A passion for food + fashion

Talking Coffee with Oliver Strand, Coffee Curator for the New York Times

In Drink, Media on October 19, 2010 at 8:13 am

Chemex coffee maker © Dan Neville / The New York Times


One of my favorite columns in the New York Times “T” Magazine is Ristretto by Oliver Strand, an arbiter of taste in every sense. I am fascinated by individuals who take obsessions to new heights, which is why Strand’s coffee missives are so completely delicious. This morning, Strand takes a few moments in between cups to dish on his coffee habits with The Foodinista—so grab a cup of your favorite joe and settle in. Spoiler alert: I can already tell you that I’ll be spending the next few hours debating whether to splash out on the handblown glass version of the Chemex coffeemaker with a wood and leather belt (at first glance you’d swear it was an Alexander McQueen corset belt), though I think we probably know the answer…

What’s your typical coffee order in a restaurant?
I rarely order coffee after a meal – I don’t drink coffee at night, so that’s out, and because most restaurant coffee is phoned-in there’s little point. That said, I’ll sometimes have an espresso after lunch if I need to jump back into work that afternoon. Or I’ll go with what the restaurant does best. Recently, I had a terrific cup of coffee brewed in a Chemex at a groovy taqueria here in New York.

Japanese Ceramic Beehouse Dripper

How do you enjoy your coffee at home?
A friend recently said: you like the method you’re liking. Meaning – for the coffee-curious — if you’re playing around with a bee house dripper (which is a ceramic filter cone from Japan), you’re probably liking bee house drippers, and if you’re messing with your Chemex you’re liking Chemexes. I’ve been on a Chemex tear for a while, though I’m also messing with the Aeropress right now. Sometimes I’ll pull out my V60. All of these gadgets are in the $20-$40 range, which makes it easy to be promiscuous.

Are you loyal to one bean? Or do you like to mix it up?
You mean one cultivar? (Don’t let my coffee geekiness frighten you.) Cultivar is graduate-level coffee talk. Many coffees these days are labeled as “single origin,” a general term that refers to a region, or a farm, or a part of a farm. In certain circles, it’s no longer enough to call a coffee an African or even an Ethiopian. Instead you talk about a Sidamo, which is a region, or a Yirgacheffe, which is a village in Sidamo, or even better: a particular Yirgacheffe cooperative.

Maybe it sounds too obsessive. And just because there’s a place-name on a bag doesn’t mean it’s great. But most of the great coffees I taste have a place-name on the bag. Right now I’m working my way through the last of Aida’s Grand Reserve, roasted by Counter Culture Coffee. It’s Bourbon, Kenia and Typica beans all grown on farms owned by Aida Batlle, in El Salvador. It’s one of the most expensive coffees you can buy, but I’ll argue it’s worth it. In fact, this is my second batch. In September, I bought one of the last of Aida’s Grand Reserve from Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

I think what you’re getting at is: do I have any favorites? The answer is yes, but coffee is a seasonal crop, so I go by what’s on the shelves. If I like something I savor it, then I wait until it’s available next year. Just like produce at the greenmarket here in New York: tomatoes ended three weeks ago, but the pears and grapes are crazy right now. I’ll see what coffees are around next week. I’m already looking forward to Aida’s Grand Reserve in 2011.

Where were you most surprised by a good cup of coffee or espresso?
Most recently, at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. There’s a kiosk by the gate to the alcazaba, the fortress that looks out over the city, where I had a beautiful cortado. It was break time for the groundskeepers, and there were dozens (I want to say hundreds) of workers mobbing the counters, and even though the shack was cramped — it was built around a well and had trees growing through the roof — the coffee was immaculate: saucer, glass, spoon, water on the side. Everybody served in order. There was this breezy sense of ceremony, that coffee should/could be elegant even if it costs $1 and you’re outside and leaning against a wall next to a dude in a dusty jumpsuit.

Plaza de Armas en la Alcazaba in the Alhambra of Granada, Spain

Do you have any guilty pleasures at, say, Starbucks?
I like my mochas, especially after the first cold snap. That’s not as much a Starbucks thing as a coffee-wide impulse. I’m just balancing the summer, when I’ll go out of my way for a Carvelanche.

Where is the coffee capital of the world?
New York, of course. And the Yankees are going to take the Rangers in six.

