When it comes to discerning coffee quality, most drinkers think like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in the landmark 1964 obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio: They cannot define it, but they know it when they taste it.
For those of us who have had the pleasure of tasting the caffeinated creations at Erie Island Coffee on East Fourth Street, there is no going back to Folgers. These magical brews elevate the mandatory afternoon fix to a fleeting culinary adventure. "People often accuse us of adding chocolate and sugar to our coffee," explains co-owner Martin Reuben. "And, of course, there is none."
Those rich, round and yes, sweet flavors can be coaxed out of almost any quality coffee bean. The problem is that most people screw it up. "Everything needs to be done with an incredible amount of consistency," adds Reuben. "You do anything wrong, and you've lost that perfect cup of coffee."
And there are plenty of places to mess up, he says. The laundry list of factors that go into a single shot of espresso include roasting, grinding, loading, tamping, pulling and, in the case of lattes and cappuccinos, steaming and pouring. Add to that proper equipment, adequate training and conscientious preparation, and what you're left with is the reason most coffee tastes like crap. "Most [people] are completely incapable of doing the job," laments Reuben.
Like his business partner, owner Alan Glazen is a self-described coffee connoisseur who thinks nothing of roasting his own beans at home. On a whim, the friends decided to open a small coffee shop on Kelleys Island, where they spend a lot of time. "We thought it would be really cool to try and make the best cup of coffee humanly possible without any regard to making money," says Glazen. "Our accountant was not very happy."
Erie Island Coffee opened on Kelleys Island at the start of last year's summer season. In three months, the 300-square-foot shop sold 25,000 cups of coffee. The immediate success convinced the group, which also includes an ex-Starbucks veteran and a ferry-boat captain, to import the concept to the mainland.
Erie's Fourth Street location opened last February, and it has already exceeded its owners' expectations. Supported by a perfect mix of commuters, tourists, sports fans and neighborhood residents, the store enjoys activity all day most days.
Modeled after a Pacific Northwest coffee shop, the urban rustic space features wood-sided walls, corrugated steel and a six-stool coffee bar. There, customers can watch the skilled baristas craft a never-ending stream of lattes and cappuccinos. Crowning each cup is a diminutive work of latte art, a decorative design made by pouring steamed milk into the coffee's crema. What looks to be a purely aesthetic touch is actually a mark of quality. "You can't do it if the espresso and steamed milk aren't made properly," says Reuben.
In addition to the excellent brewed coffee ($1.60-$2) and espresso drinks ($1.85-$3.90), Erie Island offers smoothies ($3.80) made with real fruit. Named after the Kelleys Island phenomenon, the Glacial Grooves parfait ($4.70) alternates strata of smoothie and custard before topping it with icy Italian granita. There is also a concise menu of soups, salads and sandwiches that continues to improve over time. Soups are made in house, salads are assembled daily from seasonal ingredients and sandwiches are made to order. In the coming weeks, the grab-and-go cooler will be augmented with prepared foods that extend beyond the salads and hummus-and-veggie options presently available.
The sandwiches, called "crushes," are built atop inside-out bagels and heated through on a panini press. A breakfast option ($4.95) features scrambled egg, applewood bacon and cheddar cheese. Having been made well in advance of assembly, the scrambled egg and limp bacon don't do the sandwich any favors. The lunch selections ($5.95) — like the Club Crush, filled with smoked turkey, honey ham, pepperoni, banana peppers and cheese — fare much better. A vegetarian option skips the meat in favor of cheese, roasted mushrooms, tomato and red pepper pesto.
Glazen, Reuben and company are not content to stop at just two locations. While Starbucks is shuttering stores at a dizzying clip, Erie Island intends to do the opposite. "We plan to create a small regional chain," says Glazen. With shops slated for both the east and west sides, Erie is positioning itself squarely between neighborhood shops like Phoenix and corporate behemoths like Starbucks. Early projections call for upwards of 30 locations.
But Glazen promises his customers that he will never sacrifice quality for quantity. "I never want to not be a coffee shop," he says. "We need to be careful that coffee remains the reason."