By Bill McAllister and Cindy Liu
The wait staff of Hampton Coffee Company in Water Mill squeezes past burlap sacks and Rubbermaid containers filled with coffee beans that take up the majority of the kitchen, as Dwight Amade, the Hampton Coffee Company’s master roaster, talks about growing up in Grenada, watching his grandfather roast beans in an old metal oil drum. His words are barely audible above the jet-engine roar of the roaster—an 8-foot-tall machine that transforms raw coffee beans into the brown beans with which most coffee drinkers are familiar. He suddenly interrupts his childhood reminiscences to walk across the room. The din of the roaster has not prevented Amade from hearing the slight, popcorn-like crack of the beans, an indication that the coffee is almost done.
“I get past the sound and listen to the coffee,” says Amade.
Amade is the man behind the curtain at Hampton Coffee Company. He takes flavorless, odorless green beans and transforms them into the raw ingredient in your morning fuel. Of course, few consumers consider what goes into their coffee, or even where it comes from.Greg Heinz, roast master at Love Lane Coffee, holding green coffee beans that have been shipped in a burlap sack.
It isn’t a revelation that Long Islanders aren’t interested in their coffee as anything other than a beverage. After all, when friends go out for coffee on Long Island, they generally aren’t really going for the coffee. For instance, the Tim Burton-esque aesthetic of West Hempstead’s insanely popular Witches’ Brew does much more to draw customers than any coffee it serves. While this isn’t a slight to that LI institution, it is emblematic of what Long Islanders think about their coffee.
“I don’t want to put Long Island down, but there are few places [on the Island] you can go that take their coffee seriously,” says Lynda Calimano, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Bay Shore-based Coffee and Tea Newsletter. Whereas New York City has coffeehouses that concentrate on the essence of the bean and espresso bars that serve nothing but espresso, macchiato and cappuccino, Long Island coffeehouses are more widely known for their atmosphere and food. “Even New York City is a little behind Seattle and the West Coast,” says Calimano.
Although LI’s inhabitants are not exactly coffee-savvy, we have seven artisanal roasters—i.e., a small-scale craftsman who roasts his or her own coffee beans, unlike the mass-produced beans that you buy at most supermarkets. That’s a far cry from the dozens in Portland, Ore., a coffee hub in America, but it’s a step up from the one roasting factory Starbucks has for the entire East Coast in York, Pa. With a woman who roasts out of her house, a man who sleeps on farms in Colombia, an eccentric Sicilian who “knows” when coffee is done, a guy with a roastery on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, an “amazingly good-looking” roaster who grew up on a cocoa plantation in Grenada, a former Starbucks barista who sought something better than corporate coffee, and a woman who left law school for the coffee industry, there is not one stereotypical roaster on LI. The presence of this motley bunch means that Long Islanders can easily step out of the house every week, take a stroll around the corner, and buy a pound of coffee grown in Latin America or Indonesia, all the while sitting in for a mini-lesson on the beverage they are about to prepare and consume.
Get Back (To Real Coffee)
“I’m not here to impress anybody,” says Aldo Maiorana in his unplaceable European accent, the result of being born in Sicily, growing up in France, and spending years in South America. His eyes, characterized by concentric circles of color, are not like any ordinary person’s eyes. They draw in conversational partners as he waxes poetic about the three “coffee encounters” in his life. In his 60s and with bright white hair, he drinks only espresso, forgoing any and all additions to his brew, claiming that on the unique occasion his son put a packet of Sweet’n Low in his espresso he “almost died” upon drinking it.
“They have a formula, they have a recipe—that’s what they’re selling to you. They only want money,” Maiorana explains about other coffees on the market—such as Dunkin’ Donuts and 7-Eleven. Maiorana roasts coffee, bakes biscotti and prepares ready-to-bake frozen scones, and may very well be the antithesis of Starbucks.
