coffee

240 E 9th St
July 3

 

KEYWORDS: BLACK AS HELL, STRONG AS DEATH

 

We climb down the metal staircase. It is hot, and we are are sweating, and the staircase creaks as we go further down. We know what we want, and we have reliable information that we can find it here, and so despite the abject misery in doing so, we continue on.

I hear something in the shadows. It does not seem impossible that there are rats here at the East Village’s latest drab-chic coffee establishment, the barely-named “Coffee” whose sign appears to be written by a drunken finger dipped in tar. But as I hesitate, one of us mutters: “If you stop now, I’m taking your place in line."

And so, spurred on by this dim threat, I keep going, three flights down into Moloch’s belly, because although any coffee is good coffee, I will pay almost any price for a new method, or even just one I haven’t heard of.

In this case, we’re talking about cauldronic coffee; coffee grounds that are boiled for a very, very long time, in the pit of hell. It’s my understanding that this is a method that used to be called cowboy coffee, but New York City killed off all its cowboys in the eighties in order to make room for New Wave. Only one remains, stripped of all clothing, in Times Square.

Have I mentioned that it’s dark? Not the cofeee, the stairs. It’s not just hot, it’s very dark, strangely dark for nine o’clock in the morning. “What if this is just some kind of trap?” asks a sensible person. I do not care. I have gone considerably out of my way to potentially be trapped like a drab chic rat, and I see no point in turning back now.

When we reach the bottom of the stairwell, we are in a red brick cellar, where someone has thoughtfully left a few white bricks for people to write obscenities. There is a grating, wailing sound from the stereo speakers, either music or a cry for help. And there is a line, a long line, in a room with no natural light, and the aforementioned high probability of vermin, that terminates at a large wood fire, above which gently swings a cauldron. A chalky, heavy man in black, his t-shirt turned into a medieval tunic by way of a rip down the center, looking a little like an aging Glen Danzig, stands before this grim spectacle. He is somehow not sweating.

I try to place an order and just stammer out an introduction. The barrista—can he even be called by that name?—stares at me with dead, unfeeling Danzig eyes, and says coldly, “The brew is not yet ready.”

The brew smells wondrous. Despite the fact that we're all sweating profusely, we all watch it, dumbly, as the sparks snap at the iron pot, and I realize that I can smell every element; the wood, there’s some cedar in there, the flecks of iron, the precious New York City tapwater piped in from the Adirondacks, and most of all the coffee. What is that blend?

“What is that blend?” I ask the cauldron-keeper. He turns his head in agitation slowly, and then, recognizing what I 've asked, he shrugs, “Would you believe it's Wilkins, actually? Believe me, we’ve tried everything.”

Each cauldron makes fifty cups of coffee, with about a foot of grounds that are solidified at the bottom. It takes around thirty minutes for the water to start boiling, ten for it to stop boiling, then the grounds to be added, and then ten more for the water to boil again. The whole thing looks exhausting and takes the work of three cauldron-keepers and they all make it a point to shutter their dungeon by two in the afternoon, because they will return at the crack of dawn to begin boiling again. There’s also the matter of starting a fire, which always takes a little longer than it should.

After a ridiculously long wait, there is a hot, muddy beverage waiting for me in a cracked, blood-red ceramic cup with about two inches of grit at the bottom of it. Every drop of it is screamingly good. I use that word because I did scream, and reader, I am still screaming now.

 


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