-key and effortless and stylish about the shops in London. They all feel like somewhere between an art project and somewhere you want to hang out. In New York when you have that, it often feels cobbled together. Propeller is not fancy—it’s very simple, just white walls, good chairs, and good cups. And the baristas are lovely. They are so kind and they are so gracious, and in many ways it’s a perfect shop. It’s not an ambitious shop. There are other shops that are trying to change the world, where you have all kinds of gadgets and it gets very baroque.
Who is making the most interesting coffee in New York right now?
I was talking about that Nordic style, and the closest to that is Joe Pro. Joe is a mini-chain and they opened a spot called the Joe Pro shop—it’s really just a coffee shop in the front of their offices. When you walk in, it’s a pretty unremarkable space—as a matter of fact, it’s kind of ugly. They buy coffee from a variety of different roasters around the country. It changes every week, so you get to sample the best in the country. You’ve got Ceremony in Maryland; Heart out of Portland; MadCap out of Grand Rapids, Michigan; Handsome Roasters out of Los Angeles; Phil & Sebastian from Canada. So you can taste coffees there that you can’t really taste anywhere else in the city.
Do you ever order espresso drinks, or only straight-up coffee?
If you start to nerd out on coffee, you stop getting lattes because you realize it’s not about the coffee, it’s about the milk. It’s tons of milk with a little bit of coffee—but it’s nice to have a milk drink once in a while. A well-made cappuccino is a wonderful thing, almost, like, you know, I love pancakes and bacon, but I’m not gonna get that every day. Having a latte every day is like eating bacon and pancakes every day. Just in terms of the amount of calories you’re putting into your body, it’s an enormous drink.
"Having a latte every day is like eating bacon and pancakes every day."
Will high-end coffee ever start to shed its elitist image?
I’d like to contribute to that shedding of its image. I think coffee is very bad at explaining itself, and that one of the most remarkable twists—it’s almost kind of like a political spin doctor would be proud of this twist—is that people who work in coffee are called “coffee snobs” and “coffee elitists” when a barista is making $9 an hour. I think the banker complaining about coffee costing twenty-five more cents than he or she wants it to cost—that person is a lot more elitist than the barista who is getting paid $9 an hour and actually knows what he or she is talking about.
Expensive coffee is way underpriced. The stuff is so good, and it’s within the price range of chain coffee and maybe twice as much as bad coffee. Think about food. When you go out to whatever restaurant you go out to in Brooklyn because it’s a special night, when you get your steak, you’re not pissed off because the steak is $35 and you can get a steak at Applebee’s for $12. You’re paying three times as much as the commodity price, but you’re totally O.K. with that. So that cappuccino that costs $3 instead of $2.25? That’s a bargain. It should be $6.
When you’re paying that extra seventy-five cents, you are getting one of the great culinary deals out there. At the high end of the market, that ingredient is costing four or five times as much as the ingredient at the low end of the market. So the low end of the market might undercut the high end by $2, but it’s making 400% profit, while the high-end is making 20% profit, so I don’t know which one is elitist.
"When you’re paying that extra seventy-five cents, you are getting one of the great culinary deals out there."
New York has thousands of places where you can get a cup of coffee for $1—delis, diners, donut carts, McDonald's, supermarkets—and hundreds more where you pay a little more and you get a little more: Dunkin' Donuts, Tim Horton's. Getting cheap coffee isn't hard. Getting good coffee takes a little more work. It costs more, but then it should—it's a better ingredient, prepared by trained professionals. Is it worth it? That's up to you. Is it somehow wrong? (Which, I think, is buried in the morality of the word “elitist.”) Absolutely not. Innovation isn't elitist, it's what drives this society, this culture, this city.
On the subject of attacking coffee lovers, what’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said in response to one of your articles?
Oh, there are too many to sort through. From within the industry, I’m called a “fanboy” because I’m completely not critical. My favorite comment was in one of the Times articles, where they were just railing on me and telling me that everything I did was wrong, everything I wrote was wrong, and they said, “Clearly, the author is under 50 years old.” Like I’m a kid who doesn’t know anything and that explains it.
I’ve got a theory about coffee: Part of the reason why everyone’s reaction to coffee is so strong is that it really is one of the defining passages into adulthood. It’s a thing that you know about when you’re a kid and you’re not allowed to have for good health reasons; at some point you taste a little bit, either in high school or college because you need the chemical lift, but it’s probably not that good. And then, at some point, you like it, and you decide that this is your order, this is the style you like—maybe it happened during your school year abroad in France or Italy or Mexico, and usually that moment is happening at a pretty volatile, exciting time in your life. You’re drinking, having sex—a lot of other things are happening. So you decide that this is what you like, and it messes with a lot of people’s heads to be told five, ten, twenty years later by some kid under the age of 50 in The New York Times, “What you like could be improved upon.” What I’m really doing is challenging a person’s notion of their adult self.
Is this a trend? Will people be obsessed with tea instead in two years?
It’s absolutely not a trend. Will coffee be here in a year or five years? Absolutely. Will it be here in ten years? Sure. I probably won’t recognize it, but it will be here. Coffee is consumed by hundreds of millions of people. 75% of adults drink it daily.
It’s a huge industry—$18 billion a year in the United States (just on prepared coffee in restaurants and coffee shops). To give you a comparison, Hollywood has a domestic box office of about $12 billion a year, so there’s more money going into coffee than there is into Hollywood. These people aren’t going to stop buying coffee.
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Brendan Spiegel is Narratively’s Editorial Director. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and New York Magazine, among other publications. He writes about food at Endless Simmer and Brooklyn Based, and is a sucker for an expensive coffee with lots of milk.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph, and film stories that she’s curious about.