Blue Bottle has been one of the bigger success stories in specialty coffee, garnering press and praise since the early 2000s, starting with its locations in San Francisco. Since then, they’ve expanded rapidly, with recent profit growth of 50% each year. Blue Bottle excels in creating and telling its own trend-setting story about coffee, using props like siphon bars and other references to Japanese coffee culture. Blue Bottle was also one of the first specialty cafes I visited back in the mid-2000s, opening my eyes to what coffee could be as I sat and sipped two espressos back-to-back in front of their Linden Alley coffee counter.
However, from people in the industry I see and hear a lot of frustrated grumbling about their coffee sourcing being hit or miss, or that their roasting and brewing can be inconsistent (for just one of many critiques, see Chris Tacy’s ‘State of SF Coffee’ series written at the end of 2009). Indeed, you can see in their brewing recipes a different style and philosophy compared to the norm at other leading specialty coffee companies (e.g. Blue Bottle favors larger doses of coffee when brewing, while I believe the wider trend has been away from this). I can’t speak to sourcing or roasting criticisms, but I personally think both brewing philosophies can taste good, for different reasons. I haven’t had any opportunities to try their coffee since that visit in 2006, save for a trip to Tokyo in 2010 where their coffee was expertly prepared by Masahiro Onishi at Potluck, a cafe that used to be in the basement of Opening Ceremony. Given that the company has been expanding relatively rapidly, perhaps some loose ends are to be expected?
Despite all this, I visited their new location in Manhattan with an open mind and good memories of my experience long ago. It had been just one day since they’d opened, so I won’t make many generalizations based on this one unique visit. I did however try an espresso and a cappuccino, before venturing upstairs to the siphon bar. The espresso and cappuccino were pleasant, sweet & balanced crowd pleasers that should go over well with visitors from the next door Chelsea Market and the High Line.
The Siphon Bar Experience
The siphon bar is one of Blue Bottle’s most well known imports, and this Manhattan location has a small space in the back dedicated to slow, personalized service. It seats just six, with no room to spectate from behind, and the view out the front window is almost completely obscured as well. Perhaps this was planned, directing your focus towards your companions, the barista, and the coffee.
I really enjoyed the experience at the siphon bar, which started with a complimentary cascara tea, made from coffee cherries, paired with a marshmallow cube that had been infused with bourbon. While we weren’t directed towards any particular drinks, we started with the siphon, trying the Cerro Gacho Cup of Excellence from Honduras, and an Ethiopian from a number of farms that they label ‘Tuktant.’ They are brewing very light and tea-like with the siphon, as you can see in the pictures. This highlighted the acidity and sweetness in the coffees, but perhaps obscured some of their complexity. Nevertheless, the Honduras Cerro Gacho was enjoyable with some cherry and rasin-like subtleties coming through. Paired with the earlier cascara tea, this light brew felt like a natural progression.
Next, Blue Bottle owner James Freeman showed up and treated us to a Nel, or cloth-filtered pour over of the Tanzania Mbeya Mshikamano. If their siphon philosophy is guided by a tea like delicacy, the nel is the polar opposite – updosed to a brew ratio of 40-50g of coffee ground coarser than French press, producing 185ml of coffee poured out over 3:20 minutes (that’s their published recipe, what we were served may have differed slightly; please correct me if I’m wrong!). The result is a cup with strength, body, and sweetness that balances the sour, and acidic notes brought out by the brew method’s low temperature (175F) and coarse grind. This goes against a lot of what the specialty coffee vanguard preaches, but I did enjoy this cup, and the entire experience for what it was: an inspired West Coast fusion of American and Japanese coffee cultures. It was different and certainly enjoyable, though not exactly my preference.
The service at the bar was also gracious, welcoming, and professional. If there hadn’t been a cluster of people standing and staring impatiently, waiting for seat, we could have lingered for a while. If you’d like to try Blue Bottle’s Japanese-inspired brews, see the map below – the High Line is down the street, and Chelsea market is right across the way. Enjoy a few more pictures from the rest of the day’s adventures :)
Map, directions, and opening hours for Blue Bottle Manhattan:
450 West 15th Street, New York NY
Siphon bar and toast 9-4
View FRSHGRND – Global Cafe Guide in a larger map