From the outside, Universal Coffee doesn’t look much different from your average independent coffee shop. It’s located in a relatively small space between the Post Office and a hobby store in a forgettable shopping plaza outside of downtown Albany. It’s not until I noticed a cart laden with coffee barrels, burlap sacks, and what looks like plant pots wrapped in miniature alpaca sweaters that I started to realize this place is anything but ordinary.
It turns out this cart is the chief vehicle (pun intended) for advertising Universal Coffee. If you’re lucky, you may see it around Albany carrying free samples of something tasty and caffeinated. But it’s also a fitting symbol for the shop’s owner, Alex Contreras, a man who cares as much about the coffee he serves as the impact it has on the community.
“I was born into coffee,” he said proudly, directing my attention to a collection of photos on the wall. They mostly feature Contreras working on his family’s plantation in Costa Rica, and his expression in each can only be described as cheerfully sweaty. He speaks fondly about one of his earliest memories involving a long line of women doting on him as they worked sorting a row of beans. It wasn’t long afterward that those same women were teaching him to sort as part of his own education in coffee.
He considers it part of his job to pass on this knowledge to customers as well as staff. Juan Ruiz has worked at Universal Coffee for over a year and has become something of an apprentice to Contreras. “He makes me study every night after we close,” Ruiz said with a grin.
The proof is in the proverbial pudding, though, so I decided to put their coffee expertise to the test. Ruiz recommended the champurrado, a latte-like drink with roots reaching back to Mayan culture. One sip was enough to make me regret every overpriced beverage I’ve mindlessly consumed from a chain coffee shop. Cinnamon, Mexican chocolate, and brown sugar harmonize perfectly with a robust espresso and the addition of corn flour lends an unusual but pleasant thickness to the texture.
A big part of what makes Universal Coffee stand out are the lofty standards Contreras has set. He makes use of his connections to order coffee from all over the world that is exclusively fair trade and organic, and you won’t find any flavored syrups or artificial anything behind the counter. The espresso machine is thoroughly cleaned after each use. Though this can lead to some long wait times, none of the regulars seem to mind. You can’t rush art, after all.
Universal Coffee won’t be replacing Dutch Brothers any time soon, but Contreras likely wouldn’t want to even if he had the opportunity. He’s content to run his business his own way, and besides, being on top of a coffee empire wouldn’t allow him time to play guitar between rushes.
It would have been a tragedy not to ask for a demonstration, and Contreras was more than happy to put his 10 years of classical training to work. As he picks up the six-stringed beauty that has been patiently waiting in the corner, Ruiz takes up a pair of bongos and provides a beat. Contreras joins in with a delicate picking pattern and soon both men have their eyes closed as they sing the words of a Cuban folk song.
I don’t know what they’re singing about, but, like the coffee in my hand, I know it’s something that can’t be experienced the same way anywhere else.
By Jason Campbell