It gives me great joy to write this post, about finding great coffee in my hometown.
I grew up in Germantown, NY, a beautiful small town in the Hudson Valley – the street where I lived ended at the Amtrak rail tracks, and then the Hudson River itself, with a view across to the Catskill mountains.
To give you a sense of how small the town is:
- population: 1,954 (source: 2010 US Census)
- the public school is a ‘central’ school district covering Germantown and other nearby towns & villages, with Pre-K to 12 all in one large building; when I graduated (back in the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth) we had 50 kids in our class, and I understand recent classes have numbered as low as in the 30s
- there’s one traffic light, at the intersection of state Route 9G and Main Street; I could see the light from my bedroom window growing up, and at night it would stay on green for traffic on 9G until sensors picked up cars on Main Street, which could take a really long time
Back then the 9G-Main Street intersection had a gas station on one corner, and a Stewart’s gas & convenience store on another. In what I guess is in some way a sign of progress, three of the four corners now have gas/convenience stores.
Up Main Street, past the school, is the small (non-gas station) commercial heart of town, known as the village. When I was a youngster there were two small markets in the village, which stocked basics – most people would drive 20 to 30 minutes to Hudson or Rhinebeck for big grocery stores, and rely on the markets for the kind of things you’d now pick up at a convenience store – though Central Market was a great place to get steaks cut for throwing on the grill. Some of the other storefronts changed over time, with the local drugstore closing up in the 80s, and other businesses like the bra factory and the appliance store only remembered by long-time residents.
One mainstay in the village, Central House, was a bar when I was growing up that in my recollection was a dark, foreboding place which drew a rough crowd, I never set foot inside. The building had a long history featuring various incarnations as a hotel, brothel, speakeasy, stagecoach house, and bar, and had been abandoned, with trees growing into the front of the building.
I can remember many years ago laughing at an article which claimed Columbia County would be the next Hamptons. Sure, we had some people from “the city” who had weekend homes, and the rare rich and famous folks like Sonny Rollins, but those types were more likely to head to Rhinebeck if they were coming up that far, and while there was plenty to do in the summer, it was far too quiet in winter to support much of any kind of commerce.
Turns out I was right in a sense, Columbia County didn’t become the next Hamptons, but with the rest of the Hudson Valley it has been morphing into the next Brooklyn. In addition to the cultural shifts of the information age that allow people to work from almost anywhere, there are a few factors that have helped turn the area into hipster heaven:
- easy connections to New York City, 100 miles away, by road and train, both taking about 2 hours
- property prices that used to be a steal, and are still comparatively much lower than in the city
- absolutely gorgeous landscapes
- ground zero for the explosion in artisanal farm to table & eat local, with local farmers and food producers meeting the high standards of fine dining restaurants in New York, with a similar growth in microbreweries, distilleries, coffee roasters, and similar enterprises
- ten minutes away from the city of Hudson, which has exploded with antique shops, B&Bs, restaurants, bars, performance spaces, and all kinds of hipsterbait
- the arts and living sections of The New York Times, which run article after article making the entire Hudson Valley seem like the most fabulous place on the face of the earth
- superb cultural institutions in the surrounding area and the Berkshires, such as this, this, this, this, this, this, and tons more
- skiing and sledding in the winter; boating, swimming, hiking and biking in the summer; apple picking in the fall, farm stands year round
and for whatever additional reasons, this area became the hotness, with a lot more money moving around. Central House? A dozen years ago a family bought it, put five years of blood, sweat and tears into renovating the building, and today it’s a lovely inn.
I knew things had really changed about 10 years ago when I was visiting and saw a Ferrari parked outside Otto’s Market in the village.
Speaking of Otto’s, let’s get to the point of the story (sorry to take so long). I mentioned earlier the two markets in the village. In the many years since I moved away the space which housed Granjula’s Market was turned into a restaurant which ultimately failed, sat dormant for a few years, and is now the home of Gaskins, a restaurant and bar that makes exquisite food and drink, though I understand some long-term locals feel that a menu with prices on a New York city level excludes them (seems to be a lot of this kind of tension in the area, not just here).
The other shop, Central Market, was purchased 10 years ago by Otto Leuschel, a former executive at Whole Foods. He rechristened the store eponymously, made improvements to the physical space, and carried a wider variety of goods, adding things like fresh produce, an improved deli and prepared foods section, craft beer, local artisanal food products, and many things that would have been out of place in the Germantown I knew growing up. My understanding is that the market has been a big success and become a mainstay in the community, and Otto’s personality played a big part in that. Otto eventually relocated to Washington State to be nearer his mother, and in 2017 new owners took over the business and made further refinements. One change: introducing a coffee bar.
I made a brief, spontaneous pass through town this week, and stopped in to try out the coffee. The store previously offered regular brewed drip coffee but didn’t have espresso. In the most recent set of renovations, the register counter was relocated and used to build out a coffee bar, with a La Marzocco Linea EE machine. Drip coffee continues to be on offer, a necessity in this area, in addition to what the menu on the wall calls the “fancy” coffee drinks.
The beans in use on my visit were the Germantown blend prepared by local roaster J.B. Peel for drip coffee, and Stumptown’s hallmark espresso blend, Hair Bender, for espresso drinks. The store shelves carried several varieties of whole beans from both roasters.
My macchiato was fantastic. I’ve had Hair Bender before, it’s a great blend, but as always it’s the combination of the bean, the grinder, the machine, and the barista that makes the magic happen, and in this case I wasn’t disappointed. Good depth of flavor, made to the right temperature, with just enough steamed milk foam. Bravo! I was so excited to try it that I forgot to take my usual picture, sorry.
I’m always happy to find great coffee outside big cities, and ecstatic that Otto’s seems to be pulling in off in Germantown. I recently discussed here why running a quality coffee business in small towns can be a huge challenge, and I think Otto’s model is more likely to succeed than Spiral Press and other stand-alone coffee shops.
Otto’s coffee bar is part of the market, not a separate leased space, so there is no pressure to grow a separate business. The coffee space takes advantage of the existing infrastructure, other than the investment in the grinder and coffee machine. Integrating the coffee bar into the register counter may inspire more of their guests to buy a drink than if it were elsewhere in the store, and so long as they can properly train their existing staff they don’t need additional human resources. I suppose my only concern would be whether integrating the coffee into the register could lead to log jams during busy times like weekend mornings, but I’m sure the people running the store are smart enough to find a solution if that is indeed an issue.
So kudos to Otto’s for adding the coffee bar, and more so for getting it right. I’m going to have to go back home more often.
215 Main Street