Rick Nichols: Politics of baking, brewing near campus

Boris Ginsburgs does tea most meticulously at his new cart at 33d and Market. And by popular demand he also serves a primo cup of coffee. (RICK NICHOLS / Staff)

In the world of niche coffee and still-oven-warm bread (and almond croissants) the terroir was alive with new possibilities and not a little angst last week on the streets of West Philadelphia.

A brave new tea cart at 33d and Market - "the Christo of carts," one wag christened it for its saffron side drapes - was grudgingly adding high-end java to its menu, yielding to popular demand.

At 46th and Woodland, in the rear of the just-opened retail shop of Four Worlds Bakery, Joe Cesa was setting up a barrel roaster for bags of the single-origin beans he sells as "Philly Fair Trade Roasters."

And a few blocks downhill, on the campus of the University of the Sciences of Philadelphia (USP), a Starbucks, after an angry season of controversy, was taking shape, the archenemy, to some minds, of all that is local and independent and artisanal.

It was move-in week in this sweltering, reviving swath of campuses - Penn, Drexel, and USP - the streets choked with out-of-state license plates, the sidewalks thick with new students knotted in protective clusters.

But you didn't need to pay tuition to get an education on the street politics, values, and elbows-out competition of the people who practice the sustaining arts of croissant-baking and cupcake-vending, dark-roasted coffee and tea.

For Michael "Challahman" Dolich, the owner and head baker at Four Worlds, the Starbucks pill was going down bitterly. He has USP students living next door now, even above the lively bakery - a fresh market he hopes to add to the regulars who have followed him since he baked in his basement at 48th and Baltimore and sold from a box on the porch. (He still drops off baked goods there, but now along with stops at Weavers Way Co-op, the Fair Food Farmstand, and Mariposa.)

So it was with a whiff of betrayal that he learned of the Starbucks arising four blocks away on the campus that had seemed so warm to his venture, a bright spot - offering remarkably good baguettes, cranberry-walnut loaves, and almond croissants - on the dreary avenue.

Some of that same resentment of interloping was being directed at a far less global figure - the cupcake lady whose roving truck was briefly confiscated recently by city licensing officials for straying beyond its designated vending zones.

While the media played the violin, casting her as an innocent victim, the cart and truck crowd bordering Penn and Drexel had a less-forgiving take.

They had all manner of complaints - that she parked outside bakeries, poaching business; that she overstayed her welcome; that she was skirting licensing fees that other trucks were paying dearly for.

It wasn't as if making a living was easy out on the street, said Boris Ginsburgs, who fielded his Melange Tea Cart at 33d and Market at few weeks ago. He is a tea fanatic (neurotic?), matching fine teas to moods, changing his menu sometimes hourly, trying to keep his cuppas in tune with the caprice of the daily weather.

But what does he get? Passersby asking for coffee. So carefully, painstakingly, he gives them more than they bargain for - weighing 10 grams of Belgian-roast ground coffee from Cafe L'Aube, a roaster on South Street, shaking it into a four-square paper filter set in the mouth of one of those hourglass Chemex glass drip pots, pouring first a drizzle of hot water in (to release the carbon dioxide in the grind), then a rotating swirl from the narrow spout of a beehive-shaped Japanese kettle.

This is, he says, the best way to avoid triggering acidity in the coffee and to release its inner brightness; a goal furthered by pouring the rest of the water slowly, never closer than within a half a centimeter (really!) of the edge of the cone, so the dark, smoky notes are released from the slower drip from the perimeter; the mellow, smoother, nutty notes from the center.

He sets his timer for precisely four minutes. At the end of the brew, he swirls the pot and pours. Maybe if crowds come, he'll make a couple of cups at a time. He already compromises to one extent - he sends off his precise coffee ("it's 190 degrees!") in a takeaway cup.

"But you will want to take the lid off when you drink," he warns, "and enjoy the aromas coming off the coffee."

And so on move-in week, in these still-settling precincts of West Philadelphia, that is just what I did.

And it was a wonderful cup of coffee, round and rich, to sip with a crepe from another cart nearby, my stretchy almond croissant from Four Worlds having disappeared so quickly and so long ago.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.