Philly’s coffee scene is blowing up and one of the hottest craft roasters of the moment is Rival Bros. Coffee. But you won’t find them installed in some sleek café or quaint cortado parlor. Jonathan Adams, the chef at popular Philly gastropub Pub & Kitchen and summer spot The Diving Horse, and his partner Damien Pileggi instead can be found on the road.
The two childhood friends outfitted a truck and turned it into a curbside coffee bar. (They also sell their craft roasted coffee online.) We chatted with Adams about mixing cooking and caffeination.
How did you get into coffee?
During college I had a job at Starbucks part-time. I always loved coffee, but wasn’t really into coffee, and I fell in love with it [at Starbucks]. It really gave me a strong taste for the production of coffee, where it comes from… that it’s not about syrups and decaffeinated soy drinks. From a philosophical standpoint, Starbucks gave me my first education. So, yeah, good things can come out of bad places.
Do you find yourself defending Starbucks to all the haters out there?
You have to give them props for opening the culture up. I won’t walk into a Starbucks these days unless I have to go to the bathroom, but they get a bit of a bum rap. They taught me a lot: I read the book, I drank the Kool-Aid. We’d have seminars in movie theaters and invite the whole district to talk about a plantation. I didn’t have Howard Schultz’s poster above my bed. But, yeah, it was pretty intense.
As a chef, do you think you have particular insights into coffee that others don’t?
Being a chef, I’m constantly tasting. You learn how to taste. If you put a bowl of mashed potatoes in front of my brother, he’ll just destroy it. Whereas I’ll try to see what’s going on there. So, being more analytical definitely gives me an advantage—the curious nature of being a chef.
Do you think restaurants are lagging behind when it comes to coffee culture?
On one hand, when I’m going out to dinner, I’m not necessarily looking for a caffeinated experience. But I think there are a number of restaurants that do it beautifully and are setting the bar. People focus on the beginning of the meal, but you have to think of the end, too. Blow their minds when they’re about to walk out the door – that’s what people remember. I would love to see more restaurants hire a barista.
Name a restaurant that is doing it right.
I recently ate at Per Se and they did an amazing job. There’s a restaurant in Chicago called Nightwood. They have Intelligentsia, a gorgeous espresso machine and two baristas just rocking it. No one ever gave me an espresso menu at brunch before.
Are you and Damien doing anything different from other roasters out there?
We’ve always loved blends, which is different from what’s trending right now because everyone’s doing single-origin. We work backwards: we both really like mocha java, so we asked ourselves, where do we want the body to be, where do we want the acid? Instead of working with beans we like, we decided on the flavors first and looked for beans that could produce them.
What’s your signature drink?
The Derringer. Basically, it’s our take on the Gibraltar—a shot of espresso and four ounces of textured steamed milk, served in a glass. We always give the option of china or glass; a lot of people who are serious about coffee don’t want to drink it out of a paper cup.
Anything you’re drinking right now that you’re excited about?
We recently got a Burundi Single-Origin that we roasted on the lighter side. It’s just awesome. I’ve always been a fan of Latin American coffees – El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica. Brazil is heavy in all our blends. And I just tried Counter Culture’s Idido Natural Yirgacheffe, which is sun-dried. It’s out of control. I don’t know how they do it… it’s like liquid strawberries.
Ever get over-caffeinated?
Yes, especially when we first opened. I was getting home from the restaurant at 1 a.m., then trying to get the truck going by 6:30 and just downing coffee all day. It was all new and we were trying everything. I’d get jazzed, jittery. Yeah, over-caffeination sucks. I remember reading about Dave Grohl recording all night one time and he got rushed to the hospital thinking he was going to die. All these rumors started going around that he ODed, but it turned out he just had way too much coffee. It’s a beast, that caffeine.
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