Gray Ballinger worked with his brother, his father and one other partner to transform a piece of prime-but-underused property on Mill Hill Road in Woodstock into “something that would blend in and contribute to the town.” The result: the Mud Club, a business consortium of like-minded individuals dedicated to providing the best in sustainably sourced coffee drinks and baked goods, and doing so with eco-friendliness at the forefront. That means everything from serving drinks in compostable cups with no redundant paper sleeves and offering 100 percent plant-based cup lids and straws instead of plastic ones to encouraging customers to bring their own carry-away bags for baked goods.
Opened in September, the Mud Club serves an array of expertly prepared espresso drinks, teas and kombucha, along with a hearty menu of sandwiches, Montreal-style bagels with choice spreads and muffins/cookies/croissants to live for (I wouldn’t die for a chocolate croissant, but I’d get up early to bite into another flaky, yummy pastry like the one I tried last weekend). All the baking takes place in-house, including the boiling and wood-fire baking of bagels.
Ballinger’s family is originally from Canada. “We’ve lived here for over 25 years. We have a love for Montreal-style bagels, and it’s the one thing you simply cannot find in New York,” said Ballinger. “Montreal bagels differ from New York bagels in that they are smaller, and they tend to be a lot less dense. New York – it’s just too much dough. So we built the oven here, and got ourselves a fine baking crew. So far, it seems like the town has been receptive.”
I was particularly receptive to a delicious red-eye, so superb that I pushed my way behind the counter to check out the espresso machine. The appliance, American made in Seattle (that epicenter of the coffee world), is a Slayer. The barista who pulled my brew demonstrated how slick and adjustable and efficient this machine is; I was taken by its low profile and modern design – a minor work of art in itself. The coffee is a single-origin, rotating selection of beans, roasted and degassed especially for the Mud Club. They aptly call it the Woodstock Espresso Blend.
“When we conceptualized the Mud Club, we wanted to make the coffee portion of our offerings as serious as the baking portion. That machine is the only machine made here in the States on the same level as European-made machines. It takes on the American style of coffee, meaning: improvisation. The Spanish, the French and the Italians have a very rigid definition of what coffee is – espresso, cappuccino – whereas the Slayer machine is more open to customization. For instance, we like our milk done a very certain way: a little frothier, not as hot. That goes with the temperature we pull the shots at, and how long we pull them. It’s a barista’s dream machine.
“We pay attention to where the coffee’s coming from, how it’s being harvested, who’s harvesting it and who is bringing it to the States and roasting it for us each week. It sits for a week for a degassing process that lets the beans cool, air out and get primed to go into the machine and come out as espresso. We worked with Mud NYC in Brooklyn on a blend of four different organic beans from Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Ethiopia. The Ethiopian lightens it up a bit, while the three Latin American beans pack the punch. Degassing enhances the flavor, the grind, the smell.
“Behind our wood-fired oven, we have a sandwich and dough prep area: one large mixer, two ovens, a stove – essentially everything we need to make sandwiches to go. Upstairs is the workhorse of the Mud Club – it’s where we have a lot of our cooling, and more equipment, like a sheeter: something you use to create very fine slices of dough for croissants and pastries. It’s a very small, tightly packed, highly efficient space. We have a good team; everybody can overlap and cover for each other.”
The downstairs work and serving space is small, and I wonder about customer service. It reminds me, in fact, of a tiny, jam-packed coffee bar I walked into in Quebec City recently. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. Ballinger says that they’ve already had massive crowds, filling up the mini-interior and going out the door, “unlike anything I could have fathomed. With that being said, people are happy. I’ve never seen people so okay with waiting. I think: So far, so good.”
The group’s dedication to “leave our Earth a better place for those generations to come” was of prime concern in the renovation of the building. “All the wood you see out there comes from our land in Chatham,” says Ballinger, referring to the natural-cut black walnut that covers the interior walls. “We harvest it sustainably ourselves; we took it out of the woods and sliced it and stained it ourselves.
“As for the exterior changes, the outside landscape was important to our vision. We tend to see things as one round pie with many little pieces to it. (We’re bakers, remember.) The outside is a substantial chunk of that pie. The green space out front – we felt that if we cultivated it right, it would be an oasis off that busy street. It’s like a little park. We wanted to bring people in, and do it in a way that it seemed natural to the environment, and not overly pretentious. We did minor renovations to the contours of the grounds to enhance the openness. My father, Douglas Ballinger, is essentially the design connoisseur in our group. And we have a close-knit group of contractors we worked with for the duration of the project, which spanned almost two years.”
The wait has been worth it. While you’re grabbing a cup and a sandwich, take a look at the other side of the property. It’s rapidly being turned into a wine bar by this same consortium, sans Douglas Ballinger, to open sometime in January. And for you early-bird workers and walkers who are about town just after dawn, the Mud Club celebrates every morning with a Happy Hour from 7 to 8 a.m., when the organic drip coffee costs only a buck.
The Mud Club, 7 a.m.-4 p.m., 53 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock; www.themudclub.com.