When you step into McNulty's Tea & Coffee in the West Village, you feel as though you are stepping into another era of coffee, when specialty shops like this were the main purveyors of gourmet beans from around the world. In that respect, it reminds me of Empire Coffee or Porto Rico Importing Co. These business date to a time before the Web and radical transparency about everything from the type of bean to the name of the farmer to the altitude to the date and location of the roasting. The newest culinary coffee shops have fed the obsessiveness of many coffee fans, the type of people who want to know the precise temperature and pressure used to brew a cup of espresso.
I try not to be that guy, but it's getting harder.
Coffee Organic Peruvian French Roast
Purchased June 19 at McNulty's Tea & Coffee, 109 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village
In the cup Despite its prominence in Zagat ratings and elsewhere, I was not familiar with this shop when I stumbled upon it quite by chance a couple of weeks ago, on my way with my family to hear a friend read his flash fiction at the Path Cafe (also a neat little place; Christopher Street has a lot of them). I ordered a half pound of chocolate-covered peanuts -- delicious -- and a half-pound of this coffee.
McNulty's -- a retailer, not really a place to drink coffee -- seems to have steadfastly resisted the modern trend of sharing every little secret with its customers. The Web site makes much of its history (founded in 1895), the old time feel of the shop, the exotic mystery of imported products: "Immediately upon entering the shop, one’s senses are delighted by the many aromas of coffees and teas from around the world. Sacks of coffee and chests of tea with obscure markings from far away lands are visible everywhere. Even the bins, chests, and scales, with which these products are stored and handled, date back to the previous century."
The service was polite, if a bit distracted, and my impression was that more effort was devoted to displays of tea than coffee. My beans (and the chocolate-covered nuts) were weighed in the old-fashioned scale.
I inquired about the roaster and was told with a shrug that the shop used an unnamed roaster in Long Island City, Queens. Presumably the beans had been roasted recently.
Many coffee sellers now offer tasting notes as florid and adjective-rich as wine descriptions, but there was none of that at McNulty's. The country of origin was listed, and in some cases beans were described as organic or free trade. No details were offered about the specific growers. I didn't realize how hooked I have become on knowing this information, even though I am not an expert who can make useful judgments based on it.
This is in some respects just a difference in marketing. A place like McNulty's relies on the mystery and mystique of foreign lands. A roaster like Intelligentsia and shops Stumptown andCafe Grumpy appeal to a different type of consumer.
This type of customer is obsessed -- perhaps too much so -- with authenticity. For these consumers, coffee is no longer an exotic product arriving by ship from third-world places with unusual names. Knowing the details of origin improves the taste. Coffee is also a product with a politics, a mix of foreign policy, economics and environmentalism. Knowing something about how it arrived in the cup is important to some people.
So how was the Organic Peruvian French Roast? It was merely O.K. Maybe I picked the wrong bean. I've been drinking this as a regular Americano for the most part. Light in the mouth, maybe a bit of a citrus kick at the end, some bitterness, a trace of nuts -- hard to say for sure, I'm not a coffee taster. It was not captivating, but not overpowering, either. Just coffee. I guess I'm looking for something more interesting these days. Data.