Last week, Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema visited the new Blue Bottle Coffee bar in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Sietsema was not impressed by what he found, or didn’t find. “There’s no place to sit,” he wrote, “and when the lines of supplicants snake around the room, no place to stand and drink your coffee, either.” He decreed the coffee “flavorful but thin,” the tea “awful,” and the baristas as “priests, doing their pour-overs like it was holy water.” Blue Bottle, he concluded, was “the most pretentious coffee bar in town, handily knocking Stumptown into a cocked hat.”
Blue Bottle founder James Freeman quickly took to the comments to post a response that was a virtual aria of passive-aggression. After thanking Sietsema for visiting on the shop’s third day of business, he pointed out a number of factual inaccuracies, including the observation that Blue Bottle did not deign to serve espresso drinks. “We … have a large printed menu over the drip bar that announces the types of espresso drinks that you can buy,” Freeman wrote. “[T]he typeface is futura, which … is known for its readability.”
The spat wasn’t remarkable in and of itself—you could argue that the Internet exists solely to facilitate pissing contests—but did illustrate the divide between how East and West Coasts view coffee. Coffee enthusiasts rail particularly on New York, noting that despite the city’s reputation as a diner’s paradise, it’s surprisingly regressive where the bean is concerned. The stereotype is that we’re all drip coffee barbarians, content to suck down brewed swill from diners and sidewalk vendors, whereas the West Coast is a Third Wave wonderland of heavenly extractions from the likes of Stumptown, Blue Bottle, and Ritual.
That distinction is fading, partly because out-of-towners have set up microroasteries here, determined to show us heathens the light. But it’s also due to local roasters like Café Grumpy, which shocked and disgusted New Yorkers with the $12 cup of coffee. Even the New York Times has caught on, installing Oliver Strand as its “coffee curator.”
But the real reason for the continental divide is that we New Yorkers fancy ourselves fatally allergic to the kind of pretentiousness that comes via Japanese siphon bars, latte art competitions, and anything else that reminds us of how dearly we pay to merely exist here. We despise feeling vulnerable to invasion by those who either want to remake the city in the image of Portland or San Francisco, or worse, tell us we’ve been doing it all wrong. Bodega coffee may be to Blue Bottle what Hershey’s is to Valrhona, but it is as intrinsic to the city’s fabric as cockroaches and sidewalk rage. Bad—or at least cheap—coffee is its own source of pride, a comforting reminder that even under constant bombardment from myriad other forms of pretension (Brooklyn dirt, anyone?), our cups of hot brown water are a constant, taken from us only by prying them from our cold, dead hands.