Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Espresso A Mano in Lawrenceville

A man sharing great coffee.
One of my fondest memories is of my former landlord in New Jersey. She was a kind Italian woman in her seventies; possibly much older. She lived next door and it seemed she was always up before me banging dishes around, pulling roots, shoveling snow or running a vacuum. But there were also uncanny stretches of silence accompanied by the aromas of baking or pots simmering. While I was getting ready for work sometimes the doorbell would ring, and waiting outside would be a tray of coffee and cookies.  The coffee was freshly brewed into a mug topped with a metal strainer, a scrap of paper towel holding steaming grounds. Despite being filtered through Bounty, the coffee was tasty and smooth; quite so after dunking iced sugar cookies into it. Her hospitality was endearing and will never be forgotten. My rent was also never late.

Hand brewed and specifically hand-poured coffee has been around forever. Among enthusiasts and baristas, it's a passion and craft, and taken quite seriously even to the level of competition. Many local coffee shops offer pour over brewing for some, if not all of their coffee. My favorite is Espresso A Mano in Lawrenceville. Matt, the proprietor, is one of the friendliest and most knowledgeable baristas I've encountered. He's calm and soft spoken and addresses most of his customers by name. Honoring its namesake, the cafe is known for its handcrafted espresso drinks; their delicate latte art was featured on a cover of Edible Allegheny magazine.

A sweet cup of Counter Culture's Aida's Grand Reserve. 
Espresso A Mano sources its coffee primarily from Counter Culture and Indiana, PA's Commonplace Roasters. Many are direct & fair-trade, innovative purchasing which benefits the welfare of the growers as well as the quality of their coffee. Often there's a moving story about the people behind the beans. Matt, Dana or Braden (or any other of their dedicated baristas) can give an articulate description of each variety as well as the various preparations they offer. If you like what you've tasted, the beans are available to go for a reasonable price.

Pour-over brewing employs a teacup-like filter holder and a steel kettle with a thin, swan-like spout. The barista delicately douses the freshly ground coffee, allowing it to bloom. After a short bit, the barista pours a slow and even flow of water. The result is a special cup of coffee worth every penny. (Price varies, but around $3) The flavors and texture are clean, delicious and awakening to the palate. To note: the brighter and sweeter coffees are great palate cleansers. I'm much more aware of food flavors after drinking them. If you're interested in espresso, this is a fine place for that. They generally offer two different varieties which are markedly different in taste.

Espresso a Mano sits in a relaxed and well appointed space. It's rustic yet modern with original brick walls, wooden beams supporting overhead floorboards and a gleamingly polished espresso machine reflecting your image as you pass. Though you will see mostly professionals and students interacting with the shop's free wifi, you can find yourself pulled into a conversation with strangers standing with their coffee around the ample coffee bar. If you're impatient and easily upset, this might not be the place for you. Drinks are made quickly but with a keen eye to quality.

Enrico Biscotti in the Strip keeps Espresso A Mano stocked with oversized cookies, biscotti and other various pastries. A favorite combo of mine is an espresso and peanut butter cookie. But that's me. E2 in Highland Park brings over a duo of panini selections daily, which are grilled fresh to order. For a coffee shop, I've had some damned satisfying meals here.

Handcrafted coffee is worth the wait.  It's a simple pleasure that won't be discovered if in a hurry. In the right hands, coffee is elevated to a serious craft; a meditation of alchemy and technique to produce a delicious result. Espresso A Mano is one of those few places where this magic happens. When such effort is given, you are compelled to relax, to slow down and savor. Quite the opposite of how coffee is largely thought of.

Espresso A Mano on Urbanspoon

Espresso a Mano, and probably your local coffee shop, offer most of the equipment you would need to pourover brew at home. It's well worth the investment in my opinion, especially if you're spending top dollar on coffee. Before ordering online, I recommend you consider directing your dollars locally, considering the economy (and shipping costs). 


  1. I have been using a pour-over filter for about a year now and love it! Seems to make even cheap pre-ground drek passable. While mine is a good-enough plastic job, rumor has it the ceramic models can make a difference in the final product.

    Your description of the Art of the Pour evokes notions of a modern-day Japanese tea ceremony: careful preparation of tools, ingredients, and barista; slow pour to elicit the initial aroma; and finally the patience to pace yourself throughout the entire pour. Not sure whether that will go over well with the burnt grinds and sickly-sweet swill crowd, but I for one like the notion of made-to-order coffee. A little slower pace might do us all some good.

    Hope to get into Espresso A Mano next time I'm in town...

    Keep up the tasty work.v

  2. Tyler Thomas2/19/2011

    My grandfather also uses a paper towel to brew his coffee, I guess it's a generational thing.

    Nice post.


  3. Anonymous1/02/2012

    Nice post...I just discovered Espresso A Mano about 2 months ago and have been back a few times! Cool relaxed atmosphere and very friendly staff. Not too mention Great Coffee!!



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