Spotlight: The past, present and future of New York's coffee scene

From its history as a global hub for the coffee trade to the evolution of specialty coffee and the challenges posed by Covid-19, 5THWAVE speaks to four of New York’s esteemed caffeinated citizens about the past, present and future of one of the world’s most influential specialty coffee scenes

Main image: Times Square, New York | Photo credit: Victor He | Inset: Ever Meister, Coffee Professional, Journalist and Author

First up we hear from coffee journalist and author Ever Meister about what coffee means to New Yorkers and how the specialty scene has learned to become more inclusive.

Coffee means many things in New York

A lot of people come to coffee a bit unexpectedly. Like so many folks, I got my first coffee job as a barista because I was studying to be a journalist in print media in college and needed to learn to speak with people so I could conduct interviews. I’m naturally very shy, so it was good to have such a public-facing job.
I lived in New York for most of my formative years, moving to the city in 2004. It was such a great time to get heavily involved in specialty coffee and a new wave of cool coffee shops doing latte art.
This was the prime Sex and the City era and there was this incredible energy about living the New York lifestyle – drinking coffee and staying up too late – it was great to be around.
Coffee means so many things in New York. You can get coffee from an Italian coffee shop, Turkish coffee at Turtle Bay, or drink Melbourne-style coffee all over the city these days.
New York coffee means a little bit of everything, and I’ve always loved that there’s room for whatever kind of experience you want. The city is really nurturing in that way.

New York is etched into world coffee history

Researching and writing my book, New York City Coffee, I realised the history of coffee and the history of New York City are very much intertwined – there’s a reason it’s the city that never sleeps.
You can’t tell the story of coffee without including New York – it was the centre of global coffee trade throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century. It was where most ships would dock and there was a whole waterfront area with people running door to door trying to sell trays of green coffee to the highest bidder. There was even a neighbourhood downtown called the Coffee District, where they say the smell of roasting coffee wafted through the air constantly.
Later, you see the development of the first futures market in the US for coffee based in Manhattan. This eventually became the coffee and cocoa exchange, then part of the New York Stock Exchange and now part of the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE).

“You can’t tell the story of coffee without including New York”

The first modern coffee roaster with a rotating drum was invented in the 1860s by Jabez Burns in New York. It made it a lot safer to roast coffee on a large scale and really transformed the roasting industry.
Then there was New Yorker Alice Foote MacDougall, who in many ways created the coffee shop format we know today and was also the first female coffee brokers in the US.
MacDougall initially started selling bags of coffee from a small store called Little Coffee Shop in Grand Central Terminal in 1919.
When the packaged coffee wasn’t selling, she set up tables and chairs and started serving brewed coffee and waffles. It was such a runaway success that she opened a string of coffee shops, each one designed like an Italian palazzo or portico.

New York specialty coffee has learned to become more inclusive

Specialty coffee in New York has evolved significantly, even among my own generation. When I first started working as a barista in around 2004, there were so many rules – ‘no sugar’, ‘no cream’, ‘no alternative milks’ or ‘no talking on your cell phone at the counter’.
There was a culture of ego revolving around baristas and coffee in many businesses, some more than others.
However, we seemed to evolve from that mindset in a relatively short space of time. We softened our stance after realising that you can’t protect coffee like Fort Knox from the people enjoying it and trying new things.

Ever Meister pictured with the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia’s ‘Juan Valdez’ at Expo Especiales, Medellín, in 2014 | Photo credit: Courtesy of Ever Meister

We realised that coffee itself wasn’t the main point of the experience, it’s just a catalyst. The point is the social and emotional eco-system that develops through people interacting in coffee shops – customers meeting their friends, trying new things, getting to know the baristas serving them – or even just having a moment in their day that’s different.
Specialty coffee in my time has moved on from being hyper-focused on coffee quality and fixated on things like the number of petals on a tulip latte. It’s evolved from a slightly abrasive culture to one that I would say has truly embraced hospitality. I made some of the most incredible friends of my life across the counter.
Folks who would come in every day and just get the same coffee or try something new. Everyone put their trust in us and that was amazing, but now it’s totally different. Today, specialty coffee feels wide open and walking in a New York coffee shop is like getting a caffeinated hug.
A lot of this is cultural, but among my peers working in coffee shops, I feel we reached a certain age where we became interested in the idea of community. I think you have to grow up a certain amount before you realise that the world doesn’t revolve around you and what you’re interested in. At that point, you realise that being good to the people around you nurtures community.
The folks I worked with who went on to start their own roastery or open a coffee shop really retained this concept, the idea that a rising tide floats all boats. Of course, Covid has challenged this a lot, but I also think coffee shops saw the communities they had nurtured come together and, in many cases, helped them to stay open when there was no little or business during lockdowns. I don’t see that changing, if, and when things go back to normal – I say with fingers crossed.

In part two we catch up with Chi Sum Ngai and Kaleena Teoh, Co-founders of Coffee Project New York about how the pandemic has strengthened New York’s coffee community and the new challenges operators are now facing

This article was first published in Issue 9 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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