No Sweetener For You (Do Coffee Shops Go Too Far?)

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You can divide coffee shops, these days, into two categories: those pushing the sugar (Starbucks, The Coffee Bean, Dunkin’ Donuts) and those scorning the sweet stuff. Most of us start out in the former camp–I began my coffee-drinking habits with Frappuccinos–and migrate to the latter camp, the independent coffee shop where the beans are of the finest quality and the baristas glare at you if they see you shaking Sweet N’ Low into your iced macchiato. That glare, though, isn’t necessarily encouraged by coffee shop owners: at most of the indy coffee shops I frequent in New York and L.A. (Joe, Gorilla, Commissary, Intelligentsia) sweetener is offered up in a myriad of forms: blue, pink, white little packets and a big bottle of simple syrup to address your iced coffee drink needs. Last week, however, I visited a coffee shop that L.A. Weekly just named Best Coffee Shop 2013–Handsome Coffee–and discovered that sweetener isn’t offered in any of its forms. No pink packets, no blue packets, no sticky syrup bottle. If you want sugar in your coffee, you’ve got to go somewhere else.

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Pour-Over Coffee

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Food journalists notice food trends—“this is the year of the nutmeg martini!” “oatmeal’s out, grits are back in”–and I’m not a food journalist, so I feel like I get a free pass on that front. I just cook, blog and eat (not always in that order) and go about my merry way.

But last year, I thought I noticed a food trend creeping up at the coffee shops I frequented. I noticed it at Joe, then I noticed it at Gorilla. They were these little copper stands with white ceramic objects sitting on top that looked like a cross between a coffee mug and a funnel. Had it really happened? Had I hit upon a food trend?

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How To Always Get A Seat at a Crowded Coffee Shop

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Every day I go to a coffee shop to work on my book. And every day I witness the same phenomenon: people poke their heads through the door, look at all the crowded tables, sigh a heavy sigh and leave.

I want to yell out: “Don’t leave! You’re giving up too easily!” But since most people can’t hear the thoughts in my head, they continue to march their lonely march away; and it’s for these people that I am writing this post. God willing, they’ll read it and realize there’s always a way to get a seat at a crowded coffee shop.

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Ninth Street Espresso

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One of the best things about working at Food Network, which is located in the Chelsea Market, is that the elevators that get you up there are directly across from one of the best coffee bars in the city. That coffee bar is Ninth Street Espresso which many of my barista friends (including those that work at my favorite coffee shop, Joe) speak of with such great reverence there’s often a coffee glow in their cheeks.

Ninth Street Espresso takes its coffee seriously, as evidenced by its menu which does not allow for sticky, gloppy, blended coffee drinks but, instead, sticks to the classics: espresso, cappuccino, latte. They only come in one size, so no “super grande iced mocha latte with a twist of vanilla”–this is coffee as philosophy, as a spiritual exercise. And, correspondingly, patrons of Ninth Street Espresso gather around the bar like worshippers at temple: there’s a calmness in the air, a peacefulness and community cheer that’s unusual in this fast-paced city. It doesn’t hurt that the drinks are outstanding.

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The cappuccino, as shown here, is an artful marriage of frothy milk and deep, dark espresso. Normally, I put a packet of sugar in my cappuccino but the balance is so right-on here that such an act would be criminal. It’s as if a cloud floated down to earth and landed in your cup–if you let go, the whole thing might float away.

Working at Food Network has been a very happy experience thus far, but Ninth Street has made it that much happier. If you plan to judge Iron Chef or guest on 30 Minute Meals any time soon, don’t miss Ninth Street on your way up. It’ll make your day.

Don’t Make A Mess-o of Your Espresso

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The man didn’t know what he was doing. I was at a Brooklyn coffee shop whose name is synonymous with donkey and I ordered an iced latte. The man (I’d call him a barista, but he clearly wasn’t) took a glass and filled it with ice. And then–this was the crucial error–he pulled two watery flavorless shots of espresso which he poured on top of the ice. The ice melted a lot. Then he topped the whole thing with a splash of milk. It was insipid.

The next day at my favorite coffee shop in America (including Seattle) I paid close attention to how the baristas at Joe make their iced lattes. Ice in the glass: check. Then they fill the glass almost to the top with milk. “Whoah,” you might think, “there’s so much milk. How can this taste like a latte?” The answer lies in the picture you see above: they pull a really strong shot. Not just a strong shot, an expert shot. It infuses the milk with magic coffee flavor and produces the best iced latte I can imagine. The secret is in the espresso.

Lucky us, one of Joe’s most prized baristas has a blog. Welcome to the world of Erin Meister and her blog Meet The Press Pot. I stole this post’s image from a post in which Meister writes: “To say an espresso is good is sort of like saying a girl on the street is pretty: Every good shot of espresso and every pretty girl may share this or that characteristic, but if you were to line them all up, one hopes one’s taste is varied enough that they would all be rather different piece by piece. Right?”

She concludes: “So how does one train one’s pupils to pull good espresso? By making them taste, taste, taste and taste again. This is a people-driven industry, and a taste-bud driven industry. And if there’s no way of standardizing ‘great’ espresso, the least we can do, I guess, is create great baristas. One hopes.”

Let’s hope the Meisters of the world outrun the donkeys. Or, at least, that more people learn how to pull a good shot of espresso. I know where I’m headed for my next iced latte!

In Praise Of Simple Syrup

Coffee drinkers in summer do well to ice their drinks–an iced latte is my summer coffee drink of choice. Smart coffee shops (Joe in New York, Victrola and Vivace here in Seattle) understand that raw sugar doesn’t dissolve in a cold drink. So iced latte drinkers are normally left with two unpleasant options: grainy sugar crystals up your straw or chemical sweetener (which dissolves better) but ruins a perfectly good coffee drink. Enter simple syrup. Equal parts water and sugar, my favorite coffee shops keep a tall glass bottle of it near the other sweetening options and for a cold coffee drink, nothing is better. Just a little drizzle and your drink is naturally sweetened without being grainy. Three cheers for simple syrup!