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Roasting Raises the Coffee Bar
The Washington Cafes Using Specialty Beans Brew a Better Cup

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.

Customers do not always appreciate such purism. At Arlington's Murky Coffee, another Counter Culture outlet with a fanatical commitment to quality, a brouhaha erupted last week after a barista refused a customer's request for a triple espresso served over ice, saying ice would undermine the integrity of the drink. The fight escalated, epithets were uttered, and customer Jeff Simmermon wrote about the dust-up on his blog ( http://www.andiamnotlying.com), which got 100,000 hits in less than a week; owner Nicholas Cho wrote about this tempest in a coffee cup on Murky's Web site, too.

Purism might make some customers angry, but it can pay off in the cup. Order a cappuccino at Big Bear, and the barista skillfully produces your drink using Counter Culture's Seattle-style dark roasted Espresso La Forza, something of an anachronism now that lighter roasts to highlight different beans' subtleties have come into vogue. But Labermeier knows her coffee, and the cappuccino is delicious. The sweet whole milk softens the smoky, bittersweet flavor of the darkly roasted espresso. A perfect froth of velvety foam tops the drink, and barista Anne Boatner, with the jiggle of a wrist, etches the dark-brown outline of a heart on top.

Labermeier's attention to the intricacies of producing near-perfect coffee is shared by a small but growing number of chefs, including, most recently, Washington's José Andrés. Although the standards of many high-end restaurants seem to fall off when it comes to the coffee, at Jaleo, Oyamel, Cafe Atlantico and his other restaurants, Andrés serves Counter Culture coffee.

"We believe coffee should be a focus and not an afterthought, since it is one of the last tastes the guests have of our restaurants," says Hollis Silverman, restaurant director for Andrés's company. The chef chose Counter Culture because "we were impressed by their commitment to coffee and liked that they treated it as a perishable item." He made the change in April.

"I wouldn't be surprised if José Andrés switching to Counter Culture gets other people in the area thinking about coffee as a culinary craft that needs as much attention as other parts of the menu," says Cho, whose Murky Coffee is popular but financially beleaguered. "This is good news." Cho closed the Capitol Hill iteration of Murky because of back taxes owed; it will reopen as Peregrine under new ownership in August, and it will continue to sell Counter Culture coffee.

Another roaster with a significant presence in town is Annapolis-based Caffe Pronto Coffee Roastery, which boasts among its customers restaurants including Komi, Restaurant Eve, the Majestic and the new "chocolate bar," Co Co. Sala.

One of Caffe Pronto's customers is the tiny Sip of Seattle cafe, in business on G Street downtown for 10 years. A storefront in an office building, Sip of Seattle sells pastries and bagels but little else in the way of food. Nonetheless, it enjoys an underground reputation among coffee aficionados, who whisper that though it is not on the menu the baristas will prepare a sugary Cuban espresso for you if you ask. Last year owner Stella Escobar, 52, began using Caffe Pronto's light-roast Vincente espresso blend after tasting it at a coffee convention.

This bare-bones coffee bar with just a few seats is equipped with an expensive, handmade LaMarzocco espresso maker. The baristas are friendly and fast and take orders in English and in Spanish. The milk foam on my cappuccino was a bit thin, but the coffee was vibrant, buttery and aromatic with hints of fruit and spice.

Another establishment where you can get a memorable cappuccino or cup of brewed coffee is Sova Espresso & Wine in the rapidly gentrifying H Street NE corridor, near the newly refurbished Atlas Theater. The cafe, which Frank Hankins opened in November, serves coffees from Chicago's Intelligentsia and Vancouver's 49th Parallel.

"I liked the idea of coffees from outstanding roasters that no one else in the city is offering. This gives customers another reason to come here," says Hankins, 42, a former financial consultant.

Sova provides patrons with a renovated two-story space for working, reading and socializing; it sells coffee, pastries and bagels and, after 6 p.m., wine by the glass. Hankins uses Black Cat, a full bodied, medium-roast espresso blend from Intelligentsia that won enthusiastic kudos at a recent cupping I organized. I was impressed by the milk-handling skill and latte art of Sova's daytime barista, Niqui Johnson, 24.

Ten blocks east of Sova is Sidamo, a cafe, lunch spot and roastery owned by husband and wife Kenfe Bellay and Yalemzwed Desta. Bellay and Desta are immigrants from Ethiopia, the country where coffee evolved and where coffee trees grow wild in the forest. With a high tin ceiling and an exposed brick wall, the sun-filled cafe has a cheerful feel and a quiet, shady garden in the back where you can hide out from the city.

Desta, a talented cook, runs the kitchen, offering sandwiches, soups and salads; Bellay roasts the coffee. You can buy his beans in the cafe and on Saturday mornings at the H Street FreshFarm Market. He says he mastered the machine by conferring with professionals, but to perfect the art of roasting, "I consulted with the Ethiopian mothers," because women in his home country are roasting experts.

"I grew up in Addis Ababa," he adds. "My mother roasted coffee every day. The smell of roasting coffee, the color of the beans, the taste: all part of childhood memory."

And that's how it is with coffee, a beverage so closely associated with the daily rituals of our lives: The flavor and aroma combine with memories to add up to something more than just ground beans and boiling water. Which, I suppose, is why we love it.

Michaele Weissman is the author of "God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee" (Wiley, 2008). She will sign books at Grape + Bean in Old Town at 6:30 p.m. Thursday and at Politics and Prose at 7 p.m. Monday.

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