Contrasting his tastes with what is offered by coffee chains, he employs the following analogy: “I don’t want chicken or fish. I want beef.” Maiorana dismisses the syrup and whipped cream concoctions available at corporate coffee shops,
saying that while most people dull the taste of their coffee with milk and sugar, Maiorana wants to experience everything the coffee has to offer, and he wants it front and center. “A good cup of coffee should give you pleasure,” he says.
Starbucks has been significantly responsible for laying the foundation for coffee awareness in the United States. According to Greg Heinz, roast master of Love Lane Coffee in Mattituck, that’s one thing the corporate giant has going for it. “Starbucks does a lot of things very well. It maintains consistency nationwide. Now it’s up to us to take it a step further,” he says, adding that the biggest movement and biggest challenge by far in coffee on LI will be to educate—or perhaps re-educate—its consumers.
Maiorana expresses puzzlement at some of the customers who wander into his shop in Greenport. Upon receiving orders for mistos and macchiatos, his Sicilian roots can lead to unexpected results for the customer. What Starbucks has taught its customers is not always the truth. A misto is not a product in and of itself. Meaning “mixed” in Italian, a misto requires that the customer specifies what is being mixed.
Perhaps most egregious of all is the caramel macchiato. This drink, a top seller at Starbucks, starts with a base of vanilla syrup, followed by a large amount of steamed milk, then some espresso, and is finally topped with a generous crosshatching of caramel sauce. In essence, the drink has the same ingredients as a vanilla latte, but with the addition of caramel. In Italian, macchiato means stained, and an order for a macchiato, if prepared by a properly trained barista, would result in a shot of espresso topped with a dollop of milk foam, just enough to stain it. A real macchiato is simple and elegant. At its core is coffee— not steamed milk, and definitely not syrup.
Moreover, Starbucks (and its ilk) not only mutates its specialty drinks, but even its essential product. Yes, it is possible to order a plain cup of coffee at Starbucks. However, as a chain of stores, a cup of Joe you get in Starbucks in Syosset has to be the same as the one you get at Starbucks in the Hamptons or Manhattan or Miami. Just like any chain, Starbucks cannot exist without uniformity, and yet at the root of its product is a bean that differs from season to season, just like any other agricultural product. Coffee develops a unique flavor depending on its growing altitude, climate, the soil in which it is grown, the economy of the country in which it was harvested, and even the weather at the time of harvest. Would a wine enthusiast expect a Napa Valley Chardonnay to taste the same year to year? With all of these factors contributing to the taste of the brew, it doesn’t take a pump of hazelnut syrup to give coffee an interesting flavor. It does, however, make up for the lack of complexity in Starbucks’ brew. The less complicated the taste, the easier it is to create uniformity, and an easy way to tone down complexity in coffee is to roast it dark. Obscured to the popular eye by the syrups and the dark roasts, coffee is an incredibly complex industry.
An Obsessive Bunch
“You hear a knock on the door at five in the morning, it scares the hell out of you,” says Georgio Testani in his booming, Brooklyn accent. As the owner and roaster of Huntington-based Georgio’s Coffee, Testani has had past difficulties with “coffee geeks,” as he calls them, like a rock star with his paparazzi. It is because of these geeks that the exact location of his roasting facility must remain a secret, otherwise he will yet again have fans banging on his door, interrupting an at-times frantic process.
Watching Testani roast his beans is a spectacle. The roaster is a steel monster, painted blue with “PROBAT” etched across the front. Testani takes scoops of green beans until he has around 40 pounds, and heaves them into the hopper, eight feet in the air. Once the beans are tumbling and heating in the drum, he pulls out a Marlboro and savors it as he watches the beans through a small window in the machine, the color developing from green to khaki to a caramel. Testani steps out the door to flick the ash. “Biodegradable,” he says.
Several minutes pass, and in a flash, Testani pulls a lever and the beans begin pouring out into an attached basin. What was once a raw, vegetal material is now the fragrant, caramel-colored bean with which we’re all familiar. The same crackling as before is heard again, except louder now that the beans are leaving the machine. This is the second crack, and is a good indicator that all of the moisture has left them.
