The first time Anthony Rue met him, Jay Caragay was serving lobster bisque espresso at a national barista competition in Portland, Ore., where Rue was a judge. Rue was impressed, to say the least. “It tasted more like an amuse-bouche at a really nice restaurant than a coffee drink,” he recalls.
Caragay is known for pushing coffee concoctions to the limit; one of his more memorable blog posts (at onocoffee.blogspot.com) offers a recipe for Fruity Pebbles Cappuccino, inspired by David Chang’s Cereal Milk ice cream at Momofuku Milk Bar in New York.
But at Caragay’s tiny shop in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood (where the simple decor was inspired by Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, he tells me), you’ll find coffee in a purer form. On a weekday mid-morning, Spro is quiet. A handful of customers sit on a reclaimed church pew at small tables along one white wall. Conversation is muted. There’s no music in the background and no WiFi to distract from the business at hand: coffee, of course.
The latest trend in independent coffee shops — such as Rue’s Volta Coffee and Tea in Gainesville, Fla., WTF in Brooklyn, Barista in Portland, Ore., Peregrine in the District — is coffee ground and brewed to order, using a variety of manual brewing methods. But Spro takes coffee geekdom to new heights.
Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, says these new coffee shops, with their single-sourced beans, various brewing methods and rigorously trained baristas, are simply following “the evolutionary process of consumers to move upstream.”
Even by that standard, Spro might well be in a class by itself. Caragay claims that Spro is “the only shop in the world” to do what it does.
“It’s a pretty big claim,” he admits. But if you look at it in numerical terms, Caragay just might be right. First, there’s the function of roasters: the businesses that often engage in exclusive relationships with shops to provide products or services, from sacks of beans to coffee filters and flavorings, from equipment to training for the staff. “We have no particular loyalty to any one roaster,” Caragay boasts.
Spro has five regular companies providing beans — including Barefoot, Origins Organic from Vancouver and Intelligentsia, in Chicago and Los Angeles — along with carefully selected coffees from any number of smaller companies, such as Tim Wendelboe Coffee in Oslo, Norway, and the New Jersey-based OQ Coffee Co.
Second, he says, is the brewing: “No other company offers the seven methods that we do, and nobody else takes the time to pair the beans to the brewing.” So with all of the potential combinations — seven or more coffees and seven brewing methods available on any given day — Spro may indeed stand alone. However, Ryan Jensen, who owns Peregrine Espresso near Eastern Market, itself a place that offers a rarefied coffee experience, cautions that any claims of singularity might be short-lived: “In the year since Jay opened, I’ve heard of other places doing the same things, or trying to.”
On this day at Spro, the coffee selection ranges from a Brazilian “with aromas of tangerine and brown sugar” at $9 for a six-ounce cup to a deep and smoky bean from Indonesia’s Java Jampit estate costing $2. Of course, you can order a cappuccino, espresso or macchiato and even add a drizzle of chocolate, if that’s your preference. And although the steamed organic milk will be expertly poured into a leaf, heart or tulip shape, Spro really isn’t the kind of coffee shop with tall and short, skinny and soy, coffee spiked with salted caramel and peppermint. Even so, the baristas are trained to be tolerant. “We talk a lot internally about how we’re not here to make anyone feel dumb,” Caragay says. “How do we gently educate customers without being condescending?“
A first-timer, he says, “may come in and say, I just want a cup of coffee.” If that’s the case, the barista on duty probably will choose the daily house offering, such as the medium-smooth Peruvian Valle del Santuario, prepared with a classic pour-over (most likely through the cone-shaped Hario V60, a single-serving dripper made of porcelain). But on the 10th visit, Caragay reasons, “they might want to try something different, and we have to be ready. That’s part of the challenge.”
Caragay takes that challenge seriously. When a new shipment of beans arrives, he and his staff will sit down for a “cupping,” a tasting ritual that can make the swirling, sipping and spitting in the wine world appear one-dimensional. The coffees are judged not only on flavor characteristics — hints of blueberry, chocolate or tobacco? — but also on color and body. They’re evaluated based on how they respond to different brewing techniques.
