by Claire Alsup
On Friday, January 27th, Oakland-born Blue Bottle Coffee opened its New York City flagship cafe and roastery at 279 McKibbin Street in Bushwick. To our joy, it’s a mere two blocks from Heritage Radio Network global headquarters (read: warehouse & shipping container). The nearly 16,000 square foot space includes the cafe, roastery, cupping room, training studio, industrial kitchen, storage space, and loading room, plus a couple rooms with jobs to come.
When we heard about our new neighbors, HRN descended in force to caffeinate and introduce ourselves. Generously, the team at the new Blue Bottle invited us over for a tour. So, on a chilly day in March, the team packed up early on a Friday went on a field trip.
The new cafe boasts clean lines, high ceilings, stark white fixtures, and a vertical garden along one wall. But, the piece de resistance is in the room behind the cafe, visible through the floor to ceiling window along the back wall: a massive roasting machine, which will be roasting all the beans for New York City’s Blue Bottles. Their cafe in Rockefeller Center alone goes through about 30 pounds of coffee per day, so this machine has its work cut out for it. Our super knowledgeable Oakland transplant tour guides, Matthew Longwell (Head Trainer) and Lilly Kaplan (Cafe Leader), brought us behind the scenes.
The training room—where they will train all NYC Blue Bottle employees— has what looks like three individual cafe counters from the future lined up: including all equipment, POS systems, and coffee machines. In that room, new hires will first “Embark,” Blue Bottle lingo for pre-orientation videos and lectures. The corporate structure is a conscious design, intended to encourage creative growth within the company in a nonlinear fashion, “a jungle gym, not a ladder,” explained Matthew. After Embark, new hires go through two eight-hour days of training about the business before they begin training on the POS and brewing coffee. Then, they spend a couple of weeks working in the cafe – but only at the register and brewing – before they head back to class to learn the intricacies of espresso, and then finally milk-steaming. So, this is not quite the job you get when you don’t know what else to do or while you get a degree, like most barista jobs start. Blue Bottle prefers to hire baristas without previous coffee experience, since they teach new hires everything they need to know through Embark.
Next on the tour, the massive industrial kitchen: chefs would do bad things for this kitchen. It boasts a walk-in the size of my Lower East Side apartment, spacious rooms full of coffin-sized steam and bake ovens, huge ranges, and long prep tables – all pristine and waiting for the current operation on Berry Street to move in. It's the calm before the storm.
After peeking our heads in rooms that will store many tons of green coffee beans, ones where trucks will load up with all the freshly baked pastries and savory goodies, and a couple that don’t quite have jobs yet, we made it to the cupping room. Our Blue Bottle guru, Matthew, set us up with rows of coffee cups and began grinding. We tasted all of their brews, methodically, trying our best to emulate his moves.
Cupping, we learned, goes like this:
1. Smell exactly 2 ounces of grounds of each coffee on their own in the coffee cups.
2. Pour boiling water over the grounds and let steep.
3. Hold your hair back, and go down the line smelling each coffee again.
4. With a spoon, and the cup right under your nose, break the seal that the top of the coffee forms "in a rowing motion" to release the aromas and inhale deeply and quickly. Scrunched noses and funny faces encouraged.
5. Finally, we taste! Taste from a small spoonful, slurping aspirating to get all the flavors in your mouth, wine style. It is by far the best step.
Now, though I am nervous what Matthew and Lilly will think if they read this, I took some tasting notes to share. We all have to start somewhere. The first three are single origin beans, the next four Blue Bottle blends.
1. Burundi Kayanga Heza: lime, hazelnut, dried citrus peel
2. Honduras El Cielito Jobneel Caceres: light wood chips, grass, lemon
3. Guatemala Alta Verapaz Santa Sofia: milk chocolate, almond butter, raspberries
4. Three Africas: blueberries, lots of blueberries, pine, maple syrup, flowers (not sure which kind?)
5. Bella Donovan: blueberries (again), dried cherries, wet leaves (I am only rewriting prior notes here, Blue Bottle!)
6. Giant Steps: dark chocolate, walnut, pretzels
7. Hayes Valley (only used for espresso): trees (again, not sure), dark chocolate, nuts, molasses
To wrap things up, we got a taste of cascara (coffee cherry tea)!
We left feeling like pros. After all that coffee on a Friday afternoon, it was time to balance out with a drink. A lovely afternoon of coffee capped off with a couple rounds at Roberta’s Tiki bar to thank the new neighbors. Blue Bottle: while you may not want me tasting your brews in any official capacity anytime soon, I am so glad we can fuel up frequently now that you’re around the corner.