“That’s the second crack. After that, you better know what you’re doing,” says Testani. As a craftsman, he has chosen to remove the beans at this particular point, resulting in what most would call a medium roast. As the beans are cooling, already Testani is digging through another burlap sack, getting more beans ready, while he talks about his roasting machine.
“It’s like having an old Ferrari instead of a new Ferrari,” he says, explaining the fact that his roaster, built by the German company Probat, is 37 years old. Most of his Long Island competitors use more recently built roasters manufactured by Diedrich, an Idaho-based company and one of the few American producers of roasting equipment. “It’s about the heat retention in the older Probats,” he explains. Coffee aficionados and connoisseurs argue over the importance of the machine in coffee roasting. While Georgio can spend hours talking about his roasting machine, Maiorana simply shrugs it off. “The machine does not make a good coffee,” he says, dismissing all the technological hype. Whether it’s about the man or the machine, one thing’s for sure—the love for coffee needs to be there.
Happiness Is A Warm Cup Of Coffee
“You gotta live it. This isn’t a job to me,” insists Testani, without the boastful pride normally rampant in his speech. Maiorana, too, declares, “It’s not a job. It’s not a business. It’s a passion.” They are far less concerned about meeting the demands of customers, both corporate and residential, than channeling the coffee and creating the best product they can, even if the taste and products offered varies.
For many of LI’s small-scale coffee businesses, their vocation is an art, and thus they take risks just as any artist must. Sometimes the risk pays off, resulting in amazing coffee, but sometimes it means a batch comes out a little over-roasted and winds up in the trash. So, while Maiorana has fanatical customers across the Island, the only independent coffee shop in Greenport—D’Latte on Main Street, just blocks from Maiorana’s roastery—does not serve his product, instead shipping in beans from Connecticut so it can offer a consistent brew. Cheryl Bedini, the roaster at Java Nation in Sag Harbor, places an emphasis on the business end of coffee roasting and, in turn, feels a strong obligation to provide her customers with a consistent product. Even while Bedini does not take risks with her beans and employs roasting methods similar to the major coffee companies, her product is superior to what corporate brands and chains offer. After all, her coffee is still the product of one woman working with small batches, not a factory in York, Pa.
Christian Crespo, who runs Mo’Joe, an oasis of Manhattan aesthetic around the corner from the Mineola train station that brews and serves Georgio’s Coffee, stresses the importance of the barista in presenting the work of a roaster. “Baristas are goodwill ambassadors,” he says, suggesting that baristas will be the ones to engage customers and lure them into the world of coffee. The time and effort that a roaster puts into his work doesn’t mean anything if the barista doesn’t prepare it well.
“If a barista doesn’t do their job well, they might as well be serving Folgers Crystals,” says Crespo. “In other parts of the world, a barista is a profession, not a college employment.” While Crespo admits that much of Mo’Joe’s customer base is comprised of commuters catching a train out of Mineola and employees stopping in for a lunch break from Winthrop Hospital, he strives to instill “more than just a drinker’s appreciation of coffee.”
“I can’t even drink coffee at Starbucks. It’s painful,” says Sarah Biging, 17, a barista at Mo’Joe who described herself as a coffee geek. “I don’t have an espresso machine or French press [a small pot favored by some enthusiasts] but I can tell if I’m at a restaurant and the espresso is bad.” While she indicated that she doesn’t have any special equipment at home, she seemed to think it unnecessary. “All you need is hot water and grounds,” she says. In this case, preparation know-how is just as important as the bean. Like the bean’s journey from cherry to morning brew, learning about coffee is a process.
You Say You Want A (Coffee) Revolution
As Greg Heinz briefly recounts his journey from his job as a barista at Starbucks, loading up his burnt coffee with sweeteners, to eventually becoming a part of the national Roasters’ Guild, whose retreat he will be attending in August, Love Lane partner Jennilee Morris comes from the kitchen with a small white plastic container of sample coffee beans, labeled “French Vanilla Powerbean.” The beans emanate a scent that is nauseating and knocks you off your feet, the French vanilla an overpowering parody of itself, an all-out assault on the olfactory senses.