In all seriousness, New York is becoming a great coffee town, in part, because there’s no dominant roaster – this is the only place in the country where you can get an exceptional shot of espresso made with beans roasted by Counter Culture Coffee, or Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, or Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Blue Bottle Coffee started roasting here this year, and now PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. is making a run at the city, then you have local talent like Café Grumpy, Dallis and a dozen more. There are few cities anywhere with such a broad selection. Just as important, the baristas here are good and getting better.

It’s an exciting time for New York. Though to be fair, I should say that Seattle, Portland and San Francisco all have deeper benches. Then you have cult coffee cities like London and Melbourne, Oslo and Copenhagen. Notice I didn’t say Paris.

Favorite movie moment with coffee?
Pulp Fiction. Five Easy Pieces. I Am Love.

How much do you drink daily on average?
Two cups in the morning, then more depending on the day. I’m the author of the Filter, a guide to New York coffee from the New York Times for the iPhone and iPad (it’s free and available on iTunes – not coming on too strong, I hope?), which means I’m always checking out new spots, popping in at old places to see if they’re still up to it. It’s done wonders for my mid-morning social life. My dance card is full from 9:30 am to 10:30 am.

  1. First I own a Chemex and can vouch for its elegance (Heather you have to get one). I must admit though that the coffee from a French press is better and from an Atomic it’s better still. (You can check out the Atomic here – http://www.atomiccoffeehouse.com/about.html – I promise it will look just as sexy as the Chemex)

    Oliver, I wonder who is your equivalent in Los Angeles?! I’d definitely use that app. Although I must say American coffee on the whole is truly bad. Although I live in LA, I’m Australian and the coffee in Sydney is really some of the best in the world. Baristas there have elevated coffee-making to a fine art (and somehow managed to do it without all the deep earnestness of Intelligentsia).

    I am now heading over to check out your blog!

    • Your post touches a nerve – I grew up in LA and my mother lives there today, but my sense of Tinseltown coffee is stuck in 1993: Insomnia, Highland Grounds. These days, when I’m in LA I’m a tourist.

      Still, I know and adore the Intelligentsia in Silver Lake, and of course there are now branches in Venice and Pasadena; I hear great things about Spring for Coffee in Downtown, Cafe Luxx in Santa Monica and Paper or Plastik on Pico just off Fairfax.

      Is there anything like the Filter in LA? Or elsewhere in the country? Europe? I’m not sure. I get the impression that the New York Times is out ahead on this one. Give the editors credit.

  2. Call me sentimental, but I miss Highland Grounds. Love your column Oliver and congrats on filter! We need one in LA!

  3. Great article Heather! Loved hearing what Oliver had to say about coffee of the world. Who knew he dug the Carvelanche! Also, it made me pull out my Chemex for a nostalgic brew AND download his app to the ipad. Now I just need to get to New York!

  4. I love love love this post! Oliver Strand is brilliant! I use coffee as my motivation for marathon training. If I crap out and run poorly, I make myself go to Starbucks, if I do well, I am allowed to go to Cafe Luxxe, mentioned by Strand. But I think I’m ready to take it to a new level and treat myself to Aida’s Grand Reserve. Who knows, I may just qualify for Boston.

  5. Not to nitpick, but you can also get exceptional shots of Intelligentsia, Counter Culture and Stumptown in PITTSBURGH. And one great roaster you don’t have in NYC – Vancouver’s 49th Parallel. One could even argue that per capita, Pittsburgh enjoys more access to great coffee than even mighty Manhattan.

    • Good point, Rich W. You’re referring to 21st Street Coffee and Tea, Voluto Coffee, Aldo Coffee? I hear they’re great. (Never been myself.)

      Though I’ll point out that NY does have 49th Parallel (Cafe el Beit). And Seattle’s Caffè Vita (Champion), Tarrytown’s Coffee Labs (WTF), Sullivan County’s Plowshares (Kaffe 1668, the Smile), others. One doesn’t want to be too encyclopedic because then one sounds like an encyclopedia.

      Also, Counter Culture, Intelligentsia and Stumptown all have New York bureaus, with training centers and regular cuppings (and, in the case of Stumptown, a full-on roaster). It’s more than mail order.

  6. […] That distinction is fading, partly because out-of-towners have set up microroasteries here, determined to show us heathens the light. But it’s also due to local roasters like Café Grumpy, which shocked and disgusted New Yorkers with the $12 cup of coffee. Even the New York Times has caught on, installing Oliver Strand as its “coffee curator.” […]

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