NEW YORK (Reuters) - At a Manhattan coffee bar, an ultramodern machine whirls and zips a selection of beans from clear silos of freshly roasted coffee beans through plastic chutes to be instantly ground and brewed to order.
While New Yorkers were once satisfied with generic deli brew “to go,” demand for specialty coffee bars and expert baristas is growing, coffee experts say.
Seeing themselves as the next step up from chains such as Starbucks, independent cafes have sprung up in the city, roasting their own beans and using the latest by-the-cup techniques or experienced baristas to grind and brew rich, creamy coffee and espresso-based beverages.
The coffee palates of New Yorkers are closing in on those of their sophisticated West Coast counterparts in Los Angeles and Seattle, said Mike Caswell, a former Starbucks engineer who designed the futuristic-looking machine for his cafe, Roasting Plant, which opened last year.
“Coffee culture is catching up in New York,” said Caswell, whose machine allows customers to point to jars of freshly roasted beans and choose blend, strength, size and type of coffee beverage. “And with the willingness to advance coffee to the next level, New York is leading the West Coast, which is traditionally more established.”
New Yorkers have always thrived on coffee but for some time they lacked good taste, he said. Some are turning to the smaller, independent coffee bars that charge $3 to $4 for espresso.
The trend is up nationally as well. Seventeen percent of U.S. adults are drinking gourmet coffee daily this year, up from 14 percent in 2007, according to the National Coffee Association of USA preliminary 2008 survey.
Manhattan’s Cafe Grumpy is famed for its “Clover” coffee machine, which like Roasting Plant grinds and brews each cup of coffee to order. Grumpy charges between $2.25 and $6 for a cup depending on what bean you choose.
Coffee chain stores have not embraced such techniques in the past but Starbucks liked the idea so much it announced several weeks ago it had bought the Seattle-based company that makes the Clover and would use them in select stores. Starbucks also recently retrained all its baristas.
Cafe Grumpy co-owner Caroline Bell said New York’s coffee scene “has really grown in the past few years.” In the past year she has noticed “a change in how customers order, what questions they ask and even what feedback they give.”
Bell said a handful of the independent neighborhood coffee shops had led the way with expert baristas educating customers on taste essences -- like sommeliers do with wine.
“Thanks to the perseverance of these few small businesses, New York City is now a proven viable market for Specialty Coffee,” she said.
Ken Nye owns one of the first in the new crop of coffee bars, Ninth Street Espresso in Manhattan, which he opened in 2001 after noticing a gap in the market.
“The same people that demand a single malt Scotch or the finest ingredients in their food once started their day with a terrible cup of coffee,” Nye said. “Fortunately, that is changing.”
Some specialty cafe owners said Starbucks had most likely helped ripen New Yorkers’ palates and wallets for better-tasting cappuccinos, lattes and espressos and helped convert them from the watery bitter deli coffee.
Fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts also are aiming for the more discerning coffee consumer.
“There is a trend towards super premium coffee,” Caswell said. “We became much more aware of espresso drinks -- lattes and cappuccinos -- and Americans became upscale when it comes to coffee.”
With the growing knowledge comes higher demands.
“It’s just like with wine, people want to choose where it is picked, whether it is blended or not ... and demand good taste,” he said.
Additional reporting by Marcy Nicholson; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Philip Barbara