Coffee Tasting at the New Williamsburg Starbucks

Photo by Jane Bruce

For all the ado about the Starbucks that opened just outside of the Bedford L stop, on North 7th street in Williamsburg, you’d think that coffee snobs would be picketing an empty shop. Not so: On both times I visited the new, spacious location, every table was taken. Maybe Williamsburg residents have taken to heart that the Starbucks is not the problem: By the time that the coffee chain moves into the neighborhood, the place has already been well and truly gentrified. Or maybe all of our principles weaken before the sugary, foamy delights of a Chestnut Praline Latte.

In either case, on the day that I visited the newest Williamsburg Starbucks, just a week and change after it opened, the coffee chain had already seemed to settle in fairly well. That’s no coincidence: The 2,900-square-foot space was designed to fit into the neighborhood, complete with Williamsburg-ish touches like a long, wooden communal table and big airy windows. The location was built as not just a cafe, but a kind of coffee classroom. One side of the space has a space set up for coffee tastings, complete with a a chalboard-esque map of the world to point out the origins of various coffee beans. Eventually, the space will hold regular coffee tasting classes and performances from local bands. What are these tasting classes, you ask? Mini-seminars for would-be aficionados to learn the ropes: What the grind or origin or method of brewing alters in the taste of the coffee, for example.

My original plan was to sit in on one of those seminars, but those proved to be inconveniently timed. So instead, the manager of the Starbucks, Brandon Giles, offered to set up a private mini-tasting. Giles, blonde, friendly, and bespectacled, began working at Starbucks more than nine years ago. Before the Williamsburg location opened, he was working at a branch in the Village. He is a guy who clearly knows his stuff, coffee-wise, but isn’t at all pretentious about it. Which is, when it comes down to it, the appeal of one of these classes: Expanding your coffee repertoire without fear of coffee snobs scoffing at you.

Photo by Jane Bruce

Before we headed over to the classroom space, Giles pointed out a counter set slightly apart from the one facing the front of the store, where a line of people were waiting to order their macchiatos and cappucinos and tall chai lattes. It’s a space dedicated to the Starbucks Reserve line of coffees, limited run beans aimed at an audience that would choose Stumptown over Dunkin Donuts blend. Currently on the menu: Colombia El Penol, available for preparation (among other methods) on either a Clover or a Black Eagle Espresso machine. (I sampled the El Penol, as an espresso, both hot and iced, and both very good cups of coffee: rich and redolent of unsweetened chocolate.) This counter is the architectural expression of the Williamsburg’s Starbucks bifurcation: One part dishing up the regular menu fare available at any location across the country, the options comforting in their familiarity, and the other part hoping to appeal to the coffee hardcore, the consumers who react to the idea of putting a dollop of whipped cream on nice coffee in the same way whiskey fans would about the prospect of mixing a small-batch, aged bourbon with Sprite.

Photo by Jane Bruce

Giles set up six bags of beans and six glass cups for the tasting lineup, a coffee cupping system. The procedure for one of these, Giles explained, is good because it’s efficient: You pour hot water over grounds, brew them, then “crack” the crust at the top of the coffee to smell each selection. Then you take a tasting spoon and slurp the contents of the cup, in order to spread the flavor across your palate. “People have very distinctive slurps,” Giles said. “Don’t be shy.”

In the tastings, “I don’t ask people ‘What does it taste like? because, well, coffee tastes like coffee,” Giles said. “Instead, I ask them ‘What does it remind you of?'” That way, the less expertly coffee-trained (like yours truly) have an easier time wrapping their head around selecting what notes they’re detecting in each cup: whether it has undertones of citrus, chocolate, etc. “What does this one remind you of?” Giles asked, pointed to the cup of Sumatra, a dark-roasted bean. “Morning?” I answered. Giles, generously, did not laugh me out of the establishment. “Me, I taste some grapefruit,” he said.

Photo by Jane Bruce

Other observations: The Verdana beans, a light roast, tasted slightly, to Giles, “like cereal. Maybe just a bowl of corn Chex. Actually, this one would pair really well with Cheez-Its.” The Starbucks Christmas blend, one of the chain’s biggest seller, was slightly earthy, spicey, and a little bit pine-y. The best of the lot, in my estimation, was from the Reserve line, the Jamaica Blue Mountain Amber Reserve, which was smooth and just a little chocolatey, and all around tasty.

I confess, when I was first looking into a tasting class at Starbucks, I thought of having a selection of frappucinos set out in front of me to try. But the tasting I took is clearly designed for someone in the intermediate levels of coffee drinking: Curious enough to move outside their early morning French press routine, but not yet super well-versed in the vagaries of coffee drinking. This is the crowd that the new Starbucks is hoping to reel in, some balance between the older Williamsburg and the new one, the residents that came in for the Brooklyn flavor but only a passing idea of what, really, that is. It is Brooklyn for those who are still a little cagey on the whole idea. You can’t blame Starbucks for wanting to capitalize on that. Practically everyone else has, starting with real estate agents and ending, now, with upmarket chains. At least Starbucks has made an effort to fit into the community; those glimmering glass towers on the East River gave it no such consideration. When it comes right down to it, the Williamsburg Starbucks is just another neighborhood coffee shop in the ever-shifting landscape of post-Bloomberg Brooklyn.