That stuff, Morris disgustedly points out, is the chemical, or “essence,” that goes into flavored coffee beans. It only takes one or two drops of this concentrated essence while the beans are roasting in order to coat them all in the flavor that will later be recognized as French vanilla, hazelnut, or pumpkin spice. This process puzzles Heinz and Morris, who taste and appreciate the coffee bean’s naturally inherent subtleties, and accordingly condemn the practice. Why anyone would want to taste chocolate pecan flavoring rather than experience the subtly sweet fruitiness of Ethiopian Horse Harrar—with its delicate notes of blueberries—is beyond their comprehension.
Morris and Heinz are not alone in their values. Amade, the roaster at Hampton Coffee Company, covers his eyes when he applies the flavoring, pressured into appeasing the company’s relatively large customer demand for artificially flavored coffee beans. He cannot bear even to watch in horror as the natural qualities of the coffee beans are forever covered up. In fact, not one of the LI coffee roasters interviewed condones such a practice.
“Everyone is just used to all this sweet crap,” Morris says. “We blame that on Charbucks.”
The members of the young trio that run Love Lane Coffee describe themselves as artisanal, and they run a business that is rapidly expanding. They have a strong philosophy of educating the consumer and re-structuring the mindset of their customer base, bringing a refreshingly new perspective to the mass consumption of coffee. Maiorana, who also considers himself an artisan, agrees that coffee is a way of thinking more than anything else.
If coffee is a way of thinking, then its practice is cupping. “If you didn’t cup it you’re missing the most important parts,” says Testani. Cupping is the coffee equivalent of wine tasting. It is an almost ritualistic process where its participants experience the coffee as a green bean, a roasted bean, and in its brewed form, while articulating what they are tasting and smelling. For a roaster, cupping gives valuable insight into the quality of the bean that is not at all evident by the appearance of the green beans. At the same time, cupping is a snapshot of a roaster’s work as an artist. A painter can have their work framed and hung, but no roaster’s work retains its beauty for more than a couple of weeks. Cupping allows a roaster to share his or her work with others, as coffee is a unique and fleeting experience.
“It’s important to know the difference between good and bad,” says Lucky, a partner and barista of Massapequa Perk. Lifting up his sleeve to exhibit the tattoo carrying the name he goes by, he maintains that his last name is a secret. His secretive nature, however, does not cross over into the realm of coffee. Lucky takes his coffee seriously, proudly explaining the specifics of Massapequa Perk’s coffee preparation, from control over water temperature to the grind to the custom blend he created with his roasters that he says is catered to the Village of Massapequa Park. All this to show that what he creates is good while the majority of coffee on LI is bad. “Long Islanders have become used to drinking brown water.” However, he insists, “I think people want to be educated.”
“I wouldn’t consider myself a snob. When you find out about this stuff, you tend to seek it out,” says Damien Napoli, a regular at Massapequa Perk and an employee of a local vinyl record store across the street. Maiorana would agree that “you have to show people what they want.”
There are a few coffeehouses that take the beans they brew as seriously as their aesthetic. However, one would be hard pressed to find a true “coffee geek” there. The palate of Long Island is not yet refined enough to foster such a community. While it’s easy to doubt that a population raised on Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts will be able to turn themselves around some time in the near future, Crespo remains optimistic. “They said the same thing about hip-hop, so why not?”
Testani and the rest of the coffee professionals acknowledge that building coffee awareness on Long Island is a slow process. However, Testani also looks toward the future and sees the change, as more of the public becomes aware of the world outside of Starbucks. In the meantime, he will try to keep on the cutting edge.
“We’re like the Jimi Hendrix of the coffee industry,” Testani says. “We just push it.”