Like National Coffee Day, summing up the Year in Coffee compels a certain knee-jerk response: every year is the year in coffee. But, then again, not every year is a year in great coffee. With over a dozen new coffee shops, several new homegrown coffee roasters, and customers willing to learn about what's in their cup, 2011 was a great year for great coffee.
This great year was several years in the making, and we can credit shops Klatch Coffee, Jones Coffee Roasters, Caffe Luxxe, Venice Grind and Intelligentsia, among others, for laying the foundation. Crucially, once that foundation set, there still was plenty of room for innovation and experimentation: the great thing about the developing coffee culture here, we were told time and time again, is that L.A. is essentially a blank slate. Without the burden of a well-established coffee scene like, say, Seattle, shop owners had carte blanche to forge their own path and plant their own unique flags. And that they did.
That owners knew no bounds might be most evident in the aesthetics of the new shops. No two look the same: CoffeeBar slants towards a dark, woodsy interior while Demitasse goes for a shiny, almost ornate look. Chimney Brick Toast Coffee House channels a Northwestern type of minimalism while Bru Artisan Coffee + Tea represents a more postmodern version of minimal. Portola Coffee Lab is fashioned after an actual laboratory where Iota is in a world of its own, one where carefully poured over coffee is accompanied by sports bar-sized flat screens flashing the latest in K-Pop. At 3 a.m.
And those are just a handful of the well over a dozen big openings this year. We highlighted five of our favorite new shops in October, and a few landed on our list of the 10 Best Coffee Shops in Los Angeles. And that's not all: since those lists were published, Two Guns Espresso in Manhattan Beach, Single Origin Coffee at the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, and Drip on the second floor of Assi Supermarket in Koreatown all opened over the last few weeks.
More than simply setting up shop, owners went out of their way to source beans they themselves love. Accordingly, a huge diversity of microbatch roasters, most of them specializing in light roasted beans that emphasize delicate, even fruity, flavors in the coffee, is represented across the city. New York transplants can find their beloved Gimme! Coffee at Broome St. General Store, for example, and fans of Verve Coffee Roasters can get their fix at CoffeeBar or Single Origin Coffee. Significantly, we're all keeping tabs: throughout the year, we overheard baristas answering questions about whose beans they're brewing almost as often as celebrities on the red carpet are asked who's gown they're wearing.
Beyond the beans, we also saw a marked interest in brewing methods, which led us to suggest five ways to make a damn good cup of coffee. And we suggested to espresso lovers that asking for a ristretto may not guarantee of a better shot, as no one can agree on even the definition of the ristretto, much less how, exactly, it should be pulled.
Besides the sheer number of new coffee shops, the biggest coffee news of the year may have been Handsome Coffee Roasters. Launched in May by former Intelligentsia employees Chris Owens, Michael Phillips and Tyler Wells, Handsome began roasting and shipping its beans across the city and country. Its own cafe Downtown is expected to open any day now, and when they do open, they promise to leave the snobbery out of the specialty coffee experience – even as they ever so kindly deny your request for
milk and sugar on grounds that your Handsome coffee will turn ugly if you make it up with such flavor-altering additions. [Correction: Handsome will indeed be serving milk in its shop.]
Handsome's not the only new roaster in town. Longtime “coffee consultant” Tony “Tonx” Konecny quietly launched his own microroastery late this summer. We're betting he won't be the last either; if this year was the year of the coffee shop, 2012 may very well be the year of the homegrown coffee roaster.
With all these new openings, it's also worth mentioning the closings. After 14 years, The Coffee Table in Silver Lake shut it doors, though its Eagle Rock location remains open. And Beachwood Canyon's beloved Beachwood Village Coffee Shop poured its last cup after 37 years in business; it will reopen under new ownership in March.
And, finally, no year would be complete without a plethora of conflicting studies about the effects of coffee on our health. One concluded that coffee may cause hallucinations, among other awful things; another reported that your cup of joe may help guard against “superbugs” and may even play a role in reducing depression in women. We suggested moderation is key, as it is for most aspects of life in general.
“I think that coffee in Los Angeles has made a quantum leap,” Specialty Association of America executive director Ric Rhinehart said last year. “I was absolutely certain that we were headed in that direction you know, from 2003 onward, that there was going to be an opportunity to really push the quality envelope in Los Angeles.” This year, that opportunity finally was seized. And this, we suspect, is only the beginning.