A Cup Worth the Trip

One of the best things about riding a bike is that it is cheap. I know bikes can be expensive, but they're only expensive for bikes- which are cheap. Get it? Same with beer. Buy the best beer you can get your hands on, and it's what- $20 for a 750ml bottle? $30? Thirty bucks worth of Montrachet isn't enough to dribble on your tie.

Coffee's the same way. We were trained into thinking that coffee was something watery and burnt, and we expected it to be priced accordingly. Now, though, we're in what those who must name every little trend call the "Third Wave" of coffee in this country. 

Wave One- Pre-80s: Coffee is like, um, a nickel a cup at places with names like Emma's 49er. Diner coffee. If it is hot, it is as good as it can be. The pot could sit for hours on the burner. Reverence level: Consider the word "burner."

Wave Two- 80s-early 00s: Coffee is like a dollar fifty a disposable cup at Starbucks. Public knowledge of roast levels and espresso-based drinks blooms. Metric, lingo-laden orders are now de rigeur. Reverence level: Brewed coffee is kept hot in insulated vats, at least, and tossed when graphic designer/musician/barista is told to do so by one of a dozen or so miniature timers.

Wave Three- Now: Shops are staffed by tattooed baristas who actually want to, like, make coffee. Several different varieties are available, many prepared à la minute by one of several brewing methods. Rampant customization is reined in, as are drinks with the suffix -ccino. Reverence level: Christy.

Coffee shops of this third level are often referred to as hipster, though that, along with most other current uses of that label, are gratuitous, simplistic, and hipster. So what if the majority of the clientele favors tattered flannels with $300 jeans? I'm not deterred by the crowd. I'm going for the best cup of coffee, and I'd go to CPAC to get it.

Which is not necessary, thank god. My wife and I were in New York for the blessed unproductive week between Christmas and the New Year, and dinner plans with a few Gothamite* friends took us from the distant North Bronx to Brooklyn. If we're going to Brooklyn, I told my wife, I'm getting some Wendelboe coffee.

This is Tim Wendelboe, and he wants to roast your beans.  Image from http://nordicbaristacup.com/2010/10/tim-wendelboe/

This is Tim Wendelboe, and he wants to roast your beans. Image from http://nordicbaristacup.com/2010/10/tim-wendelboe/

I read about Norwegian Tim Wendelboe and his roasts in a NY Times article about the emergence of good coffee in NYC. Despite New York's reputation as a vanguard of all things culinary, the Apple has lagged behind the West Coast metropoli in coffee excellence, this article averred. It was catching up, though, and Búdin** in Greenpoint, Brooklyn is one of the places where the coffee-lover can take part in this steamy pursuit. Búdin's devotion to Wendelboe's expertly-roasted*** coffees is a huge part of their draw.

Búdin, nous voici.

Búdin, nous voici.

I forwarded the café's menu to my wife who, instead of just allowing me to drag her to the shop, delighted in the silly prospect of getting a $10 latté. Is she into coffee like I am, and did she know what the lakkris in Lakkris Latté meant? Nope, and not a chance (and neither did I). But that price tag on a latté, though it will probably be standard in about ten years, is novel now, and it piqued her interest enough to get her pumped. She was so pumped, in fact, that she all but castigated me outside the shop when I told her that she, if she was getting hesitant, didn't have to get that particular drink. She got indignant. We came all this way, goddamnit, and she was not going home without having tried a $10 latté. I appreciated the spirit, though I kind of cringed as two strangers walked by and I imagined the impression the two of us gave, talking heatedly about spending ten dollars on some coffee.

But should I have cringed? Ten bucks on a cup of coffee does evoke a picture of yuppie scum who wipe their asses with fifties. But we don't wipe our asses with fifties- not even tens. We take the bus. We wash and reuse sandwich bags. We're not in need of somewhere to throw extra money.  In fact, the coffee prices at Búdin, other than the exorbitant latté, looked pretty familiar to me. Four or five bucks for a cup brewed to order? I don't pay much less than that at Crema in Nashville, and you can still buy a house for $100,000 here. So yeah, it's a lot to spend on coffee, but is it less reasonable than spending $9 on a Ketel One mixed with tonic from a grimy bar hose, or $8 on a pissy macrobrew at a ball game? I think not.

