New York. Pt. 1.

I’m blogging to you from New York. More specifically, a beautiful apartment in alphabet city. It’s my first visit to New York and it’s long over-due.

It seems that whether we’ve tasted the coffee or not, we all form relationships in this industry. Directing our traveling customers to a spot we know or we’ve heard of.  I’ve been directing people where to go based on what many of my coworkers have told me. Now, I’m excited to finally put the coffee to the test.

I arrived yesterday and quickly found myself inside the original 9th St. Espresso location. Where I’m staying is a convenient 6 blocks down. Intelli currently roasts the coffee being used by 9th St. I was under the impression that the blend being served was very similar to black cat. However, even at the uttering of the worlds Black Cat, the barista was quick to make it clear that the blend they use is their own. As they’ve used other roasters previous to us, this seems to be something I’ve always heard… Ninth Street fights hard to hold it’s own identity. This is something I can respect.

Anyway, the espresso… It was a solid, happy two ounce extraction. Most of my travels seem to be in the Northwest and it was so nice to  see a proper extraction away from home. It tasted delicious. Nothing about it was overly acidic or bright. The majority of the flavors were chocolate-y, nugget, and caramel. The coffee made me happy.

We walked from Ninth Street to the block that seems to be ran by Momofuku… As in, all three or four, five or six types of restaurants. Miss Liz Clayton had keyed me in that the Ssam Bar was her fav, so we headed there. I have a new found love for fantastic artisan cocktails. I like creative stuff. I respect the classics, but show me what you can do with weird, fine ingredients. That said, I had an amazing pomegranate, ginger sour. The combination of rye whiskey, pomegranate molasses, ginger, and lemon was spectacular. One of my favorite drinks in a while, for sure. The pork buns are what everyone raves about here. They were amazing. So sweet. So spicy. A dish I’ll remember for a long time.

Today, we woke up at a reasonable time and headed straight to the Ace Hotel. I was very anxious to see the Stumptown cafe and some old friends. I was especially interested in seeing what the coffee was like after tasting Hairbender in both Portland and Seattle a mere two weeks ago. I found the espresso to be better than anything experienced in the west coast stores. Bright, clean, and sweet. I accompanied that with a mug of Finca El Puente from Honduras… which had some lovely milk chocolate up front, and continued to get sweet with persimmon  on the finish.

Hanging out in the lobby of the Ace was rad as well. It’s a large space with so much comfortable seating. Apparently, they are doing coffee table service too. The experience is very comfortable. I like the fact that the best cafe seating is so separate from the bar. It allows one to escape what can be a busy and noisy scene to enjoy their coffee in a quiet, more laid back setting.

The rest of the day has been spent at Brasserie Les Halles and the Met. We’re gearing up to head out for some Indian and to explore more cocktail bars. I’m stoked. Today was a healthy 20-ish degrees. It’s so nice to be in real cold weather. I’m digging this city. Tomorrow, I think we’re going to explore Brooklyn and more of the coffee over there.

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Faces.

Apparently, I need to start writing shorter and sweeter posts. Then maybe all the thoughts going on in my head can make it out. Right now there’s about 6 thoughts I’ve been wanting to share, but haven’t been able to prioritize.

Something I’ve been contemplating for a good while now, are the many faces of Intelligentsia. This is the largest company I’ve worked for. It’s very different from simply being part of a local cafe with a staff of 10. There’s much going on, and it can be hard to keep up with all the growth and changes. Granted, this post is coming two years after jumping on board, but I think some of that has to do with how much has changed in the last year. It’s all great and for the better, and we’re heading in amazing directions, but it’s presenting interesting challenges.

The greatest challenge, is showing our regular customers what Intelligentsia really is. To them, we’re a coffee bar. A local spot, which has gained a painful reputation for being where all the neighborhood hipsters hang out. We’re the trendy cafe. This may be what they see on the surface, but I keep looking for opportunities to key them in on what’s really going on…

I recently found myself sitting in a neighboring wine bar, talking with a woman who has lived in Silver Lake for 8 years. Quickly, our conversation turned into her explaining why she doesn’t feel cool enough to sit at our coffee bar and drink our coffee, exaplining that the too-cool-for-school crowd drives her away. Instead, she goes to the spot on the other end of the block. It’s more affordable, and she’s been going there for years.

It pains me to know what many of our customers will walk in and out without really getting the full story of why the coffees on our shelves are so different. The part of the company that makes me the most proud is our sourcing. It’s the work that Geoff Watts, Sara Kluth, and Kyle Glanville are doing. It’s the relationships we’ve established that have yielded such spectacular results. Yet, it’s hard to get everyone who walks through our doors to understand it.

At the same time, we have a collection of geeks and foodies who do care. They do understand, and they share our coffee with friends, often in the best way by telling them the story of Direct Trade and why we are so different.

Twitter and the different blogs out there are also breeding a new kind of customers. The web-geek customer. We’ve been getting interesting phone calls at the store from people in Arizona and Oklahoma who want to buy our coffee and are curious about where the best place is to buy it, and how can they learn more information.

I think the next step to spreading the word of what we really are about is to further our in store education. When we opened we held a weekly home brew class. It’s something I’m hoping we can bring back to life in early 2010. Also, we’ve talked about holding more tasting events when we release new coffees. I’m all for putting more energy and store resources into getting people to taste coffee with us. Giving them a forum to try new things, while hearing more of the story behind the beverage.

Chocolate Rain.

Over the weekend, we had an interesting issue arise. We ran out of chocolate. Our chocolate is something we took a lot of time to develop when we opened our store. It’s actually a gnache made by breaking down bars of Scharffenberger chocolate and mixing it with heated heavy cream and agave nectar. The initial recipe was created by Nick Griffith, and it’s been amazing ever since. Our mochas and hot chocolates are phenomenal, so much so, that even I, on my anti-milk campaign, have to sit down every so often and drink a hot chocolate.

The issue we ran into was that we ran out of the Scharffenberger bars. This happened on Black Friday… the beginning of a weekend we knew would be filled with hot chocolate and chai. Normally, the bars show up direct from the factory, so we knew it could be a couple of days. To fix the problem, we decided to run out and grab some chocolate from a local grocer.

In the end, we were left with a very different gnache. It was less ply-able and harder to blend with our espresso… slowing down a busy line. The really frustrating thing was that it wasn’t our gnache. We had hundreds of customers pouring in from all over the country, coming in for what may be there one and only experience at our store, we had to give them something different.

I started to wonder what is worse… To not have a mocha or a hot chocolate on the menu or to have it there, but not to be serving our version. To me, it’s a balancing act. We aren’t just a neighborhood coffee shop that is trying to get by. We’ve made it very clear that we want to offer the finest and the best of everything we do. Yet, we also want to be approachable and have a non-elitist mentality. Did we do the right thing? I’m interested in hearing others perspectives…

Personally, I think we could have handled it better. We handle every other issue by not telling our customers what they can’t have, but by telling them what they can have… Want an espresso to go? I’d recommend a small americano with less water… Iced espresso? How about iced coffee… it has more caffeine! I think we could have gotten by without chocolate. Our chai is also pretty damn good…