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.
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.
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.
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.