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A Bean-Worshipping Community Perks Up as the Area’s Gentrified Java Gains Ground

Aug 04, 2015 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds

Gulp! But Not So Fast

By Gail Greco

I’m drinking my way through writer’s block thinking of Zen Buddhist monk philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh’s, “Don’t just do something, sit there”—my permission to stare at the screen and it may brew…the why of coffee that is. Presently, it’s a whippy crema…silky, throaty, and pulsating, a bit jazzy even though on my Pandora is the gentler acoustic Gregorian chant. The cliché is that life begins after coffee, so I take muted responsibility for the poetic stirrings from the pressed-pot French roast in the clay-fired mug, hand-thrown in Annapolis, I’ve carried during five house-builds/moves in 15 years. Ok, maybe it was the coffee that pumped up such ambition!

Coffee sparks cognitive powers, decreases depression, and, even, staves off life-threatening diseases, says Mayo Clinic and my own G.P. who prescribed a cup a day. And if you ‘put your lips together and blow,’ you?…why yes, you can see—that is find you—as Hanh suggests, even in a whistle of steamy breath as Bacall to Bogie lipped in Casablanca. Coffee is that enlightening. I love its smoky drama. So, as I sit at home, I picture folks ordering at drive-thrus, breaking cappuccino foam over a news feed, and doing a macchiato at neighborhood cafes around the Chesapeake, where coffee has become hyperlocal with cult-like followings.

The art of the coffee shop is transcending and one among the first in the region is Annapolis’ 49 West, still pleasing all ages with its warm brick walls and Euro atmosphere. Annapolitans also consider City Dock Coffee (1993) a coffee shop pioneer, exemplifying high quality local roasting with self-guarded specialties like the spicy mocha Boat Guys and the Nautical Blend nutty roast that address watermen trolling the bay in misty mornings, available at all four city locations.

Bean Whisperers: Parting the Crema for the Community

A guy walks into a coffee shop and…add your own funny line here, but most walk in and sit a spell as coffee shop owners go a long way to make it inviting. A milieu like Blue Crab Coffee in St. Michaels, comes complete with a church pew, and board games or Wifi. Blue Crab began in 1998 when Mary Dabroski set up the intimate café as a retirement plan for herself and “so others could gather and enjoy a good quality coffee,” she says.

Mary says she and her baristas have many regular customers and if they don’t show up like clockwork, they start getting concerned, and that’s the modus operandi of a true know-your-customer coffeehouse. Blue Crab is on Fremont Street, in the 1883 Freedom Friends Lodge, fitting as it still is for meeting up but with coffee now.

Chesapeake shop owners like Mary, are small-batch passionate roasters who sermonize how they are “blessed” to provide a sacristy of good spirits. “A place where miracles happen,” epitomizes coffee apostle Nate Johnston, an owner of Main Roots Coffee in Salisbury. With a (yes) glass of coffee, Nate introduces a trendy cortado (old Spanish glass of coffee) and opines, “Coffee is charismatic; ours is robust with hints of cedar and caramel.”

His bushy, Lincoln beard, dark-rimmed glasses, and coffee acumen delivered in gospel tones, Nate is a quintessential barista, a leader in his generation to change how coffee is perceived, made, and served where coffee is an equalizer of people—the halfs- and half-nots. Half the customers are regulars/half drop-ins, the only appropriate coffeehouse descriptive demographic.
Beans are sourced carefully in a kind of whispering that surely coaxes the roast so every slurp is full of flavor. Coffee is curative, drinking it a ritual, which is why the come-to-the-coffeehouse movement thrives. “It’s as simple as holding something warm in your hand. It transforms,” muses manager Jenna Cawley, a head barista at Annapolis’ Zü Coffee Bay Ridge location. Zü was opened by Doug Henderson, a Southwest Airlines pilot who added another Zü recently in Gambrills at Waugh Chapel. Zü is short for Terrazu, a familiar Costa Rican bean, one of several varieties roasting behind plexiglass, you see while sipping your latte by the fireplace.

“You suggest to a friend, ‘Let’s go for a coffee,’ and you know they mean time for some interpersonal chat. ‘To dish,’” explains the 26-year-old connoisseur. Jenna is also a Zü roaster, browning green beans chosen via a so-called bean scale that measures quality levels.

Coffee Tawk: Hey Wanna ‘Dish’?

So, what is coffee’s habitual fix all about? It’s not just the pick-me-up buzz to keep yourself going all day thing. Area residents like Pastor Paul Merritt of the Church of the Nazarene in Denton confirms and epitomizes. “I love the smell, it’s meditative.” Researching for his Sunday sermon, we found him sipping a Café Americano at Rise Up Coffee in Easton. “I try to come at least once a week. It’s inspiring with people around me, and I can fall into my own…and think,” he confesses.

Not surprising, coffee always seems to stimulate and so pity those who can’t drink like my berry- bean allergic friend Serena and another, Anne (her last name is Coffey) doesn’t even like to smell it brewing. Coffee—sort of—was originally eaten before it was roasted. Goats were observed becoming active when eating coffea berries. A shepherd took note, and made berry’s seeds consumable by roasting and grinding to draw flavor. Well, it’s legend but not bad chit-chat if you need any coffeehouse trivia.
The Rise Up Coffee team with owner Tim Cureton (second from right)
The News Center in Easton, a private bookstore with a large space devoted to coffee-making is like the coffee shop at Barnes & Noble in Annapolis and, speaking of books, clubs meet at the coffeehouses. When at Zü, teachers were meeting and that was right before the regular poetry reading group met. Coffee shops hire and train hundreds in our area who are taught coffee beaning or how to make beans sputter and spout for java drinks, and also learn latte art by etching a foamed milk on top of coffee with a stirrer.

