Eli Rallo: Comet Coffee serves up Ann Arbor’s most hearty cup

Monday, February 25, 2019 - 5:08pm

There’s something wonderfully charming about that perfect cup of coffee. For so many of us, coffee is so much more than a drink — it’s a stirring inside our chest, the first taste that graces our lips every day, waking us with the sun. It is common ground for conversation, for overcoming challenges, for wordless displays of tenderness and exhausted gestures of affection. Coffee is not a beverage; it is a necessity, it is a tradition, it is a heritage. We drink coffee for the jolt and the ritual of it all, not just for its lovable, distinct flavor. No matter how ever changing our worlds, coffee is a tradition. Above all, coffee is a staple of American culture and lifestyle.

For the many who don’t rely on a Keurig or, perhaps, a fancy espresso machine to bring us a morning, mid-afternoon or oh shit I’m pulling an all nighter cup of Joe, the places that we choose to go for coffee, for convenience or preference, become part of the daily sacrament of java as well. There aren’t many strangers in our lives that we feel like we know as much as local baristas.  My mom gave me my first cup of coffee when I was 12 — a sickly sweet, half drunk decaf caramel macchiato handed over on a Washington D.C. metro, and I’ll never forget that moment: the paper cup to my lips, the lukewarm temperature, that masked, deep flavor. I’ve graduated from caramel macchiatos and decaf coffees to develop a more mature, grown up palate for the flavors that can be garnered from stand alone plain black coffee.

When I’m staring at the menu in a coffee shop, I generally prefer a single espresso or an almond milk cappuccino. I like my coffee dark, strong and in steady supply, but not unpleasant and bitter. I like a cup of coffee that cuts to the chase, is poignant in flavor and aroma, and leaves me feeling warm and bright. Sometimes that means walking the line between too dark and just right, and anyone who can fill my mug with that happy medium, is added to my list of favorites. In New Jersey, I have two go-to coffee shops, both with their own personalities, and they always welcome me back with open arms and caffeine abound. Both shops have a feeling akin to coming home, and I always gravitate toward them when I’m lucky enough to have a break from school.

Few places can compare to the first coffee shops that compelled me to fall in love with coffee — not just the beverage, but the culture behind it. The places where we go for coffee say so much about who we are as people. They reflect us in our most vulnerable form: Monday morning pre-coffee, Saturday morning post-night out coffee or the Tuesday afternoon cup just because. Within coffee shops, we suddenly feel comfortable having serious conversations, rekindling relationships, writing our deepest prose or most enlightening poetry. Coffee culture is one thing, but coffee shop culture is another beast entirely. Coffee shops need a few things: a distinct personality, a potential for shared experience and a comforting space. On an Ann Arbor coffee tour, few spots can even compare to the nostalgic emotions that fill the cups that have warmed my palms in New Jersey; however, one settles right alongside my beloved hometown coffee shops, and takes the cake as the best coffee in Ann Arbor.

Comet Coffee, run by Ann Arbor’s own java wizard Jim Saborio, is a small, independently owned coffee shop that has made home in Nickels Arcade, a stone’s throw from the diag. Saborio has his own coffee origin story, as so many of us do, dating back to 1992, when he was a barista as a senior in high school. From there, his passion for the bean grew.

“I was always involved with coffee, roasting at home when I was growing up in Saline, Michigan,” Saborio said, in an interview with The Daily. “I moved back to Ann Arbor in hopes of opening my own business in 2001, and I knew it was coffee.”

Comet Coffee is small but mighty, with few tables and a bit of counter space, warm with light green walls and a handful of golden suspended lights. To the left of the register is the espresso machine in all its glory, and to the right is a case of perfectly handcrafted French pastries and the pour-over station, where the baristas master the art of the perfect cup.

Comet Coffee was born of a cocktail of experience with heart and sentimentality.

“The shop is sort of named after the guy who taught me to make drinks on an espresso machine,” Saborio said. “My experiences in my favorite coffee shops tend to be places that gather people, shoot them far away some place, and bring them back slowly, like a comet.”

