To say that something is the worst means that it is inferior to other options and the lowest of its class. To be the worst there must be a class or a category to be the worst of. When talking about the coffee found in coffee shops, gas stations, hotel lobbies, and car dealerships, there is a wide array of options when seeking out a memorably bad cup of coffee, but to bundle them all into one discussion would be illogical. Ultimately, the gas stations and car dealerships don’t even try; they’re aware that as long as they offer free cookies or sell Marlboros people will drink their coffee.
But for establishments that call themselves a “coffee shop,” there is a higher expectation. When you go into a coffee shop you want something that is better than what you make at home. It is this class of coffee that can be judged, and the worst can and should be named and shamed.
St. Paul is littered with quality roasters and cafes fighting for customers. Kopplin’s Coffee sets the bar, with cafes like Amore, White Rock, J&S, and Cahoots trailing shortly behind. It is a ravenous market with independents battling corporate chains like Caribou and Starbucks. Each offers something different and most claim theirs is the best. This includes Cosmic’s Coffee and Coffee News Cafe.
The title for worst cup of coffee in St. Paul is shared by these last two establishments. Each produces a catastrophically bad brew, but the path to the title is different in each case. There are a few major things that contribute to a terrible cup of coffee.
1. Bad beans. The beans could be low-grade green beans, over roasted, under roasted, poorly roasted, or old. Each results in a flat, burnt, dry, sour, and / or tasteless cup.
2. Improper brewing. Espresso is an art form that requires a specific grind, temperature, tamp, and pressure to extract the pinnacle of flavor from the coffee. If an espresso machine is running too hot or the beans are ground too coarsely or the pressure of the machine is too weak it will result in bad espresso. The same goes for drip brew machines which are less temperamental, but still require the diligence of a trained barista to operate.
3. Poor delivery. The finest espresso in the world can be destroyed in the delivery. It could be a dirty cup, a slip of the thumb, a sneeze, or a spill. No matter how great the coffee, if it comes with cinnamon roll frosting on the inner lip of the mug, it has lost its prestige.
Cosmic’s Coffee on the corner of Snelling and Selby used to be a smoking cafe. Owner Fred Sande says: “That was our niche, and since the ban it has been really hard.” The smell still lingers in the sticker-covered cafe. The Starbucks that is now a couple doors down hasn’t made it any easier. Sande says: “Starbucks customers and my customers are two different people. Starbucks customers want caffeine and coffee, and my customers want local, local, local.” Proudly displayed in the window of the cafe is a sign that reads “PLEA E DONT PARK IN FRONT OF OUR COFFEE SHOP AND GO TO STARBUCKS INSTEAD COME ENJOY Y UR CUP OF COFFEE HERE AND SUPPORT A LOCAL BUSINESS.”
Cosmic’s Coffee is serving local Peace Coffee, but Starbucks is serving coffee you can stomach. Cosmic’s does not use bad beans, but the brewing is seriously deficient. The espresso tastes bitter and astringent, signs of an over an extracted espresso shot due to too fine of a grind. The taste is stale and the mouth feel is drying, the result of ground coffee sitting around too long before it is brewed. The delivery is as tasteless as the coffee. If they are out of coffee you get an americano and if you order espresso it comes in a 12-oz paper cup, diminishing any chance of tasting the crema, not that there was any there to start.
Coffee News Cafe ties Cosmic’s Coffee because not only is the brewing improper, but the beans are bad and the delivery is appalling. Coffee News Cafe roasts all of its coffee on a San Franciscan roaster at The News Room, the Minneapolis restaurant that owns the cafe.
Coffee News Cafe brews three coffees, full bodied, medium bodied, and decaf. The full- and medium-bodied coffees are identified by the country of origin and the decaf is simply called French roast. If you can spot a regular customer, be sure to ask him which pot stays hotter, because if you get the wrong one you will likely be stuck with a cold cup of coffee.
Even the coffee is hot you still can’t expect it to be good. The roasting is one of the main reasons the coffee goes wrong. It isn’t burnt like the coffee you get at Starbucks, but it is baked and sour. Roasters like Starbucks roast their coffee dark because it makes up for not roasting it well. There are no subtle nuances, but there it still tastes like coffee and can even pass as decent. When coffee gets burnt it just tastes burnt. Artisan coffee roasters will roast the coffee lighter, carefully changing the heat and air flow of the roaster at various stages of the process. It is an artist who can roast light.
The coffee from the News Room is roasted light, but it is not artisan roasted. When coffee is being roasted the temperature cannot stall or the coffee will taste baked, a taste similar to stale cheerios. The sour taste comes from a coffee that has not had enough heat applied to it during the early stages of the roast. To the regular customer and professional coffee roaster alike, the taste is obvious — something has gone wrong.
Coffee News Cafe has won the Best of the Twin Cities from the City Pages at least twice in recent years. A regular customer says: “They won the best of the City Pages thing a few years ago, but the coffee’s always been crap. We come because the conversation is usually good.”
Before taking a sip, be sure to check your ceramic mug. There is a good chance it won’t be clean. One of the baristas looks at a lipstick mark on the side of a cup of espresso and says: “it’s probably just a stain” while proceeding to pour the espresso over the “stain” into a “clean” mug. Not much can be said for the delivery besides appalling.
With Kopplin’s Coffee, Cahoots Coffee Bar, and Amore Coffee within a few miles, there is no reason for a bad cup of coffee. The atmosphere at Cosmic’s Coffee and the Coffee News Cafe might be ideal for a card game or a late study night, but if you are looking for a good cup of coffee, neither is the correct destination.
189 N. Snelling Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55104
OWNER: Fred Sande
ENTREE RANGE: $5 Avg.
HOURS: Daily 8am (or when manager gets there)-1am
1662 Grand Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55105
OWNER: Pete Kelly
ENTREE RANGE: $5 Avg.
HOURS: Daily 7am-11pm (Kitchen closes at 10pm)