To the sound of rustling birches, loon calls, and the occasional tread of a black bear, SubAlpine Coffee in Keene Valley, New York, has added an unlikely and welcome counterpoint: the deep, satisfying hum of a forest-green La Marzocco Linea PB.
So far north of New York City that it’s closer to Montreal, Keene Valley lies in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, the 19,000-square-mile mountain range in upstate New York. With its pine forests, challenging hikes up 5,000-foot peaks like Mount Marcy, cool lakes and streams, and starry night skies, the region has long lured East Coast city dwellers. Until now it has done little to appease their thirst for good coffee.
Enter SubAlpine: an ambitious specialty-coffee outpost opened in July 2015 by Patrick Walsh, a former mechanical engineer who left behind a comfortable job in Chicago to spend time in nature. Walsh learned about the Adirondacks from an ice-climbing sister and brother-in-law, with whom he invested in a cabin near Keene Valley.
A short trip was extended, and Walsh decided to stay. Inspired by local food start-ups like The Clay Hearth (a mobile pizza oven/bakery started by wife-husband team Carmina and Cavan Drake; Cavan also designed the SubAlpine logo), Ausable Brewing, Mace Chasm Farm, and Sugar House Creamery, Walsh saw an opening for coffee.
He had long been a serious amateur, taking classes at Counter Culture Coffee, making cortados at home on a Breville dual boiler machine, and frequenting Intelligentsia in Chicago. “I kept opening door after door,” Walsh says, “finding better and better coffee.”
After taking a small-business course, Walsh opened SubAlpine after selling his “dream car” (a BMW M5), reaching deeply into savings, tapping into family resources, and taking out a mortgage and business loan to buy cafe equipment and two adjacent buildings. One houses SubAlpine and an upstairs apartment where Walsh lives; the other is a yoga studio. He sees this as a “very long-term investment” and adds, “I could see staying here for the rest of my life.”
The buildings are opposite Noonmark Diner, a local institution known for its pies. A tired hiker waiting for a table there might think she was hallucinating the words “Specialty Coffee” across the street. Some, Walsh notes, have been“befuddled” to find a cafe like his in Keene Valley, but in a good way: most have been “super excited.”
Walsh’s engineering background suggests itself in the tidy, well-organized shop, with its custom woodwork, reclaimed-barnboard stools by furniture maker Courtney Fair, and user-friendly details like coat hooks, outlets, and Wi-Fi. SubAlpine is the first business in town to use Square, which Walsh proudly notes recorded 137 transactions on a busy August day. He values precision at the bar, weighing every shot on an Acaia scale and talking extraction ratios with anyone who asks.
The shop features a two-group La Marzocco Linea PB in handsome green, two Nuova Simonelli Mythos 1 espresso grinders, a Mahlkönig EK 43 for drip and pour-over, FETCO urns, and an all-Counter-Culture lineup that tilts toward single origins. When I visited, the cafe was running La Voz (Guatemala) as an espresso and Finca El Puente (Honduras) on drip. There is a kombucha station from Vermont producer Aqua Vitea and pastries by two local bakers, River’s Edge Market & Bakery and Mountain Tomboy.
Though Walsh has a staff of three, he is currently the only barista. He has sent two employees to trainings at Counter Culture’s New York lab and plans to get them on the bar later this year. This month, the shop begins doing Kalita Wave pour-overs.
What lies ahead for SubAlpine? Walsh sees countless possibilities: baking croissants in house, bottling iced coffee, offering a raw-milk option for espresso drinks if New York laws ever change. (He currently uses Battenkill Farms but rhapsodizes over Sugar House Creamery’s local milk: it’s “so creamy, like paint.”) He may apply for a liquor license, noting that “food was always part of the long-term plan.” In-house roasting is less likely. Walsh is very happy with Counter Culture. But “if someone was geeked out about roasting locally,” he might eventually consider it.
For now, SubAlpine has to brace itself for the long, cold, slow winters that are a part of Adirondack life. Fortunately, Walsh's previous life was in Chicago.
“I’m kind of used to rough winters,” he laughs.
Alexander Henry is a writer based in Brooklyn. This is Henry's first feature for Sprudge.