Various barbs and salvos are flying today across the coffee social media nexus-lexus, regarding the feature on specialty coffee appearing in this morning’s New York Post (and archived for all eternity here, or at least until the next phone hacking scandal hits). The feature is titled “Roast busters! You don’t know jack about joe, say the snobbiest baristas in town”, indicative of the Post’s artereosclerotic and dubiously puncuated headline style. It profiles a number of “Third-Wave coffee” shops across Brooklyn and Manhattan, including Ninth Street Espresso, RBC NYC, Blue Bottle, Cafe Grumpy and Abraço.
There’s a lot not to like about the piece. That headline, for starters; the vast majority of the people interviewed by the Post were not in fact baristas, but rather, cafe owners, operations managers, and “fulfillment coordinators”. (Note: position titles like “Fulfillment Coordinator” clearly beg for mockery, and not just by the New York Post.) The tone of the whole thing is a kind of breathless, heart-clenching “look at these geeks” chortle, and the piece frequently employs terms like “snob” (3 times) and “Nazi” (twice).
At the same time, there’s a lot this article does right. This op-ed is not a rant; we never, ever want to be mistaken for this guy. The byline is by Sheila McClear, a 30-year-old NY Post features and fashion writer who rose to prominence writing about her career as a New York City peepshow flasher. Ms. McClear is either herself a coffee aficionado, or was well-served by one in her research for this article – the list of coffee shops featured is exemplary, if a tad non-authoritative by dint of length constraints. This article is by no means the first time Ken Nye’s legendary exploits have been profiled by the wider press, and McClear’s coverage of Ninth Street is fairly evenhanded for a cafe where violence and refusal was at one time an admitted norm. She seems a bit vexed by the concept of “no espresso to go”, and devotes a lot of space in the article to it. Apparently this is an issue of great concern to Ms. McClear.
To our friends in New York who came away from this feature feeling burned or disappointed, it is oddly our duty to be a voice of defense for Ms. McClear and The New York Post. The Post is America’s last great urban tabloid, continuing New York’s tradition of ink-smudge gossip mongering and detail negation that goes back at least to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Daily Mirror (started in 1924). The New York tabloid was refined into an artform by the horror-porn crime reporting and society snooping of the The New York Daily Graphic, and reached its zenith in the mid-1950s with Robert Harrison’s papers Confidential and Inside News (the latter of which regularly ran headlines like “Castro’s Sex Invasion of Washington”).
The true Valhalla of tabloid journalism is, of course, England, with no fewer than a dozen such publications published daily or weekly in London alone, all of whom write funnier headlines than the New York Post. The unquestioned gold standard is Private Eye, a bi-weekly satirical establishment tabloid that makes The Onion look like Mad Magazine. Private Eye is a near-daily source of inspiration for this website.
All that to say, the chief function of these tabloids is to get into the bloodstream of the culture. New York coffee has been written about seriously, and given plenty of love by institutions both august and obscure. Why shouldn’t it be mocked by a tabloid? This isn’t the first time the Post has cast its owned-by-a-billionaire working class gaze on specialty coffee, but McClear’s feature is her publication’s most comprehensive look to date. It’s a sign you’ve arrived, New York. When it comes to coffee, the Post’s aesthetique du schlock (to borrow Tom Wolfe’s phrase) may not be as refined as, say, what you’ll find each day on Sprudge.com, but no press is bad press, and the tone of Ms. McClear’s article speaks to a much wider need for discussion and change already raging within specialty coffee. Don’t take it from us; we’re just a tabloid.
“If coffee people don’t start getting better at promoting an accessible, positive experience then these articles will continue to be written (fairly) and we will all seem snobby and hilarious.” – Mike Jones, Barista at Third Rail Coffee, Manhattan.