New York native Jay Murdock has worked in specialty coffee for almost a decade. He got started at Oren’s Daily Roast and criss-crossed the country, managing the high-volume Alcove Cafe in Los Angeles before returning to Manhattan. He currently works at Kaffe 1668 and considers himself a coffee shepherd, since he presides over the coffee program at a multiple-roaster coffeehouse from Swedish twins that features a flock of sheep. During my recent trip to New York, we discussed his unique perspective while he pulled shots of espresso for mid-morning customers.
How did the opportunity with Kaffe 1668 come about?
I guess I just inquired. I knew that Ed Kaufmann was leaving, so I just came down and talked to the owners and it seemed like the fit would work, so we started, and six months after joining the staff I took over everything coffee, everything from maintanance to choosing coffee to making all the coffee.
What’s your title?
I don’t want to consider myself a manager, so I consider myself the coffee shepherd, mainly because of all the sheep in the store. I’m just all things coffee, anything that’s related to coffee at all goes through my hands.
Since you source beans from multiple roasters, what are the criteria for selection?
We always like to work with a few roasters, but things like the Black Cat, there’s not even a choice there. We’ll never take it off because we really like it and the customers really like it. As far as all the other coffees, it’s just whatever’s good, whatever’s in season, whatever’s really popping. We’ll try a bunch of coffees at once, whichever ones we like, we’ll go with those. I really have no restriction on roasters. I’ve had samples from PT’s recently that were really good, Novo, really good, so you’re going to see more of a switch. It’s just whatever I really like. I like to keep it diverse. For example, if I have three roasters who only send me El Salvador samples, I’m probably not going to carry three El Salvadors, although I’m sure they’re probably all very different and unique and delicious. I try to find a well-rounded menu. I always like to have something that’s a little earthier, something that’s sweeter, something that’s mild, something that’s fuller bodied. I switch it all up.
Have you found cases where the roasters aren’t thrilled by having you source other roasters’ beans?
Not necessarily. That’s just the way the specialty business has been recently. It seems like the more roasters I talk to, the more they are not only accepting of this kind of format where you choose the coffees, but they almost like it, because it challenges them, it pushes themselves that much harder, and they know if they really come through with dynamite stuff, it’ll be deserved. They’ll be here. So they know their hard work will pay off, and my hard work pays off, because we stay a busy café.
There seems to be a movement away from the Clover toward pourover coffee preparation. You said that you’re currently ramping up both at Kaffe 1668. How come?
The Clover, even though it is a lot of Rube Goldberg type of gadgetry, everybody seems to be kind of amazed, most of all when the coffee comes back up and leaves this kind of hamburger-looking, spent coffee puck, which has always kind of made me curious as to why people pick that, but really it’s all about the coffee. So if we can let the coffee shine on the Clover and we can also let the coffee shine on the pourover, why not do both?
What inspires you about coffee?
Hands. Hands. Coffee is all about hands to me. It starts from picking the coffee cherry, and then that cherry has got to be removed. The coffee’s got to be processed, sorted, graded, re-graded, cupped, re-sorted, dried and then it gets bagged. Shipped. Then it goes into the roasters’ hands. They have to put their hands on it and control. Finally, it will typically be hands of packagers, though that’s becoming a little more automated these days. Then it comes into our hands. We can only see a degradation along the line. Coffee’s never better than when you pick the cherry off the tree. The more that those hands care about what they’re doing, the better coffee will be. That’s what’s it’s about to me. In my eight or nine years in coffee, it has been huge, the change that I’ve seen in the overall amount of quality coffee is huge.
If it isn’t already, what will it take to make the New York coffee scene great?
I think more baristas opening up their own shops. More roasting needs to happen in New York. The city’s pretty light on roasting. It’s just going to take that West Coast feel that hasn’t been happening. Now that Stumptown’s moved out here, it’s a little different, but it has to be a lot more fun, and it needs to be much more community based. It also needs to expand into other fields.
What makes the New York coffee scene unique, and unlike the West Coast?
The pace. I guess San Francisco’s a lot more laid back than we are in New York, so we have a much faster pace. The rents here are steeper. Everything here is just that much more of a challenge. The rents are steeper, you have to charge more, it’s more to set up here, water’s worse here. Everything about New York just makes it that much harder, so you become that much more hardened in trying to actually function at a top level here.
Do you see yourself owning your shop one day?
Yeah, I hope so. I think that’s every dedicated barista’s dream. I’ve been in the coffee industry now for almost nine years. It’s just that type of thing. I haven’t left the industry yet. All I can do is a couple more steps before I move on to that. You can only go so far as a barista before I try and do my own idea of a coffee shop.
How much value do you see in grading coffee on a 100 point scale?
That’s a tricky question, because you can’t just throw someone who’s never been a serious cupper, or someone who’s not calibrated, and suddenly have them say, “This coffee’s a 95. This one’s a 90. This one’s a 72.” We can’t really do that. I really believe in a 100-point scale for somebody who’s extremely calibrated and calibrated with all the other cuppers, but I really break down cupping into two different categories. There’s the celebration cupping, which is when you’re sharing it with your customers, when you want them just enjoy the coffees. Then you have defensive cupping, which in my mind is way more or less sifting through the bad things of coffee as well as the good things. I get samples from a lot of coffee roasters and a lot of brokers. I go through them. I have to be wary. How is this coffee going to taste in six months? Is it going to hold up? Is the sweetness going to hold up? Is the body going to be there? This one tastes a little vegetal; is this one on the way out? That’s a lot different. That’s where I think the 100-point scale is really applicable. You go through 100 coffees. This is what we have and this is what we had. As far as celebration cupping, it’s not about scores, it’s about awakening people’s palates, showing them things with coffee they hadn’t seen before.
What’s your preferred brewing method when you’re at home?
Don’t have one. I like it all. The only thing I don’t brew at home is espresso because I’m a little spoiled at my daily job. Everything from Chemex to good pourover, French press, I like it all.