Around Upstate New York, the ubiquitous coffee cup war is dominated by Dunkin Donuts. The styrofoam cup with orange and brown type is typically found in the hand of middle-aged and younger women, and men standing on the sidelines at their children’s sporting events. Starbucks comes in second, usually gripped by those who appreciate coffee on a greater level, or at least on a plane where they enjoy the flavor of coffee. Dunkin Donuts coffee drinkers believe that Starbucks Coffee tastes burned, while Starbucks like that their coffee hasn’t been filtered through wet newspaper.
I’m in the latter camp, though I am also a fan of two local coffee brands — Freedom of Espresso and Cafe Kubal. There are others in the small batch roasting and retail game, but these are the big names locally.
Starbucks is the dominant brand in New York City, as there are a shade over 200 stores on Manhattan alone. Sure DD and Tim Hortons are there, but this is a Starbucks town. Right?
Well, yeah, but New York is also the landing zone for a number of bicoastal coffee brands that sought expansion from their West coast homes.
For you, dear reader, I tracked down three of these transplants on purpose and a local roaster that I’ll use as a control group. As for Starbucks, we all know what that tastes like. And, if you don’t and you are in Manhattan, you have 208 ways to find out.
Hometown: Portland, Ore.
Cities other than home and Manhattan: LA and Seattle
I visited: The spot at West 29th Street and Broadway in the lobby of the Ace Hotel
Other NYC locations: West 8th Street at Washington Square
Vibe: Hipster paradise
Menu: Simple. Cappuccinos, lattes, drips, and cold brew.
Take Away: Mugs, beans, bottled cold brew
Order: Small (12 oz.) and large (16 oz.) cold brew
The Ace is really the perfect location for Stumptown’s second location. It’s a neat little refurbished hotel in Midtown South, with a storefront and entry off 29th Street. Bright walls and woods surround a beautiful lineup of pour-over stations.
The cold brew is rich, with notes of chocolate and toffee. As is often found in cold brew, the acidity is low while the bitterness was medium. Cold brew, capped and sold in 12 oz. stubby beer bottles, can be purchased at the stores or Whole Foods.
The Wife was unimpressed. I liked it.
Hometown: Oakland, Calif.
Cities other than home and Manhattan: San Francisco and Brooklyn
I visited: The High Line cart at 16th Street and Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen
Other NYC locations: 15th St. in Chelsea and Rockefeller Center
Vibe: Coffee shop
Menu: Cappuccinos, lattes, teas, drip, and iced coffee drawn from a beer tap
Take Away: Mugs, bags, books, beans and New Orleans Iced Coffee
Order: New Orleans Iced Coffee, one-size
It’s a shame that the New Orleans isn’t available in larger sizes. I could easily drink more, but at $4 for 12 oz. I tried to show restraint. The New Orleans is like a weak chocolate milk. Coffee is brewed with chicory and served lightly sweetened with whole milk. Chocolate notes are present but not overpowering. The chicory is more understated than I remember from my first cup a few years ago in San Francisco.
Blue Bottle Coffee is closest to the feel of a commercial coffee entity like Starbucks. There is still a great deal of care shown by the baristas, but this is the one that feels most like a business. That’s not a bad thing either. It feels like they have their shit together and can talk the talk, while simultaneously walking the walk.
Half-pint paper milk cartons are also for sale at BBC stands and Whole Foods.
It’s a sentimental favorite, bringing back good memories of my San Francisco trip from a few years ago.
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Cities other than home and Manhattan: LA
I visited: Herald Square at 1333 Broadway
Other NYC locations: West 20th Street at 10th Avenue
Vibe: Urban Outfitters
Menu: Largest of the bunch (see below) plus iced coffee drawn from a beer tap
Take Away: Mugs and beans
Order: Iced coffee
Urban Outfitters is separated from Intelligentsia by a hallway. The hipster dance music and stark white walls carry over to the coffee stand. Peaking out at Broadway on Herald Square, the baristas wore fedoras and poured iced coffee from the taps adjacent to the register.
Hometown: New York
Cities other than home and Manhattan: None
I visited: Chelsea Market
Other NYC locations: East 10th between A and B, East 9th between C and D, East 56th between Park and Lexington at the Lombardy Hotel
Vibe: Small-time coffee bar
Menu: Four items — drip, iced, espresso, espresso with milk
Take Away: Nothing
Order: Iced coffee
Creamy and rich, the iced coffee was served black in a 12 oz. cup with only a little ice. It’s a very powerful cup of coffee. Bold with medium acidity and bitterness. It let you know who was in charge. Blue Bottle Coffee is my sentimental favorite, but Ninth Street makes a damn good cup of coffee.