…there’s a dozen or so baristas gathered together around a small, high cupping table. Take a moment and look down – subcultures exist in both form and function, after all – and you’ll see leather boots, scufffed New Balances, Keds, Keds imposters. and Keds so impossibly scuffed not even the most astute sartorialist could determine their authenticity, faux-vintage moccasins, dressed-down dressy red pumps, wing-tipped winkle pickers, and a decided lack of socks.
It could be a group of baristas from any city in America, but he moment in question happens in New York City, at the Intelligentsia cupping lab in Soho. The roughly 15 people assembled all work in Manhattan, for Joe NYC, though they likely live Brooklyn or Queens, and are active participants in the urban commuter perpetuum mobile carved out by countless generations of New Yorkers before them. They’re the gears that make this city run, sockless saints and saviors in sneakers, gathered together in Manhattan on a Wednesday evening to cup and learn from Amber Fox, QC and green coffee manager for Ecco.
The room is mostly quiet, owing more to the realities of Wednesday morning opening shifts than a lack of intellectual curiosity. It’s a first cupping for some, and as such the dominant sound in the room comes from Ms. Fox, as she guides her charges through a table stocked with four coffees currently served at Joe NYC. “Dominant” is perhaps a misleading descriptor for Amber Fox’s cupping style; she’s gentle, low-key, almost sisterly in her carefully measured instruction and Socratic instincts. But most of all, she’s into the coffees, which include a Guatemala Maravilla destined for the Joe espresso blend and a big, bright, intense Kenya Tegu Peaberry, a startling coffee capable of zinging the palate like a spray of Gem Spa seltzer.
After cupping the coffees blind, and doing a brief bit of round-the-room flavor call-outs, we’re given a brief run-down on the curious relationship between Joe and Ecco. While certainly no secret, it’s a partnership that is not without its quirks. Ecco itself started in 2001 by Andrew Barnett, and has always been based in Northern California. (In the Specialty Coffee Geologic Time Scale, 2001 is a really long time ago; your favorite microroaster didn’t yet exist, saber-toothed house cats freely stalked the tundra, and a few generous pumps of DolcePump Brand Flavored Syrups were enough to bring you international fame and fortune on the competition circuit.) Ecco was purchased by Intelligentsia around 2 and a half years ago, but they maintain a healthy degree of autonomy over their operations in Northern California. Ms. Fox summed up the relationship succinctly: “We run independently for the most part, but we help each other a lot, and our partnership gives Ecco increased access to top quality lots of coffee.”
Enter Joe NYC. Around 2 years ago, Joe and owner Jonathan Rubenstein made the decision to switch from Barrington to Ecco. The sheer volume of Joe NYC’s operations necessitates that Joe’s coffee is roasted not in the Ecco facility in Santa Rosa, but rather, at the Intelligentsia roastworks in Chicago (which, if you’ve never been, is something like stepping into a coffee dork’s vision of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, but with more tattoos and less height disparity). It’s a matter of logistics more than politics; at the time of Joe’s switch to Ecco, their roastworks in Santa Rosa was producing between 14-15 pounds per batch. Ecco’s 7 NYC cafes tear through that quantity in a busy hour. Joe NYC serves roughly 3000 pounds of coffee a week; they are arguably the highest volume purveyor of specialty coffee in all of New York City. Ecco could never handle this volume in Santa Rosa, but Intelli’s 90 kilo machines in Chicago can manage this glut of coffee without breaking a sweat.
All of the Ecco coffees served at Joe are actually roasted in Chicago, at the Intelligentsia facility. But as Amber Fox explained to the Ked-clad murder of Joe employees, “what you’re serving is still very much Ecco coffee. They aren’t the same as what is had at Intelli. The roasts are set through conversations we have in Santa Rosa, and when customers order your coffees through the internet, the coffee they receive comes from Santa Rosa.” It’s a relationship like no other in specialty coffee, and the results – like the Santiago Atitlan from Guatemala cupped at this event, brimming with pipe tobacco and roasted red bell pepper – can be startling.
Back to the cupping: there’s no amount of caffeination in the world that’s going to break through to this group, all of whom have dialed in and tasted and tested and schlepped their way through a really-pretty-busy-no-joke set of shifts, at Joe locations on the Columbia campus, or in Chelsea, or the West Village, or the Upper East Side. But Amber Fox still gets ‘em, “Dangerous Minds” style, reaching past the new cupper terrors and the exhaustion, that particular form exhaustion that comes from opening a cafe at 6am, then attending a cupping at 5pm, all the while knowing that one has to be back on the L train, or even worse, the J / M combo at 5:30 the next morning to do the whole thing again. It’s an almost holy form of fatigue, all-encompassing and knock-kneed and exhilarating, but Amber Fox gets it, and she’s able to somehow reach past it, to slay them all with a call to the prayer of kindness:
“Don’t be haughty. Distill this complex idea, these beautiful coffees, into a bite for your customers that won’t be rude and won’t offend anyone. Be delicate. These coffees have a story.”