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July 5, 2021
A Strong Case for Slow Coffee
Article-Nigel-Price-Drip-Coffee

Meet Nigel Price, Brooklyn’s biggest advocate for the grand ritual of pour-over.

“Slow down and have coffee” are some great words to live by, especially if you love coffee as much as Nigel Price—the owner and creative force behind one of the most exciting coffee operations in America: Drip Coffee Makers. In the current specialty coffee era of espresso everything, Price has taken the opposite approach (sort of) by focusing his two New York City cafés and rotating coffee cart on the art of the pour-over, the meticulous and, yes, slow process of hand brewing. (That being said, Drip has a matte black La Marzocco Strada espresso machine at its Bushwick location, and baristas will pull you an exceptional latte).

But the impetus for Price, and for a growing swell of coffee geeks (this writer included), is focusing on coffee’s inherent sweetness and quantifiable deliciousness that directly corresponds to the way the coffee is filtered through a sleek apparatus and filter that was most likely made in Japan. Pour-overs are the future! Okay, cold brew will always be a titan in coffee, and nobody is canceling the cortado anytime soon, but as I found out through getting to know Price online (dude knows Instagram) and hanging out at his shop, there’s an exciting future for coffee outside of a buzzing machine. And there’s no better spokesman than the former banker turned barista.

What was your original banking job at JPMorgan?
Just research analyst stuff. I would get there at like 5 in the morning and do all that Bloomberg research for them, then the analyst would come in around 9, put his name on it, go down to the trading floor, and talk to the guys. I would never complain. It was such a cool gig, and they paid very well. But it was simple: I did not enjoy the work. Not to sound too crazy, but one morning, I was walking down Lexington, and I was contemplating, like, if I just stuck my arm out a little bit into the bus lane—and if the bus kind of grazed me, where I just got hurt enough so that I didn’t have to go to work…

Yeah. It was time to go then.
You invested all this time, and now it’s like, what do you do? No, literally, the question was: What am I going to do?

Were you drinking coffee as an analyst?
No. I never drank coffee. I drank tea. I mean, I was such a tea fanatic, which is what the idea was going to be: a tea and records shop. That was the plan. Thank goodness I spoke to some wise individuals who got me away from that, because as much as I love tea, it wasn’t a good business. New York had a couple of really good ones, but if you call it a tea shop, nobody goes.

Coffee is a good business—you drink it once or twice or more times a day. Lots and lots of people do that . . .
And because I didn’t drink it, I didn’t even understand the allure of it. Because on the surface, it’s, “Oh, I just need my coffee.” But I had no idea the level of complexity and taste and terroir.

I agree. Terroir is important in coffee, but green coffee is then roasted. And that’s where a lot of work is done, in my opinion.
You’re right on point. And I do appreciate the complexity of it. Even now—you’re talking like 12, 13 years in—I still feel like I don’t really know that much about it. I know enough to talk to the layman about it, but I’m still learning.

You ended up working at Starbucks, which has historically been a great place for coffee professionals to get their start. What did you learn?
I learned a lot about structure, which is why it was imperative for me to work there. Because, in order for a business to be successful, you need structure; you do systems in place. I’m not a fan of their coffee, you know. But I am a fan of—coming from an economic background—the idea that, if you’re in business, you must make money.

Pay your employees maybe? Pay your rent?
Yeah! [Laughs.]

And you went on to work at Cafe Pedlar, Kaffe 1668, Joe Coffee Company, and for Partners Coffee, too.
I also kind of lucked out, because I got a quote-unquote good-paying barista job—I was working in hotels for the past ten years. You were basically a union employee, and you were paid $28, $30, $35 an hour to do regular barista stuff, with benefits. So that allowed me to not necessarily work three or four different jobs to learn.

Let’s talk about the Drip cart. How did you come to the decision to open that way instead of as a traditional café?
It was almost serendipitous because, initially, I was going to get one of these fixed carts, with plumbing. But then this company—they’re called Simple Cart Systems—they have these really portable carts that you put together like a puzzle. It’s like six pieces, just boop boop boop boop, and you’re good to go. When you’re done, you take it apart, no tools necessary. Initially, I didn’t really think of it in terms of “I can make a business out of this.” It was more about branding and seeing if people were receptive to pour-overs. But then I also knew, same thing with a lot of this, it’s more about getting people’s attention. If people perceive value, a lot of times, they assume value. So you have to kind of go out of your way to make it look the part.

The liquor industry is built on that.
Especially the vodka! [Laughs.] I remember with tea, I met so many people who were like, “I hate tea, I can’t stand it,” and I would make them a pot, proper, and they’re like, “Oh my God. This is delicious.” That’s the same approach I took with coffee. I was like, if I make you this pour-over, you’re never going back to [regular coffee]. I mean, you’ll drink it, but you’ll know that it can be this. Because that was the epiphany that I had. All my life, my mom had an electric percolator. And I loved the way she made coffee; it was like half coffee, half cream, and the other half sugar. But if you actually want to taste coffee, this is the way to go.

How did the cart work, exactly?
I was just kind of doing whatever—well, every Saturday, and some Sundays, I went to the Brooklyn Museum, or the farmers’ market.