As You Like It: Beethoven, the Barista, and the ‘God Shot’

While growing up under the A&P’s popularized brand so-named Eight O’Clock Coffee because most drank coffee at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., no one cared beans about coffee except to make sure they had a cup in the morning. Today, coffee is the world’s second largest commodity after oil, and origin and how the beans are roasted and where, is now part of the culture of drinking a good coffee today.

Coffee served here can come from obscure regions of the world like Tasmania and Papua New Guinea. Likewise, essences are added like Irish crèmes and chocolate raspberries to cinnamon buns and peppermint. The coffee house allure is one of the soda shop meet-up—malty and ice creamy—but now with that nutty base of espresso noir that takes more than a soda jerk to prepare. It takes a barista, the guy/gal behind the coffee counter who adroitly “pull” the espresso shots.

Attention to detail is not everybody’s cup of tea but a requirement of baristas who tend to attract the young. Jenna at Zü says, “They are a median age of 40 in Italy, but 18 to 25 in the States. Some are so well trained that they can pull the so-called, ‘God Shot,’ an espresso ‘so perfect it must have been touched by God.’”
City Dock Coffee owners Karen and Grover Gedney.
“You multi-task as you make the drinks and satisfy the customer,” says barista Luz Delgadillo. “Regulars come in and you know what they want; some are from other parts of the world, ordering drinks in foreign ways as though we know how,” she laughs. “And we figure it out. Quality espresso-making is a skill and most of us have burned our hand on the steam wand to learn,” recalls Luz, formally at The News Center in Easton, and still a barista at Blue Crab.

Maybe one of those particular world coffee drinkers at Luz’s counter could have been Beethoven, who insisted on the barista counting in front of him, 60 coffee beans for his cup. In the early 1800s the German-born classical music composer was part of a popular resurgence of coffee-drinkers from Belgium to Vienna, as new brewing gadgets were developed for pour-throughs and vacuum siphons—the extreme opposite of today’s mostly hand-less pod machine brewers. But Beethoven did hit a high note with local coffee goers today.

At Main Roots, where hand-made even extends to making their own cane sugar in house, “The Single Cup Pour-Over” can be ordered, where you watch before your eyes, a slow steady pour of piping hot water over perfectly measured sand-sized-grounds filter drip-by-drip to the cup-in-waiting below…and while you watch, you may indeed find yourself humming the 4th movement of Beethoven’s most famous 9th Sympohny. Popularized but dignified and taken as seriously then, just as now (from even the tiniest, and I can attest delicious and special grab-and-go drive-up coffee hut in Easton), today’s coffee expectations, even two centuries later, are more Beethovian than you might think.

Breaking the Foam: The Rise Up Story

We have many places to enjoy a cup of coffee on the Chesapeake including the chains like Dunkin’ Doughnuts and Wawa, but following on their heels in big-name status, Rise Up Coffee is creating a more global profile; it’s success is meteoric. Rise Up started 10 years ago in a one-man trailer and is now cooking beans for the Whole Foods chain in more than 40 stores in six states. Serving some 1,000 cups of coffee a day at all three Eastern Shore locations, Rise Up was recently named one of the 25 best coffeehouses in the world by BuzzFeed, the popular news and entertainment website.

“I think our little Rise Up is the next Starbucks,” says Sara Todos of Middletown, Delaware, who drives over to Easton for bags of Rise Up she describes as, “a delicious, balanced coffee; it’s organic too and worth my trouble to get here.”

Sitting with owner/founder Tim Cureton on a warm fall day, rock music playing through speakers with a cup of Rise Up that makes me feel, as it says on their front window, “So Good, You’ll Want to Dance,” I see Tim as evangelical, his beans by his side, rushing through a clear wind tunnel. Coffee is the third most pesticide sprayed crop in the world but Tim says, “We’re on a mission to serve 100 percent sustainable coffee and take the arrogance and pretentiousness out of it; you don’t have to get the words right here. We understand exactly what you mean.”
Even its milk is local from Nice Farms in Preston, and organic cream from Trickling Springs in Pennsylvania. Each cup is made by the baristas, pressing numerous French-pot glass carafes. If you buy the beans by the bag, the roasting date is on the bottom. “Freshness is where we make our mark,” says Tim, who responded mighty seriously when asking himself the same iconic question a famous movie cowboy once delivered, “Where can a guy get a good cuppa coffee around here?” Tim says he found his answer during a stint with the Peace Corps, during which he experienced coffee so pure and tasting so good that he had to bring it back home to the Eastern Shore.

Café Oh, Yay! Stir Crazy for You

Going for a coffee is a great way to make a date with someone, as it can do much for your heartfelt bonhomie. And finding the spot to meet is part of the fun like the old-fashioned soda fountain at Hill’s Drugs in Easton or the adventuresome hideaway there at the airport—Sugar Buns Café and Bakery.

We only covered a portion of where good coffee is served in these waters. One Sunday afternoon, while shopping with my visiting sister, we needed a liquid lift and a load off our wedgies, and I didn’t know where to take her when all of my favorite places were weekend closed. