Last summer, the minds behind Everyman Espresso took over an old Faema espresso machine in the Bikini Bar, a swimwear shop and surf store on Duane Street in TriBeCa. Sam Penix, the owner of Everyman Espresso, and Sam Lewontin, his consigliere, created a selection of cocktail-like coffee drinks with tiki bar names: Haru Swizzle, Puente Collins, Queen Mary. Lewontin, who some call Little Sam (Penix is Big Sam), was often behind the bar. He is one of the most celebrated baristas in America – last year, he came in fourth place in the 2013 National Barista Championship – and between his palate and his technique, the drinks he turned out were strange and beautiful, balanced compositions with layers of delicate flavors.
The short run at the Bikini Bar was more a thought experiment than a place to get a coffee, an art project that played with flavors too nuanced to register with those acclimated to the dessert-like bombast of the frozen drinks that turned New York’s seasonal iced coffee habit into a $30 million-plus market. It worked like this: Surf scenes in washed-out colors projected on the wall in a loop; a white tropical bird named Kava mimicked human speech; and if you asked for the shakerato, Little Sam would pull a shot of espresso, shake it over ice with simple syrup and two kinds of house-made bitters (one with lavender, one mysteriously called "Tiki Bitters"), and serve it with an attitude that recalled the goofy joy of Isaac Washington, the bartender on The Love Boat.
This uninhibited delight is what made the Bikini Bar trial run so remarkable. Sure, the drinks were made with exceptional coffees, beans that were meticulously sourced, handled and roasted, but then so are tens of thousands of coffees served in the city every day. It was that the Sams tweaked the orthodoxy of which they are a part. The two Everyman Espresso locations (at 301 West Broadway and 136 East 13th Street) are geared for purists, those who favor single origin espressos, hold firmly that sugar doesn’t belong in coffee and get excited for early summer, when the new-crop Kenyas come in. At Everyman Espresso, they preach the gospel to a congregation of believers; at the Bikini Bar, they wanted to see what happened when they loosened up. It was another sign of the maturation of the New York coffee scene. After years of taking itself seriously, the city has banked enough credibility to start to have a little fun.
Now New York counts itself among the first rank of coffee towns, a list that includes Copenhagen, London, Oslo, Melbourne, San Francisco and Seoul, the cities populated with a class of traders, roasters, merchants and baristas who are less concerned with how the price of washed Arabicas on the New York exchange will affect the bottom line than how the coffee in front of them tastes.
This is the party line for specialty coffee, a name codified in 1982 when Ted Lingle and Donald Schoenholt founded the Specialty Coffee Association of America in a San Francisco hotel. Today, a coffee is regarded as "specialty" if it scores 80 or more points on the 100-point cupping developed by the SCAA. Just as important, it must be free of what are known as "category one defects" (such as fungus damage) and have no more than five "category two defects" (such as immature beans, which taste like peanuts) in one 350-gram sample. A coffee that scores 80–84.99 makes specialty grade, and a coffee that gets 85–89.99 points is regarded as excellent. If a coffee gets 90 and above, it’s magic.
Chances are the packet of preground coffee you bought in the market isn’t specialty; neither is the espresso you got on the side of the road, or at the airport or in the break room at your office. The off-flavors you get from defects are easy to mask – large-scale roasters hide them with dark roasts and secretive blends, while customers subconsciously cover them up with sugar and milk. But the professionals who brand and sell the coffees that contain lesser-grade ingredients are perfectly aware when they are present. You can’t blame them. They are catering to a price-sensitive public that expects the cost of a coffee at the local cafe to hold steady even if the wholesale price fluctuates, as it has in recent years, on an order of almost 300 percent. The vast majority of the $42.8 billion global coffee trade is a commodity market, in which coffee is bought or sold in interchangeable lots of standardized units along the lines of coal or iron, and when prices climb, large-scale roasters might prefer to buy some questionable coffees until the line on the graph changes direction and hope you don’t notice, rather than change the shelf price and hope you don’t care.
In December of last year, the price of commodity coffee had reached a four-year low, trading at $1.25 per pound for washed Arabicas. Then the market jumped: by the end of February it was $2.02 per pound, a spike that sent commodity traders looking to buy up reserves warehoused for a year or longer. But this wild fluctuation has no direct effect on specialty coffee, which sells at anywhere from $3 to $15 per pound for green beans, with some highly regarded coffees commanding up to $35 per pound; a few legendary farms, such as Hacienda la Esmeralda in Panama and Finca el Injerto in Guatemala, will hold auctions where the best coffees go for $40 to $80; sometimes, the bidding for a particular lot will reach a fever pitch, such as when an eight-pound lot of beans from Finca el Injerto went for $500.50 per pound.
Irrational exuberance aside, great coffee will always cost more. Although it doesn’t cost as much as it should. If you consider the discrepancy between what a large-scale roaster pays for commodity coffee and what Dillon Edwards, the owner, and until recently the sole employee, of Parlor Coffee in Williamsburg pays for the Illubabor Sota, a coffee from Ethiopia that has been scored at 89.9, he should be charging much more than $3 for a shot of espresso.
Parlor Coffee could be the smallest espresso bar in New York. It’s in the back of the barbershop Persons of Interest, where it shares a cramped room with a display of hair care products. Despite the setting, Edwards is ambitious. He roasts his own coffee, having just joined the Pulley Collective, a roasting facility on the Red Hook waterfront equipped with the latest gear that members rent by the half-day, and he buys his beans from Coffee Shrub, an importer based in Oakland, California headed by Thompson Owens, a coffee buyer known to trek to obscure locations, track down the best coffees, and offer enough for that crop that no other suitor can compete. Edwards might have a single espresso machine, but he has the resources of a coffee company staffed by hotshots.