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Cafés Through a Barista’s Eyes: Who Has the Best Coffee in Albany?

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Searching for the Best Cup of Coffee in Albany

Cafés Through a Barista’s Eyes

Being a Barista is one of the best and worst food service jobs you can get. Once you’re trained, there’s almost no end to the number of tantalizing beverage concoctions you can whip up. Not to mention how good it feels to really make someone’s morning by making them a perfect drink.

One of the more heartbreaking aspects of the job is making the perfect drink, handing it off to the customer and watch as they douse it with eight to ten packets of Splenda and four inches of cream.

That’s when you realize you hear people talk about trying to taste the perfect cup of coffee all the time, but in the end it doesn’t matter. People will drink anything if it’s doused in cream or sugar. With the younger generations opting for latte or cappuccino, black coffee drinkers are a rare breed.

So in this review, I’m not going to try and rate who has the best coffee or espresso when so many people opt to sweeten or lighten it, altering the natural flavor. Rather, this will focus on something that is important to everyone and what makes people keep coming back: atmosphere.

Professor Java’s Coffee Sanctuary

Professor Java's Coffee SanctuaryLocated on Wolf Road in Albany, Professor Java’s appears unassuming on the outside but a pleasant surprise on the inside. It’s clearly aiming for a lodge feel, but the library area is totally different, a secluded and quiet area ideal for studying.

One of the best aspects of this shop that even many independently owned coffee houses don’t do is roast their coffee beans in-house. A lot of times you can walk in to Java’s and see someone roasting coffee and even talk to them about the process if you wanted to.

The only thing that turns me off about Professor Java’s is that it seems to be facing an identity crisis. It features a surprisingly lengthy food menu that you wouldn’t typically find at a café. It’s also a lot larger than most cafes, so the cozy, homey feeling is lost in every room except the library, which is sometimes fully booked and unavailable to customers. From what I’ve seen, the best cafes are the ones that do a couple things very, very well. Less is more. Sometimes they’ll offer a variety of vegan and gluten-free treats, and sometimes none at all. I think if Java’s focused on either lunch/dinner or dessert, it would serve their customers better.

All in all, Professor Java’s atmosphere is one ideal for the student, blind date or business meeting. I hope to see more vegan and gluten free treats from them on a regular basis in the future.

The Daily Grind

The Daily Grind The Daily Grind has two locations, one on Lark Street in Albany and another on 3rd Street in Troy. I  was particularly excited to try the one on Lark Street as they also do their coffee roasting on location.

The café actually appears large when first approaching it outside, but it’s actually split into two, the basement level being the dining area and the first floor being the retail area.

So, the Lark Street Daily Grind definitely has a cozy factor to it, but it lacks the comfy armchairs found in places like Starbucks and Hudson River Coffee House. That’s easily overlooked considering the bang for my buck, a large four shot latte for under five dollars (for comparison, a latte of the same size at Starbucks will only include two shots of espresso).

Aside from that, there’s really not much to say about this particular location. Great coffee and a wonderful place to grab breakfast, read the paper and watch the world go by.

Ultraviolet Cafe

Ultraviolet CafeLocation is a definite advantage of this Delaware Avenue shop, right next door to the Spectrum 8 theatre. It’s the perfect place to come after the show and talk with friends about the movie. The tables are best for two, but there are several window seats that are great for groups.

Ultraviolet features a lot of exotic teas and fair trade organic coffee. This is not uncommon for coffeehouses to sell, but not all of them like to brew it since it’s so expensive.

The food here is also surprisingly good, considering it’s made ahead of time and wrapped in plastic. My personal favorite is the turkey provolone sandwich with roasted red peppers. Their desserts, which include baklava, vegan cookies and brownies, are also superb.

My only gripe about Ultraviolet is the sizes. Their largest size is really quite tiny, and I’m well aware latte and cappuccino have a set size, but sometimes I just want a really giant cup of coffee and you just won’t get it at Ultraviolet unless you get it in a to-go cup.

