When Jonathan Rubinstein and his sister Gabrielle opened the first Joe Coffee Shop in 2003, there was nothing else in New York City like it. Now with imports like Blue Bottle and Toby’s Estate arriving on the scene, there’s no doubt that New York is becoming a coffee-focused city to rival those on the West Coast.

In the midst of this caffeinated revolution, the Rubinsteins came out with Joe: The Coffee Book this week, which chronicles their own experience starting Joe along with tips for brewing coffee at home. It also features profiles of big-hitters in New York’s coffee community as well as a glossary of terms.

We spoke with Jonathan Rubinstein about the worst customer he’s ever had, his time as a barista and his tips for brewing at home.

How has the perception of baristas changed?
That’s a big part of what drove us to do the book. I have probably 20 books on coffee that are from a different generation where there wasn’t a barista culture. The respect and sexiness of the job and the sense of community were not part of things like they are now. That’s why we devote so much text to barista culture as it is now.

It’s super-competitive to find and keep great talent, because there is so much opportunity. It’s a totally different world than it was five or even two years ago. I don’t think anyone realized that it takes years of learning to develop the vocabulary, palate and skill to be an excellent professional barista.

Were you a barista?
I was a barista, but I wouldn’t make coffee for you now. I’m rusty.

What’s your worst customer story?
Probably when somebody was told that we didn’t have 30-ounce lattes and he started throwing jugs of milk at the barista and threatened to kill his mother until we called the police.

Wow. Let’s move on to making coffee at home. Do you recommend roasting your own beans?
I think that roasting is difficult. Unless you can do it well, I don’t think people at home can replicate what someone who does this for a living can do. Especially if you’re talking about roasting blends of beans. I say buy from the pros, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t experiment at home.

Should you only use filtered water to brew coffee?
You don’t have to use filtered water 100% of the time. If you can drink it out of the tap and it tastes good, then absolutely use it. At home I never filter my water because it tastes neutral. But if the water has a funny or chemical taste, filter it, because coffee is 98% water.

How about using a scale to measure the grinds — is it a must?
It is. Everyone should be using a scale — it’s just like baking. If you go to measure 16 grams of coffee by looking at in a teaspoon, it could be off by 10 or 15% and it’s going to totally change the ratio and the taste of the coffee.

Is decaf coffee worth drinking?
Absolutely. I think people would be surprised if they tasted decaf at some of the great shops. A decaf drinker deserves something that tastes great because they’re only drinking for taste. I’m very against shops that treat the decaf drinker like a second-class citizen. Sometimes I actually prefer the taste of it, but it can also be awful because a lot of places roll their eyes at you when you order it and give you sub-par coffee.


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