“Their roasters pull flavors that I’ve never tasted anywhere else in the coffee world, and yet, they’re always tied closely to childhood memory.” – Geoff Rickly, coffee. curated.
In the next town over from the one I grew up in, there was a Roller Rink that held hip-hop shows when I was a kid. It had a circular hardwood floor, that stretched in a circle around the central dance platform, which seemed both remote and comforting, like an island of carpet stranded out in the middle of a frozen lake. The decor was mostly leftover from the disco era: neon stars flashed above the dance floor; the outlines of skates raced forward on the sign in purple, pink and blue, silhouetting one another, like a mirage; the letters lit up on the front of the building, chasing one another through the night: R-I-N-K. But instead of the sweet roller-skate rhythms of disco, the sound system crackled and boomed with the voices of legends in the making: the Kool Moe Dees and Queen Latifahs, the LL Cool Js. DJs cut up the kicks and snares of an earlier era and made something new. Instead of couples streaking around the track, the floor was packed with people who came to party.
Twenty years later, when I first walked into the new City of Saints Coffee Roasters in Bushwick, I had a powerful sense-memory of The Rink, in Bergenfield. The imagery inside the shop(along with the artwork on all the bags), features a collision of 70’s dayglo green on one side and street-styled graffiti on the other. But that’s not all, the names of the blends often evoke a sense of urban excitement, while they’re tasting notes suggest a kind of suburban innocence. Take for example, the Block Party Blend. Its name calls to mind open windows, loud music, shouting, drinking, fighting in the streets… but the only flavor listed in the tasting notes is Fruit Punch, every third grader’s fantasy beverage. The 1320 blend borrows its name from the address of the Hoboken location of City of Saints and it rings with the casual sophistication of a party in a warehouse or an empty lot: if you know, you know. Still, even here, one of the most prominent flavors in the cup is Roasted Marshmallow, transportive to summer nights at the lake, sleepovers and bonfires.
City of Saints plays these dichotomies to maximum effect, creating coffees that are both accessible and thoughtful. The spirit is playful and irreverent, even while the coffees are meticulously sourced. Their roasters pull flavors that I’ve never tasted anywhere else in the coffee world, and yet, they’re always tied closely to childhood memories.
Coffee. Curated. Roaster Roundup: City of Saints Coffee Roasters
The flagship blend from City of Saints is best as an espresso. The name Citizen is a good hint at what the coffee is meant to be: common, for everyone. But it gives the common its due consideration. After all, every citizen of this world is deserving of respect. As an espresso, it ticks all the boxes: sweet, deeply roasted enough to activate the sugars(in this case a medium dark brown sugar, with a malty cocoa powder aftertaste), but not so deep that it burns the more delicate flavors of orange zest(as a straight espresso shot) and orange blossom (when lengthened to an americano). It plays especially well with milk, the natural lactic sugars bring out the chocolate ovaltine flavor of the drink. As a filter coffee, it was rather ordinary in my preparations, something even the common citizen should avoid.
The Denizen blend brings a further complication to the idea of a flagship blend. A denizen is someone who lives in a place, whereas a citizen has certain rights and privileges. In a way, both of the coffees are flagship blends in the City of Saints, but Citizen has a more solid future. In this case, let’s hope the City of Saints treats their denizens well and keep them around for a long time. As the flagship batch brew coffee, City of Saints have done well to blend a coffee that doesn’t seem to have one single fault: it balances a nice acidity against some sweet and rich flavors (date, raisin, tobacco), while giving a hint of something darker, lets call it a chocolate mirage, though that something-else never fully materializes. This is probably the flavor that the roaster calls Tootsie Roll, although I had several friends in high school that did shifts at a Tootsie-Roll-style-candy factory and have had a strong aversion ever since. My partner Liza enjoyed this as a morning latte, although she very much likes espresso that doesn’t intrude too heavily upon the steamed vanilla almond milk of her preference. I didn’t have the same love of it in espresso form. I would also recommend that it should not be prepared as a pour over. However, as an Aeropress, or quite honestly in a french press, the coffee is practically idiot proof. There’s almost no grind size or extraction time(within reason) that can turn this coffee into something unpleasant. I realize it sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise but this is a lovely, simple coffee that anyone can get right at home. If you serve it to friends, they will almost certainly compliment you. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
This Block Party blend was the biggest surprise of all the nine coffees that I have tried from City of Saints. When Jim Osborne, their head coffee buyer told me to make a pour over with it, I didn’t know what to think. He had already given me some beautiful Ethiopians and an exquisite Colombian. What could this blend have to offer? After all, one of the great joys of a V60 preparation is dialing in the grind size and extraction time, until you find the one or two flavors that are wholly unique to an isolated, single origin coffee. So blending coffees already seems anathema to a pour over to begin with. Add to that that the advertised tasting note is just Fruit Punch and you might understand why I don’t immediately think of the delicate and refined V60. But I will admit: I was dead wrong. Every single cup that I made from this blend was vibrant and alive: blueberry and strawberry and grape and peach and even a hint of hibiscus. Incredibly, when prepared as cold brew, this coffee mellowed down into a mildly fruity, coffee-forward/chocolate-forward beverage with pleasing peachy undertones, like a sweet floral iced tea that’s been steeped for just long enough.