So on a beautiful and mild December day, we made the short walk from the Greenpoint subway stop to Búdin on Greenpoint Ave. The shop is what you'd expect from a Scandinavian-designed place: clean lines, calm colors, touches of spotless metal, and Vikings everywhere. The young barista asked us what he could get for us. The Lakkris Latté, of course, and a cup of Wendelboe coffee. His chum in the flat-billed cap behind the counter went to focused work on the latté, as the cashier ran down my Wendelboe options for the day, which included a brew made from beans from Hacienda la Esmeralda, a place that is consistently mentioned as producing the finest beans in the world. That cup would cost me $8, and I agreed. As the cashier told us with a sly smile, "That'll be... all your money." The total bill was $18.

Eighteen bucks for two cups of coffee. Outrageous? Maybe at first glance. But all coffees are not equal, so I would make the argument that this coffee- although a namesake-  is not the same as a coffee you could get for two bucks. This is some of the finest coffee in the world, and there are not many "finest in the world" experiences that can be had for such a modest price; that amount won't get you in to see Yo-Yo Ma, won't get you a first course of Nantucket Bay scallops, and won't even get you into the van Gogh museum. So until I can afford Clos du Mesnil, I'll fork over $18 for the top-notch stuff I can swing.

Turns out Lakkris means licorice, and the latté is flavored with anise syrup and licorice powder. Their aromas are prominent, but their flavors are much more subdued in each silky sip of the drink, its texture supplied by whole milk from a vetted farm. Watch the barista in this place, and it's clear that everything has been thought out- you don't have to worry about whether your beans were ground recently, or whether your coffee's the right temperature. Why? Well, you may be the consumer, but chances are these guys care a lot more about it being right more than you do.

There are a handful of reviews of the Lakkris latté online that show flat-out disappointment in the drink, and a good number of them start with some version of "I don't like licorice, but I had to..." What? You order something that is based on something you don't like, then have the nerve to take your dislike out on the people who are doing everything they can to make sure the drink is worth ten bucks? I'm pretty sure my dentist pays less attention to what he does than these guys pay to their craft, so give them some respect, if not your $10.

The cashier promised me a cup of coffee that tasted like Froot Loops, and though that pledge was a little cutesy, his point was taken when I tried the coffee. I took it unmolested; I don't say black, because Wendelboe's roasts are known are distinctly- sometimes shockingly- light. I have been weaned toward lighter and lighter roasts as time has gone on, so I no longer expect the torrefacted char of 90s-style beans. The Esmeralda was medium-bodied and citrusy, the color of St. Louis brick and reminiscent of rich rooibos tea. It was barely opaque as it sat in its single-serving Hario carafe. 

Whereas Peet's beans might be $16 per pound, higher-quality beans are going for around $20 for 12oz. Wendelboe's beans go for just under $30 for 250g- not even 9 ounces. If you want to buy his Esmeralda beans, they'll be 2-3 times that. Expensive, yes, when you have to hand it all over in one chunk. But disregarding the Esmeralda- $30 for twelve cups of some of the finest coffee in the world? Not bad. It's like cable tv; painful when you have to pony up, but pretty reasonable when you think of per-experience cost****.

A beautiful and well-caffeinated view.

A beautiful and well-caffeinated view.

We had forgone coffee that morning so as not to dilute the early-afternoon Búdin experience, and when our cups were empty we got out and got on with our day: Views of Manhattan from Transmitter Park, beer at Brooklyn Bowl, and a fantastic dinner with old and new friends at Café Mogador. Coffee is not art, and it's not a religious experience. Most of the time it's good, and sometimes it's not. But when it is great, it is well worth the money, and well worth the trip.


*Brooklyn- still Gotham? I'm sure it depends on where who you ask hangs his hat.

**The in Búdin should actually be some crazy nordic that this blogging platform can't make, apparently.

***Wendelboe appears to be genuinely humble, as one of his own write-ups tempers the announcement of his status as one of the best roasters in the world with "Although this is not measurable..." Imagine this: Q: Are you the best rapper and producer in the world, Kanye? A: Well, that's not really measurable...

****Late one night years ago my friend and roommate Luke and I were rummaging through our wine fridge looking for something to drink. I complained that I couldn't remember how much we had paid for certain bottles, and the reply he gave me is something I keep in mind when I'm cooking or choosing a wine at home; there's wisdom to it, and it reveals a certain in-the-moment joie: We shouldn't stress about opening a too-expensive bottle, he implied, because "it's all free now."

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