Today we’re cupping a single-origin roast from Brazil, a sample from Barefoot Coffee in San Jose that Caragay has decided not to put on the menu. He lines up three setups: an hourglass-shaped Chemex carafe, with a folded filter, for a drip brew; a small French press, in which grounds and water steep together in a glass carafe before being forced apart by a plunger; and a vacuum pot, a contraption with two bubble-shaped chambers connected by a siphon, looking like a science-lab device and sitting on a special halogen heater that cost Caragay $600.
As Caragay weighs portions of beans on a digital scale — two grams for each finished ounce of coffee — Lindsay Wailes, a barista who has been here since the shop opened a year ago, wants to add a fourth method to our cupping. The AeroPress, developed by the inventor of the Aerobie flying ring, is a telescoping plastic cylinder; the inner part pushes hot water through the grounds and through a micro filter into a cup. It’s a tool I immediately deem ideal for backpacking.
Caragay, who has served as a director of the Barista Guild of America and judged barista competitions in Ethiopia, Canada, Nicaragua and England, tells me that when at home, he uses the simple French press and almost always adds half-and-half and sugar to his coffee.
Drinking professionally is another matter.
Once all of the brewing is done, Jay fills four white mugs with coffee. Although each cup has been brewed from the same bean, the color varies dramatically, from the ochre luminosity of the Chemex (the clearest of the four, thanks to the paper filter, soaked with hot water to dislodge stray dust and fiber before the coffee grounds were spooned in), to the French press, surprisingly light in color, the surface edged in foam. The Vac Pot is both the darkest in color and, when it comes to tasting, the least clouded with sediment. It’s also the hottest.
We sample each cup, first lifting it to smell the aroma, dipping a spoon in to check color and translucence, and then drawing the coffee in with a quick inhalation, the opposite of blowing out a candle.
This noisy slurp is an important part of the cupping protocol, Caragay explains: “The idea is to quickly suck in the coffee sample, while mixing it with air before coating our palates for a representational taste of coffee.”
I try the French press brew. “It tastes like coffee,” I offer. Caragay inhales a spoonful. “It lightly dances on the tongue,” he says. “It has a light body and hints of oranges.” I’m surprised: I’ve always thought of French press coffee as thick and dark. I taste it again.
The Vac Pot, our second sample, seems more layered and interesting, though maybe it’s just that I’m starting to get the hang of this. And while it seems richer to me, it’s also a bit lighter on the palate. The AeroPress, is — not surprisingly, like the French press — cloudy with escaped sediment.
Caragay pronounces the Chemex version endowed with “a brown-sugar character that stands out more than the other methods.”
Coffee, says Caragay, “is like beef,” and will react differently to various preparations. “You can saute, grill, braise and roast meat,” he points out. “It will always taste like beef, but the cooking methods will enhance different qualities.”
Coffee drinkers seemingly are becoming more and more aware of the drink’s nuances. “It used to be, people would say ‘it’s bold’ or ‘it’s dark,’ ” says Volta Coffee’s Anthony Rue. Lately, consumers have gotten more comfortable with a new vocabulary and new flavor profiles. For example, he says, his shop in Gainesville is serving a coffee from Burundi “with the overwhelming flavor of fresh watercress. It’s spectacular. It doesn’t taste like what you think of as coffee.” In wine, Rue says, “people call it terroir.”
These days, says Ric Rhinehart, about 40 percent of all coffee sold in the United States is considered “specialty.” Twenty years ago, “the number was so small, we couldn’t even calculate.” And back then, he adds, “the word barista didn’t even exist in idiomatic English.”
Caragay, 41, who grew up in Pikesville, the son of two doctors, studied film in college and was well into a career doing sound recording and video assist on location for Hollywood films before opening Jay’s Shave Ice in Timonium in 1999. The stand, which sold the Hawaiian version of snow cones, began offering coffee a few years later, and in 2006, Caragay submitted a bid to take over a small coffee concession at the Towson library.
He also began entering barista competitions, visiting coffee growers, blogging and doing a weekly podcast, with Nick Cho (who owned Murky Coffee in Arlington and Eastern Market — now Peregrine — and now owns Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in the San Francisco Bay Area).
By now, Caragay is well known in the select world of specialty coffee. He’s a frequent guest judge at international barista competitions and is an occasional critic of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. At his shop in Hampden — he hopes there will be more, in Baltimore and possibly elsewhere (“hopefully in cities I like to visit,” he says) — Caragay seems to be building a following. One carefully brewed cup at a time.