Introducing the Couch Read. It’s the weekend: fix yourself a coffee and spend some time with these longer pieces.
Everyman Espresso has had a lot brewing lately. Earlier this week, it closed its East 13th Street store for a month of renovations and opened a pop-up at Tribeca’s Bikini Bar. All this while being sued by the state of New York for allegedly appropriating its “I ♥ NY” logo.
But Sam Lewontin, who manages the shop, is trying not to think about that right now. He’s more focused on the menu at the summer pop-up, which he’s hoping will touch off a radical new trend. It’s among the first in the country to offer espresso drinks that rival cocktails in their complexity. The Queen Mary, for instance, combines tomato jam, citrus, herb and AeroPressed Kenyan Ndaroni.
The drinks, which riff on existing cocktails, “showcase the flavors of coffee in a way traditional coffee doesn’t do,” Lewontin said.
Like many baristas, Lewontin got his first job in coffee out of necessity; at 16, working at a cafe seemed more interesting than running the register at a gas station. It wasn’t until his twenties that he had his first few cups of “really good” coffee after being hired at Equal Exchange in Seattle. Looking back, they “probably weren’t even that great,” said Lewontin. But they changed the way he saw coffee, and he’s now trying to change the way others see it, too.
It might be tempting to call Lewontin a coffee snob. During the finals round of the United States Barista Championship in April, the 29-year-old wore a carefully manicured beard, slim suspenders, and wiry glasses that slip down his nose when he pours lattes. At 5’6”, Lewontin’s friends call him “fun-sized,” and he has the personality to match.
“I love coffee,” he told the judges, speaking into a microphone wired through his suspenders. “Like a lot of people in this room, I can trace that love back to certain flavor experiences, certain epiphanies that opened my eyes to everything coffee could be.”
So, perhaps Lewontin is the type to use the words “epiphanies” and “coffee” in the same sentence. But he knows it won’t get him far with his customers.
He went on to tell the judges that baristas must serve drinks that are “accessible” in order to create such epiphanies. According to Lewontin, this can be done through things like well-balanced cappuccinos.
“Who doesn’t like sugar and butterfat?” he asked the judges. He poured tulips of milk over his espresso, a Burundian, and smiled. A slight coffee stain appeared around his lower gum line.
Though Lewontin was visibly disappointed after placing fourth at the competition (baristas who win typically end up with the funding to open a place of their own), he remained excited about his place in a budding industry. “Competing is not my career,” he said. “My career is what goes on behind the counter.” Right now, he added, “It’s a joyful time to be in coffee, because we get to figure all this stuff out. We get to do all the work.”
A month later, Everyman was hit with the lawsuit, and now Lewontin and Everyman owner, Sam Penix, have more work on their hands than they could’ve imagined. They’re worried the undetermined sum being sought by the Department of Economic Development will eat into the thousands of dollars meant to be spent on renovations of the East 13th Street store.
Though they want to stick to their budget, they now know that any cushion they had is “up in the air.” For now, the shop’s decal work is on hold, but the plans to rebuild the bar and enliven the space will move forward. By July 25, the shop should feel similar to the SoHo location, while still serving its purpose as the lobby lounge of the Classic Stage Company‘s theater. Penix and Lewontin recognize that the financial strain from the lawsuit may affect the build-out, but maintain a firm stance. “We’re not going to let it stop us from serving the community and the cause of great coffee,” Penix said before the shop closed.
Within the coffee community, the response to the suit has been “overwhelmingly positive,” said Lewontin. Shops, roasters and even growers have voiced support, and the press hasn’t hurt either: Everyman’s sales increased noticeably in the days after the lawsuit went public.
In the meantime, Lewontin is focusing his energy on the pop-up at Bikini Bar. He, and a handful of baristas, based drinks like the Haru Swizzle (peach, lime, mint and Ethopian Haru) and Puente Collins (cherry, soda and espresso) on both his competition season and his love for mixology.
Lewontin’s confidence is an essential part of a customer’s positive experience. He explained this during the competition while preparing his espressos.
“I know this coffee really well,” he had said to the judges as he tamped the portafilter twice and traced a calloused finger around its edge. “I know it’s a blend of three different subtypes of the variety bourbon, and that that blend gives it a cornucopia of fruit flavor and a deep sweetness. I know it’s eco-pulped rather than being traditionally washed, and that this amplifies its sweetness and balances out the acidity in the cup.”
He tapped the four espresso cups he carried. “And finally, I know that all these characteristics are best expressed on this machine with this grinder and these portafilter baskets with a brew ratio of about 1.7 to one and an extraction time of about 25 seconds.”
Lewontin knows this kind of talk will turn off individuals who might not know what an AeroPress or a Chemex is. But if being a coffee snob means he has little patience for things that suck, then he’s guilty.
“Why would you spend your time on an inferior product?” he asked. “‘Oh! It’s just a cup of coffee.’ Yeah, sure it is. It’s absolutely just a cup of coffee. And what you eat is just food, and how you get to work is just a car, right?”
There’s no harm in finding joy in these things, Lewontin insists. What’s bad is when enthusiasts use their knowledge to alienate other coffee lovers instead of bring them in.
Besides, Lewontin wouldn’t overwhelm a customer with jargon unless they asked him to. “What’s more important than any of these,” he told the judges after his spiel about brew ratios, “is that I’m comfortable enough with this knowledge that I don’t need to tell you any of this, because I know you’re going to follow along as this coffee tells its own story.”
Of course, you have to read the coffee to know its story. During a recent coffee crawl, I tested Lewontin’s literacy with a Costa Rican espresso at Ports in Chelsea.
“I’m thinking apple pie,” he said, mulling it over. “It’s definitely bright, but I’m getting a little more malic acid.
“The acidity is pretty round. It’s not punched and it’s definitely got enough sweetness to balance it out, with some definite sugar browning, millard reaction, and caramelly sweetness. I’m also tasting some of those spices that you’d associate with apple pie—a little cinnamon or nutmeg. The mouthfeel is also really buttery,” he concluded.
At our next stop, Joe Pro, I was surprised when Lewontin said the Hacienda La Esmeralda from Panama just tasted like flowers.
This coffee, I learned, is from the same farm that sold the most expensive coffee in the world several years ago. Its flavor is unique to the Geisha plant variety grown there. There were less than 10 pounds of the coffee originally produced and in 2007 it sold for more than $130 per pound, translating roughly to $13 a cup. By 2010, the price per pound had gone up $40. Since then, the prices of other coffees have reached $500 or more per pound.
While even Lewontin admits these high prices may certainly be excessive, he is adamant that good coffee is worth it.
“I have not, for my entire life, been a person with a strong drive to be among the best at something,” he said. But that’s what coffee does for him. “I am an enormous competitor, but I also have a strong need to do the work necessary to put myself in that place.”
This is what makes Lewontin one of the good ones. He does the work, and he’s working for people to understand coffee.
“We’re getting there,” he said. But the cultural perception is a little behind. “People have been eating for all of human history; people have been drinking coffee for only a thousand years. We’re a young industry,” Lewontin said. “The kind of scrutiny we talk about with wine or beer has been around for hundreds of years, but really good coffee has only existed for ten.” But according to Lewontin, the field is thrilling because so much is changing so rapidly.
Besides, he added, “How boring would it be if there were nothing left to achieve?”
Correction: The original version of this post misidentified a Costa Rican espresso as Puerto Rican and a Barundian coffee as Ethiopian Barundian.