New highbrow brew

Espresso at La Colombe's Rittenhouse Square shop: It still rates, but there are coffee comers.
Espresso at La Colombe's Rittenhouse Square shop: It still rates, but there are coffee comers.
Posted: March 17, 2011

If most normal humans are made up of nearly 90 percent water, I am at the very least 80 percent coffee.

Not only do I drink it from morning to night, loving the hot black spark perking through my body and mind, I've come to savor its myriad roasty flavors, the manual craft of brewing gear, and especially its culture of rituals - which can be oh-so-hard to change.

Like most discerning Philadelphians, my ritual for more than a decade has been a cup of La Colombe, the city's "house brew," judging by the number of restaurants and cafes that have a pot of Corsica or shot of Nizza at the ready. We've been lucky to have such quality brewing here for the last 17 years.

That ritual, though, may be about to change.

We've seen a caffeine rush of independent new cafes brimming with coveted single-origin beans from hip out-of-town roasters such as Stumptown and Counter Culture, and equipped with the latest in brewing techniques. That could mean a $14,000 Strada espresso machine or a primitive Hario kettle and V60 cone filter for the "pour-over" bar, where every cup is ground and steeped to order.

You may not yet have heard of Ultimo, Shot Tower, Elixr, Bodhi, or Chhaya - but you will. That's because these and a handful of others from the so-called Third Wave are challenging La Colombe for local coffee supremacy, at least in terms of quality. (If Maxwell House was the first wave and Starbucks the second, Third Wavers now quest for the ultimate foodie brew.)

After 99 cups (and counting) over the last few weeks, I know. I've scrutinized each shot, foamy cappuccino, and handmade brew along the way of a cafe quest that led me through 33 stops from South Philly to Northern Liberties and Bala Cynwyd.

I've got the fast-typing jitters to prove it.

The caffeine chase

Life speeds up on a mission like this, and it's best not to ride that rocket ship alone (especially in a Philly Car Share with the meter ticking). So, with a plan to rate three different drinks at every cafe on a 10-point scale, I recruited java-centric colleagues who were eager to join me and keep the ratings consistent.

The whole enterprise, of course, depends partly on the baristas who happened to be behind the counter when we walked in. Skills varied widely, even at the same cafe.

But ratings, obviously, are also personal. Photographer David Maialetti, an extreme coffee geek, was mortified when he saw sugar go into my espresso, a habit since I learned to love the short shot in Paris more than two decades ago. Brewed coffee, I drink black. But for me, sweetening espresso is like salting a stew, lifting nuances from the bitter depths I would otherwise not taste. That said, the quality of beans in espresso has improved greatly over the last decade, so I'm evolving, too. I tasted each shot both ways.

Other measures, though, were far more objective as we tuned in to the subtle details that could make or break a cup. Did baristas prewarm the demitasse to keep the shot hot? Lukewarm espresso is a sin. Did they steam the milk into lusciously creamy microbubbles, or scorch it into dry meringue? Did they occasionally adjust the grind to achieve the perfect texture - a subtle art with major implications. Did they grind their coffee fresh at all?

Few were quite as obsessed with such minute details as Varnana Beuria, the chef-turned-co-owner of Chhaya, a quirky East Passyunk waffle cafe focused on the brewing performance art of siphon vacuum pots and circus-poured "Indian decoctions," as well as the pour-over and espresso options.

When she stepped onto a stool and ignited a Bunsen burner beneath the beaker-like glass of our siphon pot, it was like watching an episode of Mr. Wizard. Meat thermometer in hand, digital scale at the ready, Beuria meticulously warmed every chamber and filter part, measured out water by the gram, brought it precisely to 200 degrees, and only then ground the beans for their immersion. One electronically measured minute later, the flame was extinguished, and, whoosh! - black elixir flowed into the siphon's bottom chamber, and then into a single 12-ounce cup.

Heaven. Pure coffee heaven. The sour notes and bitterness often extracted by other brewing methods were absent. Instead, the pure essence of coffee rang in my head, and the ethereal roastiness of One Village's Indian Monsoon Malabar - soft, earthy, and rich, with an almost woody spice - lingered after every sip. It was pretty much perfect, one of the only two cups on this journey I rated a 10.

"Let's just call it a day and go have a beer!" chirped my coffee-addicted companion Steven Rea, The Inquirer's movie critic.

It was only 10:30 a.m.

Maestros and pretenders

If only they were all so good.

Yes, we found some true stars at Third Wave shops. Aaron and Elizabeth Ultimo's self-named cafe at 15th and Mifflin is a veritable ministry for the high-end coffee faithful who sip pour-overs and perfect espressos in church pews beside racks of craft beer and roll-up garage-door walls. No coffee shop in the city does more things right than Ultimo right now.

Others are close behind: the new Shot Tower in Queen Village and Elixr on 15th Street, Bodhi on Head House Square, Spruce Street Espresso (at 11th Street), Lovers and Madmen in West Philly, and Town Hall in Merion Station.

