Saturday, April 18, 2009

Learning from Craft Beer at the Coffee & Tea Festival NYC

A lot of great things have been happening in coffee in New York City these days. Unfortunately, the 4th Annual Coffee & Tea Festival NYC was not one of them.

I try not to post negative comments on this blog. It's too easy to be negative in a blog. Instead, I prefer to focus on coffee experiences and stories that excite and inspire me. But the festival I attended today was just too disappointing for me to ignore.

I tried my best to behave myself but a few negative comments did slip out and my friends who joined me at the festival were probably getting annoyed by my sour looks and almost instant dismissal of many of the products that were available to sample.

I was first skeptical of the event when I realized it was being held on the same weekend as the annual SCAA exposition in Atlanta, where many of the movers and shakers of the specialty coffee industry are spending their week. But I was still willing to give the festival the benefit of the doubt and see what I could discover.

My next disappointment was walking into the Manhattan Pavilion. It was nearly empty after the event had already been open for two hours. A lack of participants would have been bad enough but the amount of empty space within the pavilion was the worst part. I have paid much less to attend events in the same space where I have had the pleasure of exploring products from 3o to 40 times the number of vendors that I found today. (The annual Bust Craftacular and the Chocolateshow are just two such events.)

After a quick tour around the floor, my disappointment continued as I realized I could think of at least 7 destinations within walking distance of the show where I would have a better coffee or tea experience than I would have at the festival. While this was my first NYC Coffee & Tea Festival, I have been to a number of such festivals before. I expect there to be a number of vendors offering products that don't interest me -- bottled beverages and powdered mixes are the common offerings I tend to avoid. But I realize these are part of the industry and there are attendees and businesses who are interested in such products.

However, when it comes to pure coffee, I do have some high quality standards. I don't expect everyone to follow them, but when someone tries to sell me their coffee based on the benefits of its origin but only offers that coffee to me in a Viennese roast, which has burned away all the characteristics of origin, how can I possibly get excited? When another vendor across the room was pouring yet another dark roasted coffee out of a glass carafe kept on a warmer under a cheap drip coffee maker, I didn't even bother with a sample.

The find of the day was the booth for NY Craft Beer Week. They had a number of coffee-themed beers on display and were pouring samples, including Brooklyn Brewery's Intensified Coffee Stout. Not only was this a great beer (made with Stumptown Coffee) but the guys serving it at the festival took the extra time and effort to pay attention to how it was served. They didn't just have a keg sitting up on the table. They tapped their keg into a cooler full of ice. The beer pulled up through a metal coil embedded in the ice, which cooled the beer to a perfect serving temperature. I found it ironic that the beer guys were some of the only ones at the entire festival who understood the importance of these details when serving their products to new patrons.

Two other beverages of note at the festival included Zen Green Tea Liqueur (very smooth and light) and Gillies Coffee (which was brewed with a French Press and served for the coffee cupping demonstration).

For any New Yorker looking for new experiences in tea or coffee, you are probably better off checking out the coffee and tea isles at WholeFoods for free. Or for less than the price of entry to the festival, you can sign up for a cupping class at the Intelligentsia New York Training Lab.

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