Barista tested and (not) approved

By Gabrielle Van Tassel
Updated February 13, 2018
Credit: Photo by Alex Tepper

New York City is a place of ludicrous expenses, so it might not be surprising that Extraction Lab, a new cafe in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, sells a 12-ounce cup of coffee for $18, making it the most expensive cup of coffee in the US. That’s equivalent to the price of eight and a half Starbucks tall coffees (at $2.12 each) and more expensive than an entire pound of gourmet beans. Does expensive coffee really taste better? In my experience working as a barista, the answer is generally no. I’m definitely no Q grader, but it’s easy to tell the difference in quality between bodega grade, Starbucks blends, locally sourced roasts, and most things in between. When it comes to food items, more money can only buy you so much before you just end up paying for gimmicks. So I went to buy an absurdly expensive cup of coffee with moderately high hopes. But I’ve definitely had better coffee that only cost $2.75.

You’re probably wondering why the coffee is so expensive, and the simple answer is: It’s all in the beans. Extraction Lab does in fact sell a cup of coffee for only $3, but given the futuristic and innovative brewing techniques I expected even the cheapest brew to blow good ole’ Starbucks totally out of the water (hint: it did not).

I walked into the large space expecting to be wowed, and I was… by the cool and simple atmosphere of the cafe and the showroom effect of all of the sleek-looking steampunk brewers lined up on the low counter. As for the beans, there were four promising coffees listed on the daily menu. I tried the $3 cup of Finca Santa Rosa from El Salvador that was pretty light bodied and honestly pretty average. I couldn’t discern a more detailed flavor profile other than a roast-y foretaste and a tart, rather unpleasant aftertaste. However, the $14.75 cup brewed from rare, direct-trade Ethiopian Arabica beans from Jeremy Zhang Gesha’s Panama estate was full of flavor, but was also just as mild-bodied and fairly watery, to put it plainly. With earthy notes of cocoa and berries it should definitely be enjoyed sans creamer, but I wouldn’t recommend trekking all the way out to Industry City just for a taste.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands on the pricier, higher grade Gesha estate grind (which goes for $18 a cup), but I would imagine the review to be the same: Great taste, but not great enough for the money. Plus if you aren’t some kind of aficionado and just want something speedy, it takes about as long as a cappuccino because each steampunk makes one perfectly measured out cup at a time. Judging by boldness, flavors, and desire to drink it black, I can’t get behind the pricey brew (or the cheap one for that matter), though I will admit that the rather involved brewing method definitely heightened the flavor of the beans.

How is it different? Well, this precision brewing method is basically a mix of three different brewing techniques: pour-over, French press, and syphon brewing. The Extraction Lab exclusively uses Alpha Dominiche’s steampunk brewing system that is operated by an iPad app (yes, robots are taking over the world) to calibrate temperature, pressure, and agitation specific to the beans. First the beans are freshly ground then put in the top chamber like an upside-down French press. Then the pre-infusion “bloom” of steam-powered water evenly disperses the water over the beans until fully immersing the grounds for an allotted amount of time (about 75 seconds) that is way shorter than your French press. It goes through a couple agitation cycles to makes sure that all the grounds are dispersed evenly and the coffee gets the perfect flavor, and then using vacuum pressure the coffee is extracted through a fine filter into the lower chamber before being spouted into your cup to be drank black. If you don’t want to take my word for it, ask a brewer (they’re all very knowledgeable and eager to impart coffee wisdom).

I won’t stop you from embarking on your expedition for overpriced coffee, especially if you’re in it for the experience (it’s a pretty cool set-up), but I highly recommend protecting your bank account and sticking to a cup that’s less than $5 and calling it a day.