A friend describes coffee in this simplistic way: There’s brew you need versus brew you want.
And, when Starbucks opened its Pike Place doors in 1971, there’s no denying its substantial impact in making that clear distinction. As consumers, we discovered our preferences — espresso, latte, cappuccino — and how it defined us (I was an iced caramel macchiato). We learned about regions and the characteristics of those beans. More importantly, it altered preconceived notions about naively enjoying of a cup of joe.
Taking it further, a new wave of roasting began with West Coast forerunners such as Blue Bottle and Stumptown, paving the road for coffee evolution into what it’s become — an elevated art requiring scientific measurements for which serious (albeit, sometimes snobby) baristas could make a legitimate career.
And, surfing that new wave are some of our favorite New York coffee shops making their own imprint in java history.
Not much more than a tiny counter space, Abraço Espresso in the East Village is worth the cramped, seatless quarters. With two of the owner’s backgrounds at Ninth Street Espresso and Blue Bottle Coffee, this place blends consistency with love (abraço in Portuguese literally translates to hug). Speaking of love (handles), don’t miss that delectable olive oil cake.
Throwing it all out the window, bartenders (formerly known as baristas) at Ninth Street Espresso shelved the traditional names and simplified the ordering process to how many ounces (three to 12) of steamed milk are added to an espresso. In additional purism, there are no baked goods or eats here. The most personable location is the larger original in Alphabet City, where you’ll find people perched at the wooden tables, typing away on laptops, while the other two downtown locations — Chelsea Market and Tompkins Park — are smaller and more suited for coffee to-go.
For those who need a little less Wi-Fi with their joe, Café Grumpy is the place to be. All four locations (two in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn) adhere to the refreshing "No Laptops" rule, and it’s strictly enforced — staff can and will ask guests to shut it down — in an effort to create that social coffee house vibe. The focused, yet friendly staff will answer questions about the regions with impressive knowledge, and single-region espressos are the norm here, which are usually blends at other spots. Always wanted to make latte art like a pro? For $50, learn how on April 8 at its Lower East Side store.
Situated a few blocks west of the Bedford L stop, Sweetleaf in Williamsburg is worth pushing past the hipster crowd. With this shop’s second locale, choices abound thanks to the use of four West Coast roasters — Stumptown, Heart, Ritual, Sightglass — and thanks to the commercial realty company Modern Spaces who occupies the back half, space is ample and filled with comfortable arm chairs, tables, and high tops, making you want to stay and relax with a homemade pastry (the small cider donut is memorable). Sweetleaf was among the first local coffee spot to offer Stumptown, and even on a chilly afternoon, the Iced Rocket Fuel (Stumptown’s cold brew fused with chicory, maple and milk) is irresistible and just the pick-up needed. Sweetleaf’s two Long Island City locations — the original on Jackson Avenue and the newest store on Center Boulevard — are much the same, but the latter is creating coffee-inspired cocktails nightly after 7 p.m.
Three amazing things about Whirlybird in Williamsburg: Brooklyn-based roaster Oslo Coffee, breakfast tacos, and a record player. Although it’s a java joint, this cozy, year-old store feels more like an old-school record store from the staff-customer discussions on the importance of neo soul to the stacked milk crates filled with albums of indie artists (they feature one monthly). Throw in some tasty corn tortillas topped with scrambled eggs, savory chorizo, Oaxaca cheese, and crispy jalapeño potato chips, all smothered in homemade salsa, and the vibe transforms into a quasi-living room feel. Looking for simple syrup? It’s kept in the flask-shaped Jack Daniels bottle on the counter.