Caffeine meets terroir
Comet Coffee opens in the Arcade
by Sally Mitani
A few weeks before he opened, Jim Saborio hosted a coffee cupping (the caffeinated analog to a wine tasting) in Comet Coffee, his tiny new shop in Nickels Arcade. The half dozen or so people who attended were all hip to the language of coffee, which closely resembles the language of wine. There’s the fruity thing: “blackberry notes,” “I catch a hint of citrus.” Coffee, like wine, also gets compared to chocolate, flowers, and minerals. It has an aroma and a finish. Terroir and processing methods are debated.
Everyone at the tasting appeared to be under forty. Coffee, even at the high end of connoisseurship, is considerably cheaper than wine, and attracts a younger audience.
Comet Coffee is just steps away from Espresso Royale Caffe at one end of the arcade and Cafe Ambrosia at the other, not to mention Biggby Coffee, Starbucks, and Seattle’s Best Coffee inside Borders nearby. “That shows the market is healthy” is Saborio’s response to what a less assured person might call daunting competition.
Saborio says that, after the initial bloom of espresso shops, Ann Arbor cafes have been slow to respond to America’s increasingly sophisticated taste in coffee. “If your gas sta-tion or fast-food place is serving better coffee, what are the coffee shops going to do? They have to keep head and shoulders above them.” And while he declines to trash the local competition, he says that no one has yet jumped in to fill the niche for truly super-premium coffee—and that Comet Coffee will.
At thirty-three, Saborio is arguably Ann Arbor’s most famous barista: he’s won prizes in national barista competitions. He most likely brought latte art—inscribing pictures on cappuccino foam—to Ann Arbor when he was working at Cafe Zola, where he served from 2001 to 2007. “If I wasn’t the first to pour art in Ann Arbor, I’d like to meet the person who was,” he says, though he dismisses latte art as a “cheap parlor trick. It signifies that a
barista has a rudimentary grasp of the appropriate way to texture milk. Unfortunately, a barista can still pour beautiful art onto a lousy shot of espresso.”
One quickly feels that Saborio will be very much at home on campus—his conversations about coffee are deeply intellectual, infused with science, history, and occasionally pedantry. He often relates coffee history in first person plural, even when speaking of events that happened before he was born. “We learned in the seventies that adding heat to coffee was bad,” he says, embarking on one of his pet peeves, the air pot, which first necessitates an explanation of why the air pot itself was an improvement on the reigning technology of the time, the hours-old pot of stewed Bunn-brewed swill.
There will be no air pots at Comet. All coffee will be freshly brewed to order: your choice of espresso, French press, or vac pot. The vac pot, popular in Asia, uses an hour-glass-shaped double beaker and something like a Bunsen burner to produce a slightly brighter, sharper cup than the French press. Most of his coffee will come from Vancouver roaster 49th Parallel, and he’ll have five types available each day. He’ll also sell some pastries, coffee by the pound, French presses, vac pots, and other paraphernalia.
For the time being Comet will have no chairs. Saborio explains with chagrin that city officials rejected his blueprints that showed seating for fourteen people because he didn’t have a first-floor restroom. Unfortunately, his contractor didn’t mention the plans had been turned down until Saborio had already negotiated the six-year lease. “Since then, every-thing has been damage control,” he admits.
Saborio put in handsome polished concrete counters next to windows facing the arcade, but the city wanted to take them out so that no one could stand and drink a cup of coffee there. Doing so would make it a “place of assembly” that required a rest¬room. The city agreed to let the counters stay, if Saborio would make sure no one stood at them and sipped. He’s allowed to sell takeout coffee while he waits for a variance from Lansing to run his cafe sans restroom, at which point people can drink at the counters completely legally.Comet Coffee, 16 Nickels Arcade, no phone. Mon.–Fri. 7 a.m.–8 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.–8 p.m.
[Originally published in April, 2009.]