Did you pay to get in there?
No [laughing].

You just set up.
I literally just rolled up on the side. But midway through the summer, I stopped doing it, because I felt bad. These guys pay such an enormous amount of money to be there, and I would just kind of roll up. But then, when I would see them, they were like, “Hey, you should come back.”

You were probably helping them. They were probably drinking it!
Completely! I was completely fuel. So, on occasion, we would go back if it was too crowded by the Brooklyn Museum. But that was our spot. And a lot of what happened was just, people would walk by, and say, “Hey, we have this going on,” or “Hey, my cousin’s getting married, would you want to do the wedding?” And a lot of times, I didn’t even know what to charge. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t charging a rate that I should have charged. But for me, it was, again, about exposure. About having content for social media.

Oh, yeah. And you had started the Drip Instagram account at that point?
Don’t laugh. I started the Drip account in like 2012. That’s how long the aspiration’s been around.

The reason I’m interested in coffee is that you get so much pleasure out of buying a bag of good coffee, and it’s only $18. Think about how much you get from $18. That’s like nothing!
See, you get it. It’s almost like one of those affordable luxuries in life.

I love that way of looking at it. Because it’s quality, and you want people to come up through here and repeat visits.
And I’m kind of taking a long-term approach. I think if you spend time, and you’re known for quality, then down the line, people will say, “Oh, I know a good place.” And you’re that good place.

I think multi-roaster cafés, where you offer a selection of roasting, are unique. I think they’ll get more customers in the long haul, because it’s almost like going to a comic book store. And you’re going to see new things, versus at Stumptown Coffee Roasters or Sey Coffee, both of which I absolutely love. I just think coffee people love seeing three different bags—or not even coffee people, general people.
Exactly. So many people walk through here, and when they’re done, they’re like, “Oh, thank God; I’ve just been going to Joe.” And I don’t think Joe is bad coffee, I just think people are bored with it.

What’s the draw of pour-over over espresso?
For me, I like pour-overs because you have more flexibility in terms of being able to taste quite a few coffees and not wasting any. It’s very rare that you don’t have half an urn or at least a quarter of an urn left at the end of the night that you just dump. And you don’t get any nuance. I would never batch brew much of the coffee I sell for pour-over.

What do you batch brew then, here?
Black & White has house coffees. Single-origin house coffees.

But you sell mostly pour-overs?
If I’m going to be honest, pour-over is maybe 15 percent of sales. It’s a draw, for people who love it. But the money comes from the bags and the espresso machine.

Yeah. People want a latte.
People want a latte! And at least they have good coffee to go with it.

Many coffee professionals talk about the word “sweetness,” which I think many people think means sugar, but it doesn’t. To you, what is sweetness?
Sweetness is almost the opposite of that acidity that people typically associate with bad coffee. They don’t realize it’s bad coffee, they just think that that’s how coffee tastes. But good coffee has a natural—not sugar sweetness, but just a nice syrupy sweetness.

What did you learn during the past 15 months?
I learned—and I know this may sound like frou-frou bullshit, but there’s nothing more important than the people. I don’t care what business you have. If it’s a people-facing business, if it’s business to consumer, all your eggs should be in making sure you connect with every single customer. Because most of the people who come [to Drip], even now, every day—not so much now, but in the beginning, when I stopped working there, all the employees were like, “This person was looking for you, this person was looking for you. This person came by, they were so sad you weren’t there.” And people can tell when you’re being phony. I would have genuine conversations. I had some customers who literally would come in crying during COVID. Just because of the level of uncertainty. Nobody knew what was going on.

New York was a stressful place during that period of time. It was tough.
I don’t think there was any place in the country that was more stressful than New York. It was like the epicenter. And I would talk to people, and I got a lot of insight, too. I didn’t realize how much I needed to have that outlet as well. And people are super appreciative of that. It was so much more than just the coffee.

It’s so much more than coffee, and you clearly resonate in the community.
And I know you hear the big coffee companies saying that all the time—“Yeah, we really care”—and I’m not going to say whether they do or don’t, but you have to, in order to be successful. I think the only reason I am successful is because people in our neighborhood just loved Drip. They loved coming, because they knew it was going to be an experience, and a real, genuine conversation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SOME ADDITIONAL COFFEE STORIES TO BOOKMARK AND READ:

How four New Yorkers make their morning coffee.

Ashley Rodriguez, the mind and soul behind the excellent Substack and podcast Boss Barista, wrote about the idea of value. “Instead of looking at value as a distribution issue—one where the only answer is to pay more for coffee—we should instead look for new ways of creating value.”

Ethiopian coffee is one of the world’s great culinary treasures. It’s also extremely undervalued. Geoff Watts, cofounder of Intelligentsia Coffee, is on a mission to get you—and the $100 billion industry—to pay more. Much more.

Reforma Roasters in Portland, Oregon, is one of our favorites, and Angel Medina’s new packaging is absolutely stunning.

Sundays at Portland’s Deadstock Coffee are a beautiful intersection of barista life and sneaker life.

How do you cold coffee?

Matt Rodbard

Matt Rodbard is the editor in chief of TASTE and author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, a New York Times best-seller.