Brazilian coffees often disappoint me, because of their one-dimensional nutty profiles: almond, cashew or brazil nut being the most common flavors that I pick up. Often I find them incredibly basic, though quite uniformly delicious(although more savory and less sweet than I prefer, especially if they’ve been roasted dark enough to become smoky). This coffee remained underwhelming, to me, as a basic batch brew, with lots of smoky cashew, peanut brittle flavors on top. But as an espresso, I was transported to an entirely different corner of my childhood: sitting on barstools with “uncle” types in pubs that always seemed on the verge of breaking off the dock and floating down the River Liffey, as I pounded pint after pint of Guinness, trying to keep up with the old guys and prove myself a real man. “It’s good for you,” they used to tell me in the morning, as I pushed a pudding of dried blood around my plate with a pounding headache and a bruised tailbone from where I fell off the barstool, the previous night. Ok, that last part doesn’t sound great but the truth is, the first sip of this shot of espresso is like the first sip of a Guinness when the sun is getting all dusty and the footy is on the tv and everyone is happy; the stories haven’t turned maudlin yet and the future goes on forever in front of you. It’s good for you.
Two years ago, Guatemalan coffees were easily my favorite. Their deep, rich flavors of chocolate sweetness balanced the aggressive bright colors of their top notes so well that they were one of the few coffees that made equally interesting drip coffees and espressos. But this season, they haven’t had the same effect on me. This coffee, in particular, fulfilled all the chocolate creamsicle flavors of orange, cream and cocoa that I would ever want in a coffee and yet I never felt surprised or thrilled when I made french press(the best of the batch methods for this coffee). However, as a beverage combining espresso and milk, I found this to be my favorite of the bunch. When paired with steamed milk, it was like drinking the last sip from a bowl of orange sherbet, running down the street, chasing the ice cream truck. The flavors were so intense, so pronounced, that I actually picked up the ultraviolet-mint City of Saints bag and said, I get you, as if it were my new best friend.
I’m going to talk about this Colombian coffee by talking about Kenyans for a second. I’ve grown to love a good Kenyan coffee but I used to hate them. When I first explored Kenyan coffees, roasters were obsessed with getting maximum acidity from every last drop and it made me feel a little sick to drink them like that. But once people calmed down and started exploring them with a steadier hand, I started to understand the hype. There are flavors that you can pull from a Kenyan, flavors of coconut, mango, pineapple and the like, that you won’t find in any other coffee. Or so I thought. This coffee, however, pulls these flavors vividly and reliably. So much so, that City of Saints used to call this their Piña Colada, internally. This description seemed so on-brand for City of Saints, to me, that I couldn’t believe they didn’t use it for the tasting notes. But maybe they were afraid that coffee connoisseurs would dismiss the coffee, out of kitsch, and this is a coffee that deserves to be taken very seriously indeed. As a pour over, it is stunning and fresh. Surprisingly, many of the beautiful tropical notes come out, even in a french press.
Carmen is the coffee I first tried from City of Saints and the one that sparked my interest in the brand. When Liza handed me the bag and I saw Watermelon and Cherry Coke listed as flavors, I smiled and said, yeah right. But when I perfected my V60(two notches down in grind size from my usual starting spot), I was happily surprised. It did taste like watermelon and Coca-Cola. A little bit Vanilla Coke, a little bit Cherry Coke(hey, I’m not complaining). This coffee is the best distillation of what City of Saints has to offer. Peruvian coffees are increasingly lost in the war between dark commercial roasters like Starbucks and light 3rd Wave Roasters, like SEY or Small Batch. City of Saints reimagines the Peruvian coffee region as an 80’s arcade, full of electricity and sparkling refreshment. Because this is what they do best: they remind our adult palettes of the flavors we loved as kids.
City of Saints is responsible for the most refreshing cold brew in the city, this summer. Hands down. No one else is making a vibrant, fruit-forward coffee that hits all the pleasure centers of an Arnold Palmer in deep summer, like this. This coffee is made to be enjoyed black, although I would never describe a drink that bubbles over with strawberry reds, purple hibiscus and blueberry as simply black. It makes a lovely Aeropress and pourover as well but WHO CARES. Buy this and make cold brew with it all summer long. A season of good mornings, 100% guaranteed.
I love Ethiopians. I love them when they’re fruity. I love them when they’re floral. I love them when they’re lemongrass in black tea. Still, I had never tried an Ethiopian quite like this one. As an Aeropress it had a strong top note of blackberry, followed quickly by what the bag lists as lavender — I tasted Choward’s Violet Mints and found myself lost in an old pharmacy in Ocean City, NJ. The most interesting flavors linger in the mid-palette of the first sips: cardamom, coconut and baking spice, with a buttery, batter-like mouthfeel. As an Aeropress, red grapes come into play and all the berries and violets intensify, making for a rather purple profile.
At first exposure, I wondered if City of Saints might not be doomed to stand forever in the middle distance: playing on nostalgia and hedging their bets in the market, somewhere between the highly refined coffee curators of Denmark and the average, overtly commercial chains like Starbucks. After all, they’re rapidly expanding. But where other ambitious roasters offer something for everyone and thereby please no one, City of Saints plays out their singular vision across the spectrum of roasts and regions, bringing a new flavor to the coffee landscape in New York and New Jersey.
City of Saints Coffee Roasters doesn’t rely on nostalgia, they distill memory in order to synthesize something new.