Young, trailblazing baristas ready to make the District hip in just one sip


WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 27: Mike Sabat and Maksymilian Czuperski patronizeThe Coffee Bar in Washington, DC on December 27, 2013. Coffee art adorns the drinks at The Coffee Bar. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
December 27, 2013

Three years ago, Amanda Salisbury couldn’t have imagined her current career path. She had been scooping gelato at a local shop when she asked her bosses if she could learn to make cappuccino.

“It’s all in the wrist. I learned by watching videos on the Internet,” said Salisbury, 28, who now helps run a small cafe inside the Georgetown restaurant Malmaison. She’s still finishing her master’s thesis about Dadaism, the early 20th century art movement, but now Salisbury’s life is directed toward a new movement: helping the District become the country’s next craft-coffee capital.

“If you told me three years ago that I’d want to have a career making coffee, I’d tell you you were insane,” Salisbury said. “I studied to be an art historian, but this drew me in. It’s addictive.”

Much has been said about the increasingly prolific restaurant scene, fueled by the growing number of affluent young people looking for “foodie” options. But it is now being complemented by the emergence of another culinary scene: the “third wave of coffee,” which focuses on manually producing flavorful, high-quality coffee typically served in smaller, locally owned shops.

For them, coffee is as artisanal as wine and cheese. And such coffee shops, at least in the eyes of those pesky, online rankings that go viral, are the types of places that can help the District attain its much sought-after status as one of the country’s hippest cities.

But could hyperbusy Washingtonians ever be entertained watching a barista taking his time to turn a latte into an object of beauty, say, with a heart-shaped swirl of foam on top? Could they even endure the wait?

The pioneers of this third wave, as coffee aficionados call themselves, answer by pointing to the new coffee shop owners and nationally recognized brands, including Madcap Coffee, that are expanding to the District and to the dozens of college-educated baristas making ends meet on $12 to $14 an hour, all hoping to create a coffee culture rivaling Seattle’s.

Coffee enthusiasts in the region have mapped at least a dozen third-wave shops and restaurants that have opened this year alone, adding to a list of about two dozen. More are on the way, including a shop specializing in coffee-flavored cocktails.

The goal is to transform the region’s utilitarian relationship with caffeine, said barista Jonathan Riethmaier, who works at the Coffee Bar in the Shaw neighborhood.

That means moving way beyond the first wave of home brewed Folgers and the second wave of Starbucks. Here, the coffee cup is what grants free Internet access to frenzied telecommuters. Coffee is the quick jolt needed to get through the day.

Riethmaier understands that mentality. While growing up in Arkansas, he hated coffee. But when he moved to Atlanta after graduating from Auburn University, he began frequenting third-wave coffee shops. Baristas there helped him understand flavors from around the world and experience new tastes, distinguishing his palate. Then, he began serving coffee himself, mostly as a hobby.

He eventually got a job in the District, working 9-to-5 in public relations. But he knew his passion, so he picked up a shift at the Coffee Bar on the weekends. There, he can add milk into a cup in a way that produces an image of a leaf at the top. Each pour takes about five minutes.

“Delicious,” a customer said as he indulged in one of Reithmaier’s creations.

“When I started, I never knew coffee could taste good,” said Reithmaier, 31, one of the region’s more prolific bloggers about the coffee scene. “And now I enjoy bringing that experience to other people, who can learn to love coffee, too.” This is how he hopes to convert residents in the District — one cup at a time.

Riethmaier got his barista job at the Coffee Bar the Washington way: networking. Years ago, he befriended the shop’s owner, Cait Lowry, 31, as they bonded over coffee. Lowry ended up living the career coffee barista’s dream, starting with a small coffee cart, then working at Baked & Wired in Georgetown. While looking for places to set up a shop of her own, she happened upon an old grocery store at 12th and S streets in Northwest.

“I took a look at it, and it just looked perfect,” Lowry said. “I said, ‘I’ll take it!’ ”

She decorated the place sparely. Old cookbooks were placed on coffee tables. Quotes from Abraham Lincoln adorned the walls; indie pop and reggae played over the speakers. The place is consistently packed — which surprised even her.

“This is D.C. It’s politics. It’s aggressive,” Lowry said. “But this is a more laid-back culture. It’s artsy — I think half of my staff were former art students. And I think the city is definitely ready now to accept that kind of culture.”

Trevor Corlett bet on that acceptance when he opened a branch of his Grand Rapids, Mich.-based roaster, Madcap Coffee. This year, Thrillist named Corlett’s brand the third-best coffee roaster in the nation.

Given the affluence and demographics of the Washington region, Corlett said it seemed a natural choice to try to sell and expand the brand here. And yet what makes this a good market to expand to might also inhibit growth.

As the District becomes more expensive, Corlett said, it might be harder for coffee lovers just starting out to live on hourly wages and perfect their craft. Already, he’s seen talented baristas leave for other emerging coffee scenes, including Austin and San Antonio.

“It is one thing to have a love of coffee, but you also need a business model that can be sustainable,” Corlett said. “We know the scene has arrived when we have people who can do this full time, not just as something for after school.”

Until then, Corlett said, it is important for those interested in coffee to be cohesive. A steadily growing number of coffee lovers gather once a month for a latte art competition, in which the designs in the cups usually take a back seat to conversations about coffee.

Once a week, Corlett and one of his partners help train baristas who serve his coffee, with blends from as far away as Ethiopia. They run through exercises on how to pour cups with just the right of foam and take blindfolded taste tests in which they must describe different roasts and the flavor’s origin.

“We should be able to tell the story of the coffee, because every cup has character,’’ Corlett said. “And we want to be able to tell that story, from seed to cup.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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