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Where Y’Eat: A New Coffee Culture Perks Up

Ian McNulty

There’s a new buzz in the New Orleans coffee scene today, and it’s not just the caffeine. At a string of small, independent cafés and even at pop-up stands and roving mobile vendors, New Orleanians can experience an approach that treats coffee more like fine wine than any old commodity cup of Joe.

The trend is sometimes called “third wave coffee.” Its proponents buy their beans from specialty suppliers and micro-roasters. They follow precise brewing techniques, often measuring out their water to coffee ratios by the gram on digital scales. And they encourage connoisseurship among their patrons.

At cafés of this ilk, your latté might have an artful lily design traced into the foam, tasting notes and sourcing narratives may accompany your bean selection, and even a baseline cup of coffee might arrive via the “pour over” method (that’s when the barista pours hot water by hand over fresh grinds to produce each individual cup). The idea is to express the full character of carefully cultivated and harvested beans, and many true believers describe their first experiences with this type of coffee like epiphanies.   

This artisanal coffee approach is far more prevalent in some other cities, but a new circuit of baristas and café proprietors in New Orleans are rapidly catching up. Tamara and James Muro opened their petite and precise Velvet Espresso Bar in 2011 in an Uptown storefront. Last fall, Renee Blanchard started Church Alley Coffee Bar as a weekend-only pop-up, and has since developed it into a full-time café in Central City. In February, British ex-pat John Peters opened his tiny, design-savvy Spitfire Coffee in the French Quarter near Jackson Square. And just this month, Laura and Benjamin Lee opened HiVolt Coffee in the Lower Garden District.  

The opportunities to try this out sometimes appear out of the blue. For instance, Lauren Fink sets up her Cherry Coffee stand in the corner of the crowded dining room at Stein’s Deli & Market. From a space about the size of an office cubicle she prepares pour overs, whips up espressos and does a good deal of consumer education for people who may have stopped by just to get a corned beef sandwich.

Some of the techniques and vocabulary may be a change for New Orleanians who were practically weaned on the local coffee with chicory and are already coffee confident. After all, New Orleans has historically been a hub for the American coffee trade, with its direct shipping routes to the coffee producing zones of Central and South America. Today, some of the country’s oldest coffee importers and roasters are still based here, and the city is home to the world’s largest coffee roaster.

But the new artisanal coffee approach is less about industrial volume and more about individual interactions. The people driving the nascent scene here take inspiration from the example of craft cocktails, which were once seen as fancy outliers but have increasingly set new standards for local bars. When you meet them, their enthusiasm for their roles as ambassadors for their view of what coffee can be really comes through. They want to show you something new, and they want you to hear the stories behind the stuff they love. It’s coffee talk, now with coffee itself at the heart of the conversation.

Brigade Coffee

Various locations, phone n.a.;

Cherry Coffee (at Stein’s Deli & Market)

2207 Magazine St., 504-527-0771

Church Alley Coffee Bar

1228 O.C. Haley Blvd., phone n.a.;

HiVolt Coffee

1829 Sophie Wright Pl., phone n.a.;

Spitfire Coffee

627 St. Peter St., phone n.a.

Velvet Espresso Bar

5637 Magazine St., 504-450-2129

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.