But so much of what we tasted elsewhere was mediocre. Some would give a cup of campfire mud a bad name.

There were bandwagon pretenders, like Nana Petrillo's, which jumped on the pour-over trend with jerry-rigged equipment and diner-grade beans. There was a surly French counterman at Cafe L'Aube whose extreme disinterest produced a wimpy, cocoa-dusted excuse for cappuccino. There were great beans from PT's in Kansas at Jersey Java in Haddonfield, but its retail shelf had bags from before Halloween going stale in March (ideal is one to two weeks after roast).

Even Starbucks has tried to step up to the realm of hand-brewing with high-tech Clover immersion machines installed in two local stores - only to fall short with lackluster beans.

Case in point: A $2.75 cup of Colombian Asoapia brewed on the Bala Cynwyd Starbucks' Clover tasted less like the advertised "citrus" and "chocolate," and more like fair-trade chicken bouillon. Meanwhile, at Town Hall Coffee around the corner, a $2.35 hand-poured cup of sun-dried Ethiopian Worka Yirgacheffe sang an ethereal chorus of raspberries and cocoa. I know where I'm headed on the Main Line for artisan-brewed coffee.

These made-to-order cups can be pricey, some more than $3, depending on the beans. But while I sometimes crave a $1.50 cup of machine-brewed Corsica from La Colombe, the pour-over method proved hands-down to be a more expressive way of tasting the nuances of great coffee than a conventional bulk dripper.

And yet, there's no escaping the occasional caveats of the pour-over experience: time and pretense.

I can still feel the angry stares of impatient customers in the growing line at Lovers and Madmen as Ben the barista slowly swirled hot water down onto my freshly ground Baroida, swaying to the band Beach House on the stereo.

"Quality," I told them, "is really worth the wait!"

No one cracked a smile.

At sleek new Elixr, meanwhile, it was owner Evan Inatome who gave me coffee-nerd grief, sighing with disappointment when I asked for my $3.75 Chemex of Rwandan Tegibanze Innocent to go.

"But it will taste like the paper cup!" he protested.

I grabbed it anyway and left. I inhaled the delicate aromas of nuts and molasses, then savored the best paper cup of coffee I'd ever had.

The ultimate espresso

Finally, it was the ability to skillfully pilot an espresso machine through its maneuvers that distinguished Philadelphia's finest cafes.

The artistry of milk mattered, but not so much in the foam-painting way. Sure, a perfectly feathered rosetta design was nice, the proud mark of a craftsman. But what I really wanted from my cappuccino was sumptuous texture, a rich but not overly dense cumulus of foam that could make every sip flow in luxurious slow motion. And it still had to resonate vividly with coffee.

Barista Gray Fisher poured my winner at Bodhi, where, oddly, I found Stumptown's Hair Bender blend too acidic (and consistently too cool) on its own. Spruce Street Espresso's second-place cup rose on the softer caramel of Counter Culture's Toscano. At La Colombe, meanwhile, we happened upon a young barman who made a better Abercrombie & Fitch model than a barista, serving us a hastily poured cup of loose foam and faded coffee umph.

La Colombe's espresso, though, was another matter - reconsidered more closely on final-round revisits for our espresso champ. This time, we had one of La Colombe's best baristas pulling the shots, 17-year vet and manager Greg Smith.

The new Savoia blend was an intriguing change of taste, a darker tribute to Rome crafted with chef Marc Vetri's help. But I kept coming back to my familiar cup of lighter Nizza - and liking it.

Did I still love it, though?

Certainly, I appreciate it more than most of the Third-Wavers I know. It has an Old World elegance that's increasingly rare, and I noticed for the first time, to my delight, a whiff of floral African beans.

But as we zipped that morning like hyper bees from one caffeine hive to the next, it was apparent that Nizza had been overshadowed by its bold new competitors. They were supercharged with a triple dose of grounds (21 grams to La Colombe's 7), and had a finesse to match the swagger.

At Shot Tower, owner Matthew Derago's high-tech Strada machine pulled a remarkably smooth single-estate Indonesia Sulawesi Toarco from Stumptown that was ethereally creamy and naturally sweet. At Elixr, I tasted dark chocolate and candied orange from PT's Southpaw. At both Town Hall and Lovers and Madmen, Counter Culture's Rustico made the cups hum with dried fruit and nuts.

The winner, though, was obvious when I settled into a pew at Ultimo, and put a demitasse of Counter Culture's Apollo 3.0 to my lips, its surface swathed in rich brown crema flecked with rust. I sipped, and the brightness of citrus took off and just kept on going, with swirling layers of lemons, brown sugar, nuts, and Dutch chocolate that rose and fell, rose and fell again - then lingered.

I licked my lips. Another perfect 10. And, perhaps, a new ritual.


See an interactive map of Craig LaBan's top 12 coffee shops at www.philly.com/coffeemap. Find complete coverage of the region's Third Wave of coffee-making, with photos and more, at www.philly.com/coffee.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

 

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