Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
As I was out of meals as of yesterday, I walked down to the ville to grab breakfast. As I was returning I noticed that Hobbs’ Coffee was open, so I decided to swing by and check it out. GOOD CALL!
The furnishings were pretty nice and the atmosphere was cozy. As I was entering, I noticed a few Swatties already holed up by the window, so I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a nice place to hang out. I made a beeline for the coffee desk, and a few things struck me.
Firstly, they had a real espresso machine and commercial grinder. This is a good sign because it says something about the process—I am not being an equipment snob here. Mixed drinks start with espresso, and it is the process that makes all the difference in whether or not you get non-crappy espresso. You have to grind the coffee fresh and to the right coarseness, pack the portafilter correctly, and then hook it up to a machine that is capable of sustaining the right temperature and pressure to extract a good shot. If you go to Starbucks, you will never see this process because they use a fully automatic espresso machine. While fully automatic espresso machines produce decent coffee and are very robust to operator stupidity, their output doesn’t compare to a traditional machine in the hands of an experienced barista. Of course, a traditional machine in the hands of a bad barista is much worse than either of these options (which is almost certainly why Starbucks goes with the automatic machines). But, when I saw the traditional machines I recognized at least the potential for greatness.
Secondly, their menu initially appeared limited. They have very few coffee offerings listed on their chalkboard-menu thing as compared to, say, Starbucks. But, actually, this is not a terrible thing. The reason is that there are really only a few core coffee drinks out there. Everything else you see that fills a Starbucks menu is just a variation on one of these core drinks. Being the snobby douchebag that I am, I think it sucks that if you ask people to name a least a few of these core drinks, most people cannot. (A quick primer)
People nowadays get acquainted with coffee through non-fat, syrupy sweet drinks that more or less totally mask the flavor of the coffee bean and have very little body. Thus, instead of focusing on the flavor of their coffee, people are focusing on the flavor of their non-coffee flavor additions. I do think that there is a world of coffee subtleties out there left completely unexplored because people are not aware of their options. Thus I don’t think it is a horrible thing that Hobbs’ coffee only chooses to list the more basic drinks on their menu. So, yeah, I really am a snobby douchebag. Anyway, I bet that you could ask for a triple vanilla green tea non-fat latte with extra milk and still get it better here than at Starbucks.
I ordered a plain shot of espresso and a cappuccino. I chatted with the barista and a few of the other customers for a bit while my order was being made. By freak coincidence, it turned out that there was only one person waiting there with me who had not lived in the Pacific Northwest at some point in their lives. The barista was raised and trained in Seattle. I mentioned that I was from Olympia and he quipped: “So how did you manage not to turn out a Jehovah’s Witness?” This guy was Pacific Northwest, 100%. That got my attention despite the fact that being from Seattle does not necessarily mean you are a non-shitty barista.
Fortunately for us, the barista was not shitty. He had previously worked as a roaster and his technique was solid from the grind to the pull to the milk. The coffee was from Chestnut Hill Coffee Company in NW Philly. The espresso shot was really, really good: thick and syrupy with excellent body and great color, even though the roast was a little light. A few years ago, some roasters from an east coast coffee company (I don’t remember which) traveled across the country and surveyed the type of roast that was being served in various coffee shops. They used an instrument colloquially called an Agtron that measures the darkness of the bean—a good proxy for the roast level. They found that west coast shops generally served significantly darker roasts in both their drip and espresso drinks. I don’t know if this still true, but it wouldn’t surprise me then if Hobbs’ deliberately picked a somewhat lighter roast (relative to those in the Northwest) to better fit the East Coast palate. (Related: The Forgotten Art of Light Roasting)
The cappuccino was also excellent. The milk was frothed to a good temperature and lightness and the pour mixed the espresso and milk well. The proportion of milk to espresso was a little high, but the barista knew this and offered me an apology when he handed me the drink (“Sorry, I would’ve liked it a bit frothier…”). I said it was fine. The flavor of the espresso blended with the milk so well that I couldn’t complain—plus, I had just downed a shot of espresso anyway so I didn’t mind the lightness of the coffee flavor in the cup.
All in all, I was really impressed by the speed and attention the barista paid in making the drinks. He had graying hair and looked about in his late 50s. Hopefully he’ll be the one at the machine when I go there next time. I regret not trying their drip coffee for the sake of completeness (and also because that’s what I usually drink anyway), but I trust that they know how to do that right.
I am very glad places like Hobbs exist. Two years ago I went into Philly on my own to find a coffee shop like the one at home (Batdorf and Bronson) that offered exceptional coffee made fresh. I spent almost one entire day wandering around from Downtown to Northern Liberties and didn’t find jack shit. (I did, however, find many bathrooms.) I hit up places like Higher Grounds and La Colombe and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Shops like these, which are affiliated with very well-known roasting companies, should be leading the charge for good coffee. Instead they were just going through the motions, serving watered-down espresso and clumsily-prepared mixed drinks.
I suppose this is not the companies’ fault. After all, if your customers don’t give a shit about the difference between mediocre coffee and great coffee, why should you give a shit? As long as it’s better than Dunkin’ Donuts, you’re set. It’s about time that places like Hobbs’, with people who actually care about the quality of their drinks, began opening the eyes of this sleepy town…