Comet Coffee certainly provides somewhat of the same experience, taking students and professors away from the stressors of their individual lives and providing them with a space to enjoy conversation.

“People find a lot of identity in the place they get coffee, so we cultivate this space so that it feels relevant to the people who constantly frequent here,” Saborio said in reference to that special coffee shop culture.

Comet Coffee is different in the midst of hundreds of coffee shops in Ann Arbor because it is centered and focused on human connection, reserving half of their tables for “non-electronic” patrons. I’ve made good use of those conversation-only tables, constantly gravitating toward them with a friend of mine as tradition to get tea after weekly hot yoga. Many other customers have similar attachments to the electronic-free area of the intimate space, a rare find in this technology-obsessed 21st century.

“In curating a personality for Comet Coffee, I wanted to create a place that felt like the Ann Arbor I got to know as a young person, growing up in Saline. When I got my license as a teenager, going to Ann Arbor was always the cool thing to do. I wanted to create a business that is an expression of a bit of Ann Arbor that I once knew, that I feel is disappearing.”

Comet is the marriage of inklings of heritage and the edge of newness, feeling like a locked up secret to a slower, more thoughtful Ann Arbor. Between the simple, stark menu, dotted with trendy oat milk and meditative pour-overs and undercut with a musing, amiable energy, Comet brings something to the Ann Arbor coffee scene that is impossible to find elsewhere.

“The coffee scene in Ann Arbor is very fragmented. People seek out different coffee shops because of different factors that are important to them,” Saborio said, and his words definitely ring true. For me, seeking out a place for coffee means not just finding a cup of coffee to my liking, but an environment that makes me feel at home. Comet Coffee is not a Starbucks or an Espresso Royale — it’s not a place to go to find bottled, preservative ridden syrups and hundreds of laptops polluting the environment. It’s a place to go to take a step back, in time or from life, and enjoy the simple goodness that can come from letting yourself breathe. Coffee is an accessory to the experience of being engrossed and engaged in the community behind the doors of your second home — a place where, when a deadline looms, I spend more time at than my own home.

Comet Coffee is not only dedicated to a wistful environment, but also a quality cup of coffee. The mild blend with almond milk is the drink I normally opt for, and despite being the lightest choice, it is still perfectly deep and provides me with refreshed clarity. The meticulously prepared beverage is the best in Ann Arbor, undoubtedly, and I was interested in finding out the secret.

“The treatment of the water is important. If you get the water to a degree of softness, it changes the game entirely,” Saborio said, when I asked for tricks of the trade. “We have a relationship with our beans, and we truly trust our coffee here. It’s really quite simple.” 

Despite the simplicity, there’s always a catch.

“Great coffee isn’t on accident. It involves a level of care from seed to cup, and can be ruined at any step in the process.”

Over a flaky, buttery croissant, caramel brown and perfectly light, and a warm mug of coffee with nuanced flavor, I reflect on the attention it takes to bring reliant patrons the same quality that they expect day in and day out. Coffee is a labor of love. And grown-up coffee shops like Comet, ones that take pride in their slow roasting, zealousness and ambition in being the best they can be, go the extra mile.

These days, coffee shops can feel like cubicles — with raccoon eyed students typing feverishly on laptops, staring at the flourescent lights of screens for hours on end, even going as far to order Starbucks online when in the store to avoid contact with employees. Coffee shops are falling further from the French “cafe culture” in which they originally were born from, where artists and lovers, writers and civilians congregate to share opinions, to converse and convene, to enjoy a commonality amidst all our diverging qualities: the love of good coffee.

In spaces like Comet Coffee, I feel as though I’m reclaiming the heart, pride and tradition of Ann Arbor, the very emotive qualities that made us all fall in love with this city, regardless of the fact that we often lose that sentimentality to the pressures of college life, under snow and looming due dates. Comet is a not-so-hidden gem, an open door to celebration of conversation and interaction. The light comes through the cracks of the infrastructure of our beloved city, and Comet always awaits me with bottomless mugs of coffee and a sparkling new awareness about this city and the world. In between coffee and time apart from everyday stressors of reality, in spaces like Comet Coffee, I find myself as well.