by Andrea Pyenson
Nikolas Krankl is on a mission. The 25-year-old owner of Taste Coffee Shop in Newtonville wants to bring West Coast coffee culture to the greater Boston area.
With his infectious passion and an abundance of knowledge that he is bursting to share with customers, employees—probably anyone who crosses his path—the California-bred barista is well on his way. That the espresso, cappuccino, latte and drip coffee at Taste are better than most similar drinks in the area doesn’t hurt his cause.
My first meeting with Krankl lasts four hours—a record interview. After an espresso primer and tasting on his home turf, we visit three other coffee cafés (including the ubiquitous “fast food of coffee,” which shall remain nameless) within a five-mile radius to taste, analyze and compare both the drinks and baristas’ skill and knowledge levels. My
guide’s running commentary, punctuated with the occasional, “I hope I’m not being obnoxious” (he isn’t), is fascinating on many levels and leaves me far more educated about coffee than I ever imagined I would be.
Krankl grew up surrounded by the kind of food many people only dream about. His father, Manfred Krankl, is an artisan winemaker whose highly sought-after Sine Qua Non California wines are available only through the winery’s mailing list—which itself has a sizable waiting list. His aunt, Nancy Silverton, is one of the country’s preeminent
chefs. She was the baker and owner of the legendary La Brea Bakery, pastry chef and co-owner of the restaurant Campanile (where his father was also a partner), and is now head chef and co-owner, with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, of PizzeriaMozza and OsteriaMozza, all in Los Angeles. And his mother, Gail Silverton, owns a gelateria
and espresso café in Los Angeles.
Whether due to nature or nurture, it’s hard to imagine Krankl doing anything else with his life. A journalism major at the University of Arizona, he says he “fell in love with coffee” when he was in Umbria, traveling with a friend who was studying there. The beverage became part of his daily routine and, he recalls, “it was all delicious.”When he returned
to the United States, he couldn’t find any coffee as good as what he had had in Italy, so he began making his own. He was writing for a poker magazine after college, but when his girlfriend (now wife), Julia Tatum, was accepted to Harvard Medical School, he decided to move to Boston with her. He worked at J. P. Licks for about a year, spending a lot of time on the espresso bar, before deciding it was time to open his own place.
The California transplant, who is largely self-taught as a barista, bought his shop, which was already a coffee café, inMarch 2008 and renamed it. He invested in high-end equipment—Taste’s fully manual Synesso Cyncra machine, which is manufactured in Seattle, is the only one in Massachusetts and Krankl recently invested in a Mazzer Robur, “the biggest, baddest coffee grinder on the market”—but did little else to change the cozy space. Krankl reports happily that though the majority of his business is from the neighborhood, many customers tell him they “go out of their way now for a cup of coffee.” A lot of the aficionados like to talk about the coffee as much as they like to drink it.
Which is just the way Krankl likes it. And all part of the culture he’s trying to develop.
Taste features beans from the leading roasters in the United States, including local specialty coffee pioneer George Howell’s Terroir Coffees; barismo in Arlington; Intelligentsia in Chicago; Ritual in San Francisco; and Ecco Caffe in Sonoma County, California. The rotating of coffees, with their varied characteristics and flavor profiles, “creates an exchange between the drinker and barista, which is what I’m all about,” Krankl says, admitting that sometimes an element “almost like wine snobbery” sneaks in. “I want to try everything, then get to the point where I roast,” he adds. “And that means going to the farm.”
The best beans and top-of-the-line equipment will only take you so far, though. “Espresso wants to taste bad,” Krankl says. “Under the perfect environment it shines.” That environment includes the right water temperature, the right amount of pressure and beans ground consistently enough to allow water to flow through just so.
Standing at his Synesso machine, holding a freshly tamped disk of ground coffee, Krankl explains that espresso’s flavor comes from the oil that is extracted from the beans.Water temperature affects that flavor dramatically. Higher temperatures reduce the sourness of the coffee; lower temperatures bring out the fruit. Tamping the ground beans to form a disk is important because it determines the way water is channeled through to make the drink. The barista “pulls [the oil] out like a syrup,” he says, making a cup. Placing it on the counter, he indicates the thin layer of foam on top, noting, “Crema is the hallmark of a good espresso.”
“I [compare] it to a good cut of meat, and how a chef might feel,” Krankl says. “The [coffee bean] roaster is like the sous chef.The barista is the executive chef. If someone comes in and says, ‘I want a latte scalding hot with no foam, I think this is how a chef must feel if someone says, ‘I want my Kobe steak really hot with A-1 steak sauce.’ But
I’ll do it.”
Last February, not quite a year into his tenure as barista/owner, Krankl came in second place in the Northeast Regional Barista Competition in Pennsylvania. This qualified him to compete in the United States Barista Championship in Portland, Oregon, the following month. In the first round, he placed 18th out of 50. Not bad for a first-timer.
“I had a blast and learned a ton,” he says. He has analyzed his performance, determined what he could have done better and is already planning for next year.
Krankl extends his standards and level of perfectionism throughout the café, training every barista for a minimum of 100 hours. Steaming milk (an art in itself ) and latte art are integral to the job because milk is such an important part of so many drinks.
The antithesis of the chain coffee shop on every corner, Taste is a reflection of its owner, and Krankl’s first step toward fulfilling his mission. A first visit should come with a warning: could become addictive. Don’t fight it. If Nik Krankl has his way, and there’s no reason to think he won’t, Beantown may take on a whole new meaning.
Taste Coffee House
Newton, MA 02460
Andrea Pyenson is a food writer and editor. Her publication credits include the Boston Globe, Fine Cooking, Yankee magazine, msn.com and oneforthetable.com. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.