Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Coffee Break: Old City Coffee

Where: 221 Church St. and Reading Terminal Market.

Hours: Church Street: Monday to Friday 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Reading Terminal: Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Backstory: It was a coffee shop in St. Louis, of all places, that inspired Ruth Isaac to bring high-quality beans to Philly some 30 years ago and brew them masterfully in a small shop on a cobblestoned street in Old City. Isaac's not one to brag, but she was roasting, researching and refining when many Philly coffee shop owners were still sucking on a bottle. She talks about coffee studies and universities that are helping develop growing operations in poor countries along the equator.

"I guess we're kind of old school," Isaac, 54, said. Every employee at Old City knows their stuff too, Isaac said. "We're all baristas here."

The beans: More than a dozen vats line the counter in the Old City shop, each holding 25 pounds of fresh beans from all over the world,including Kona, Sumatra and Puerto Rico. Many are certified by UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance, and she features new roasts every week, like the recent Aksum blend. Isaac's favorite blend is Viennese.

The machines: Old City roasts its beans in-store using an old roaster that's been there from the beginning. It's a cast-iron Probat model based on a design from the 1800s, but the crew there simply calls it, "We love you." Isaac isn't necessarily against fancy, new gadgets with digital interfaces, but she brews her batch roasts in another machine that's been around a long time, a Cecilware Coffee Urn. The urn requires more attention, she said, but it's worth it. "They're not that common anymore."

Ambience: On a weekday morning, Old City was crammed with customers. The place is bright and simple, with bouquets of fresh-cut flowers on a table. If you're waiting in line, you'll get a greeting from Isaac and an eyeful of gear for sale that would impress any aficionado: Chemex glass coffee makers, presses, drippers and a multitude of mugs. Isaac doesn't like electricity near her coffee. The bright, uncluttered seating area is in a side room, a former factory where S.S. Stewart Banjos were made. There's also a small seating area outside for a few lucky customers.

At the market: The Reading Terminal location is boisterous, like every other vendor in Philly's food mecca, but the coffee selection's just as diverse there as in Old City.

Beyond beans: Old City serves traditional breakfast standards like bagels and muffins, plus a variety of soups, depending on the season. The big surprise at Old City, perfect for the summer season, is Bassett's ice cream. Old City's website says this is the only place in Philly where you can get Bassett's spiked with OCC Six Bean Espresso. They also sell cappuccino shakes, vegan shakes and espresso on ice cream.

Prices: Brewed coffee, $1.90 to $2.65; Six-Bean Espresso, $1.90 to $3.40; Americano, $2.25 to $3.75; chai, $3.35 to $4.40; cappuccino milkshake, $5.50; soups, $5.75. Social stuff: You could qualify for a degree in coffee studies spending time at Twitter: @OldCityCoffee. Facebook, Old City Coffee, Inc.

Every other Thursday, the Daily News reviews a local brew shop. Staff writer Jason Nark filed this week's report.

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