Not your average joe: How today’s coffee has evolved

Written for on 9/26/17

To our parents and grandparents, coffee meant one thing — a steaming cup o’ joe.

To today’s Central Jersey java aficionados, a cup of coffee can mean many things — varying brewing techniques, farming practices, milk mechanics, flavors and much more.

This is reflected in the growing number of local coffee shops which have sprung in popularity in recent years due to changing coffee trends. And we’re not just talking about Starbucks here. These days, people don’t just want to grab a cup of coffee and go — they want a community experience with a hot cup with a traceable background.

Hidden Grounds is in the process of developing two additional locations. ~Courtesy of Hidden Grounds

Hidden Grounds, which opened its first New Brunswick location in 2013 and second in 2016, is one such coffee shop that has an exploding customer base due to these trends. With two more coffee shops on the docket, co-owner Anand Patel has seen how his customers have changed.

“Coffee was always a popular commodity but what we’ve noticed is that coffee is just now becoming extremely cool and sexy,” he said. “In the past four years of operating our business, we’ve seen people who have never really cared about different components of coffee to now people being interested in [various] questions.”

Patel said that customers’ questions include:

  • Where the coffee comes from
  • How different types of coffee is made?
  • What is the elevation of where the coffee beans are grown?
  • Is the coffee is fair-trade?
  • Are the farmers are paid fairly?
  • What are the coffees’ tasting notes?

“These are truly the golden times in the coffee industry,” he said.

Factory Fuel Co. is also an active member of the community. ~Courtesy of Factory Fuel Co.

At Hidden Grounds, which serves about 3,000 people weekly between its Easton Avenue locations, Patel said that he prides the enterprise on its ability to set the trends rather than simply follow them, such as its adoption of cold brew coffee in 2013, making it one of the first shops to do so. Now, even Starbucks serves the cold-brew.

Factory Fuel Co., which opened in 2014 in Flemington and serves 600 weekly guests, is also at the forefront of the coffee movement.

Manager Jarred Oberman said that the shop’s employees continue to take new classes on subjects such as milk mechanics, brewing science and more, plus, they make an effort to experiment and deviate from the norm. One such example is the shop’s hopped nitro, which is made from pairing beer hop varietals with coffee varietals to create stouts and porters like coffees on tap.

The Coffee Box, which opened in December in Plainfield, is also already seeing the realities of the modern coffee movement take shape. (Photo: ~Courtesy of the Coffee Box)

Regulars at Factory Fuel Co. certainly appreciate this — Oberman said that his guests have continued to gain passion and knowledge for coffee and they have discovered new favorites, such as single origin choices and other simpler options which have caused cream and sugar to take a back seat.

Similar to other cutting-edge businesses, Factory Fuel Co. is also an active member of the community. Blue Fish Grill is operated under the same roof, next to local music venue Stangl Stage, and the shop’s neighbors include the KVH Art Gallery, Life in Balance yoga studio, a year-round farmers’ market and more. Plus, Factory Fuel Co. biannually hosts the Cycle Billy Bash, a motorcycle show.

Through Factory Fuel Co.’s own doors, housed behind the famous 1930s Stangl pottery factory, customers will find an enormous brick pottery kiln with wraparound interior seating surrounded by a bartop-height wraparound counter as well as floor-to-ceiling windows and glass garage doors.

Hidden Grounds prides itself on its ability to set the trends rather than simply follow them. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Hidden Grounds)

The Coffee Box, which opened in December on South Avenue in Plainfield, is also already seeing the realities of the modern coffee movement take shape. Owner Jeff Spelman said that the customers of the shop, which receives about 300 weekly visitors, are already invested in the experience of very high quality coffee.

“Once people experience our coffee, it’s very hard to go back to mass commercial chains,” he said. “My grandparent’s generation drank coffee as a real staple. Starbucks and other large chains helped transform coffee into a lifestyle.”

The Coffee Box uses Intelligentsia as its roaster, which sources high-quality coffee beans from all over the world. Intelligentsia has direct trade relationships with the coffee growers and it works with farmers on sustainable practices that result in very high quality coffee and ensure strong wages for farmers.

Factory Fuel Co. guests have continued to gain passion and knowledge for coffee. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Factory Fuel Co.)

For barista drinks, the Coffee Box uses Battenkill Valley Creamery milk, a fifth-generation farm that has been rated as having the best milk in the New York metro area. The Coffee Box also offers organic teas, in-house baked goods, gluten-free and vegan-free options, healthy breakfast and lunch options and new items added constantly.

The Coffee Box, which utilizes woodwork from reclaimed barn wood as well as oak flooring reclaimed from Ohio barns and custom community tables, is also very focused on the Plainfield community.

“Many of our customers choose to sit around our common table and discuss the issues of the day,” Spelman said. “Sometimes just a simple introduction sparks and amazing conversation. It makes a great venue to discuss and experiment with amazing new coffee. We give customers a taste of something new.”

The Coffee Box receives about 300 weekly visitors. (Photo: ~Courtesy of the Coffee Box)

Hidden Grounds

Where: 106 Easton Ave. and 4C Easton Ave., New Brunswick

Contact: 732-317-4117,

Factory Fuel Co.

Where: 2 Stangl Road, Flemington

Contact: 908-824-7824,

The Coffee Box

Where: 1359 South Ave, Plainfield

Contact: 908-756-3285,

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