Caffé Vero

Caffe VeroAnother coffee house gem on Lark Street, Caffé Vero is a relative newcomer to the Albany coffeehouse scene.

This café definitely has a ‘cool’ factor going for it; visibly seen in their latte art, which can only be done with premium quality espresso. Vero offers a small selection of desserts and nibbles, and the real fruit smoothies are a big plus considering many independent coffeehouses won’t spring for the fruit. Corporate places can’t seem to sell anything fruit related without packing in as much extra sugar and preservatives as possible.

The problem here is that Vero is way too small. It doesn’t take many to fill the house, and even if you do manage to find a spot you feel like a sausage link with your laptop and mp3. I’d be out of luck if I needed to have both my textbook and my laptop out at the same time on a crowded day. It’s really bad even for groups of four of five as all the tables are ideal for one or two. It’s absolutely worth the time to visit, but if the place happens to be crowded when you go in, I’d opt to have that drink to-go.

Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts

Dunkin' Donuts and StarbucksI decided to combine these two since they’re the two coffee titans in this area. Wherever I go it feels like there’s one or the other within a one-mile radius. When discussing atmosphere, the difference between these two shops is night and day. Starbucks’ atmosphere can be nice depending on which location you’re in, but while reading my paper and sipping my drink, I noticed that the big problem with Starbucks is that it just feels ‘manufactured’. I can have pretty much the same experience at any Starbucks nationwide, and that makes it stunningly unremarkable.

Besides their problem with atmosphere, Starbucks for some reason went ahead and defiled the concept of a macchiato so that now whenever I go to an independent coffee house I have to be asked if I want the traditional or modern version. Folks, a real macchiato is espresso and a dollop of milk foam. THAT’S IT. Starbucks’ creation is somewhere more along the lines of a latte with the espresso shots added to the milk, rather than milk being added to the espresso. In one fell swoop this corporate giant has ruined the name of what is supposed to be a very quick drink into a hot cup of sugar induced coma.

Of course, at least Starbucks has an atmosphere compared to the depressing sterility of every Dunkin’ Donuts out there. The sitting area could not be any more unwelcoming if they tried. It’s understandable why; just look at their logo “America Runs on Dunkin”. The key word there is ‘Runs’. These people don’t want you staying in their store; they want you to speed into the drive-thru. Their motto might was well be “GTFO” (any of our older readers who don’t catch my meaning, Google it).

I personally preferred Dunkin’ Donuts when they were sticking with donuts and coffee. This all goes back to the ‘less is more’ concept. Dunkin’ Donuts probably wouldn’t have such crappy coffee if they didn’t branch out to do all this nonsense with egg-white breakfast sandwiches. Their move is understandable if not frustrating; everyone wants to make one stop and move on, so of course Dunkin’ Donuts had no choice but to respond to their customers and offer a wider of variety baked goods. Their bagels and muffins are actually quite good and the move made sense when they first did it, but those breakfast sandwiches just have to go.

Hudson River Coffee House

Hudson River Coffee HouseI visited this Quail Street shop for the first time to write this review and I can guarantee I’ll be going back. This place had a lot going for it, mostly the comfy armchairs and large tables that really allows students a lot of room to spread out and get work done.

What really boosted this place in my opinion was the inclusion of some arcade games in the corner. One of them was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, one of the best TMNT games ever made. It’s something I never really thought to include in a café, but it’s far enough in the corner of the shop that it really wouldn’t bother anyone.

Hudson River Coffee House doesn’t roast on the premises, but if you can overlook that, it’s a really great spot to try out. They offer a variety of sandwich options (no vegetarian ones, sadly) and it’s a really great place to get some studying done.

Chad Gamboa is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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1 Comment for “Cafés Through a Barista’s Eyes: Who Has the Best Coffee in Albany?”

  1. Excellent review of local coffee hangouts! One update I’d like to add about the Daily Grind in Albany and Troy is that they recently launched a new website that includes an updated online coffee store.

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