The buzz on Aspen’s coffee scene
September 4, 2007
ASPEN All right Aspen, grab a tall latte and listen to why your coffee scene needs help. To begin, there’s something amiss when local after local says one of the best cups of coffee in town comes from a gas station. That would be the Aspen Store on Galena and Main streets, where a cup of joe is still only a buck – a far cry from the $2 that a cup of drip coffee costs at Ink!, the most expensive in town where it’s “coffee, above all else.”
Still, it’s only 10 cents more than the $1.90 a pop at Zélé and Paradise Bakery, where many will direct you to have that Paris-esque experience of watching the traffic go by on a street corner. Some will even say that coffee at two bucks a cup is worth the price, even though it is well above the $1.38 national average, according to the National Coffee Association.Like all legal, addictive substances, the sky’s the limit when it comes to getting your favorite fix.
An old Turkish proverb states coffee should be “black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.” Maybe that should include plentiful as blades of grass? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates national coffee consumption at 146 billion cups a year.
One thing is certain, Aspen coffee drinkers are finicky. Everyone has an opinion about the coffee and the various coffee spots. No one wants to say something negative, but everyone has something negative to say: This shop doesn’t have outdoor seating. That one has bad bathroom placement. This one serves coffee that makes me sick. That one is too expensive. “The fact that Starbucks is a contender in a town that thinks it’s so badass is just pussy,” said Kate Russell, from Basalt, in summation. Of course, everyone who has an opinion also has a favorite. Russell’s favorite cup of coffee in the valley is at Café Bernard in Basalt. Upvalley, readers of The Aspen Times voted Ink! and Zélé the “Best Coffee Shop,” with 32 votes apiece.
From a cultural point of view, coffeehouses have served as meeting places and social centers for centuries. A place to pass time, gather, talk, write and entertain, coffeehouses have often been countercultural zones that thrive on the fringe of society (the Boston Tea Party of 1773 convened in a coffeehouse, for example). Such was the case in the Pacific Northwest until Seattle-based Starbucks took the mold and repeated it the world over and now that chain reports more than 13,000 stores worldwide (hardly counterculture).
“[Starbucks] is like the McDonald’s of coffee,” said Aspenite Brian Speck, of Aspen, who on a recent weekday had coffee at Zélé in the morning and at Ink! in the afternoon. “Ink! is like the rebel, unassuming, radical coffee shop.”Clearly, the counterculture aspect of coffeehouses is still a central consideration in choosing where to get a buzz on. Part of that means people disdain the chain, but only the big chain. Ink! afterall, is a chain, as is Paradise Bakery, but they are smaller chains.
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The other essential elements of a good shop are tasty coffee, excellent atmosphere and delicious baked goods, as well as late hours and comfortable seating. Of course these key elements aren’t easy to combine in a high-rent area such as Aspen. Lisa Zimet, business manager at Zélé, said couches and lounge chairs were suggested during a study group about the business a year ago. However, Zimet said they couldn’t make the change because space is so tight. Long hours also make it tough to do business in Aspen. For example, Zélé opens at 6:30 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. during high season, seven-days-a-week, even though Zimet said it is often not profitable to stay open until 10.
Perhaps one of the most significant elements of a good coffee shop, especially in summer, is outdoor seating. Not all outdoor seating is created equal, however. Everything that could be considered a coffee shop in Aspen has outdoor seating, but the seats at Ink! are not as visible as those at Zélé. And the tables at Jour de Fête are less private than those at Main Street Bakery, but they are more quiet. Atmosphere, for many, is the most important element. Carbondale resident Michelle Montany feels most at home at Zélé. In fact, on a recent weekday, Montany dropped off her boyfriend at the airport and then drove into Aspen just to get a cup of coffee at Zélé and sit outside. “It doesn’t feel like you’re at home in Starbucks,” Montany said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re anywhere.”
There are only a few coffeehouses in Aspen; Zélé, Ink!, Starbucks and Paradise Bakery come the closest to fitting the bill. But when people are asked about their favorite spot to get a cup of fresh brew, places like Jour de Fête and Main Street Bakery are inevitably mentioned, and of course the Aspen Store. Further difficulty arises when considering that Zélé calls itself a bistro; “one of the few casual, modestly priced restuarants, really,” Zimet said.
Jour de Fête and Main Street Bakery are among the shops that serve up more modestly priced coffee and espresso drinks, as well as homemade pastries. Jour de Fête also gets honorable mention, along with places like Bagel Bites, for $1 coffee if you bring your own cup. To some degree, the restaurant-coffee shops thrive on true locals. Whereas Main Street Bakery brings people in from the West End, Jour de Fête owner Olivier Mottier said many of his regulars come in from the East End and Independence Pass area. Meanwhile, Bagel Bites owner Bill Ogelsby said he often gets folks from Red Mountain who stop by on the way to town. Regardless, everyone needs their fix. The Food and Drug Administration reports that U.S. coffee drinkers spend an average of $164 a year on their buzz; internationally, coffee is reportedly the second most popular drink after water.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org