murky no more
DC recently suffered the inglorious closing of murky coffee, which had served what was by far the best coffee in town. First reported on in DCist, the Post later picked up the story, and owner Nick Cho has posted his version of the events on the murky coffee website. I did not visit murky as often as I would have liked: it was in a part of the city, near Eastern Market, that was awkward for me to reach. But whenever I was in the area, I would make a point of stopping in, usually for their amazing Classic Cappuccino. Fortunately, their branch in Arlington (even more awkward to get to) remains open, and I do hope Nick is able to follow through on his determination to open another DC store once his present mess is cleared up.
Nick, through his store and his through his efforts in the specialty coffee industry, has done wonders for the local coffee scene. I’ve been a coffee enthusiast since receiving a coffee grinder for my birthday while in high school. I soon picked up Kenneth Davids‘s Coffee: a Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying—my first in what is now a collection of many dozens of books about coffee—and Sacramento, fortunately, had a good number of respectable coffee shops.
Out of high school, I didn’t really keep pace with the specialty coffee industry. Chicago’s coffee scene was comparatively underdeveloped when I was at college, so although my collection of books grew, my coffee experience stalled (although a friend of mine and I did experiment with roasting our own coffee). The coffee shops in downtown Ithaca (but not on campus) were an improvement, but I didn’t have much opportunity to hang out in them. What I hadn’t realized, during this decade, was that a new movement in coffee was taking shape, calling itself the “third wave.” In a sense I kept missing it: Intellegentsia Coffee opened in Chicago just after I had left, and Gimme Coffee opened in Ithaca just as I was entering the intense dissertation-writing last year of my graduate school career.
Characteristic of third-wave coffee firms a never-ending pursuit of sensory quality, a bean-to-cup acknowledgement and appreciation of everyone in the coffee industry, and an ideal that everyone along that chain, from coffee farmer to barista, can make a comfortable living and have a successful career in their crafts. (Whether that last one is actually feasible remains to be seen.) Barista competition, travel “to origin,” direct-trade relationships, and critical cupping are part and parcel of the third wave. It seeks to move beyond the diversions that plagued the specialty coffee industry that I grew up with, such as flavored coffees and “sell-by” dates on coffee beans that are months after the roast date. It stands in marked contrast to the strategy adopted by Starbucks, which in order to keep up its relentless pace of expansion, replaced its La Marzocco espresso machines, which need a trained barista to operate, for push-button super-automatics, that any fool can use. That’s my take, anyway, on the third wave.
Nick brought third wave coffee to Washington. I met him once, when I took the espresso skills class he taught at his Arlington shop. Nevertheless, like many coffee aficionados, I feel as if I know him well, primarily because I listened to his portafilter.net podcast.1 The podcast, which Nick does with friend and Baltimore-area coffee shop owner Jay Caragay, is aimed at those working in the coffee industry. It’s heavy on insider gossip, often long and rambling, reliably entertaining, and occasionally brilliant. In part because of the podcast, Nick has (had?) been a rising star in the specialty coffee business, notably including a successful run for a seat on the board of directors of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
Murky coffee was first closed by the DC government for failure to pay taxes, then evicted by the landlord. A controversy has erupted in online forums: is this, as Nick claims, the result of financial mismanagement spiraling out-of-control, or is murky trying to cheat on its taxes?
I’m convinced Nick is being honest. The picture one gets of him, from the podcasts, is of someone completely committed to quality coffee, with a purist streak that often puts his vision of great coffee ahead of business sense. He won’t, for example, sell you a straight espresso to go, and he wasn’t interested in selling the big-name soft drinks that the previous incarnation of a coffee shop had sold. And one also gets the sense that he’s prone to bouts of bad judgement: see portafilter.net podcasts 64 through 70 to see what I mean.
But please, don’t let those be your only sample of portafilter.net podcasts. Some of the most interesting ones:
27: Once you get past the first hour or so, which is mostly insider gossip, there’s a fascinating interview with Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans, revealing why Fair Trade is a far more complicated subject than one might think.
26: Interview with Rob Stephen, then ascending president of the SCAA board of directors, on his vision for the SCAA and his experience working on Dunkin Donuts’ coffee program.
I suspect that the next portafilter.net podcast will go into tremendous detail about the shop closing; Nick has never shied away from discussing his personal difficulties. While his account of the events might leave a few things out, I really do think he’s being honest.