Roasting Raises the Coffee Bar

(By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Michaele Weissman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It's hot, and I'm weary. I want coffee, but not hot coffee.

So the barista at Grape + Bean in Old Town Alexandria brews me a cup of Kuta from Papua New Guinea's Waghi Valley using the cafe's $11,000 Clover coffee brewing system. Kuta produces a deep, syrupy coffee with lots of chocolate and cherry overtones that are amplified by the Clover brewer's one-cup system, which is akin to an inverted French press pot.

Served over ice, Kuta easily asserts itself. Naturally sweet, it doesn't need sugar. I get delicious flavor, refreshment and rejuvenation in a single gulp.

Such a transcendent coffee moment is not as uncommon in the Washington area as you might think. In the past 18 months, interesting new cafes have popped up in the District, Northern Virginia and, to a lesser extent, Montgomery County, offering high-quality coffee from some of the nation's preeminent roasters. These cafes are friendly but elitist: They buy pricey coffee beans from hotshot roasters, and their owners have strongly held views about how coffee should be made and served.

Economic downturn notwithstanding, the burgeoning high-end coffee scene in Washington reflects a national trend. The high-quality or specialty end of the nation's coffee market is huge and growing. The Specialty Coffee Association reports that in 2007, the value of this sector had climbed to between $12 billion and $13 billion, or about 30 percent of the nation's overall $44 billion coffee market. Last year, coffee sales outpaced soft-drink sales for the first time, according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm.

What distinguishes the best of the area's new cafes is a cheflike mania for perfection. Take Grape + Bean, which David Gwathmey and his wife, Sheera Rosenfeld, opened in February in an old brick building on South Royal Street.

In addition to coffee beans and equipment for making coffee at home, Gwathmey, 37, sells dark chocolate, spices, fresh artisanal bread and wine by the bottle. Soon he will also sell wine by the glass. But not just any wine, not just any coffee and not just any food. The wines are organic and biodynamic, and the coffees are delivered weekly by an esteemed independent roaster, Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, N.C. The cafe buys its milk and other foods locally.

"Each time we sell a new product, I need to satisfy myself that in terms of a taste experience and sustainability, this product represents the best that is out there," Gwathmey says. "There is no compromising."

Lana Labermeier, who opened Big Bear Cafe in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Northwest Washington in June 2007, shares Gwathmey's attention to detail. Tables and couches at this cozy neighborhood spot are filled night and day with computer-toting regulars who come for the coffee, take up residence because of the Wi-Fi and stay for the day, enjoying the artfully prepared, if simple, hot and cold sandwiches.

Labermeier, 27, who also buys beans from Counter Culture, exudes a laid-back friendliness, but her standards regarding coffee and all things culinary are unbending. She doesn't stock artificial sweeteners, for example, and finds sugar unnecessary. "Our milk is sweet, and our coffee isn't bitter, so give it a try without sugar," she says.

She offers only whole milk; no skinny lattes in her cafe. She is also adamant that the biggest brewed coffee she serves is 16 ounces. She won't serve 20-ounce coffees, for reasons that she preferred not to discuss for fear that they would make her sound "snobby."

"A beautiful coffee ought to be savored," she said.

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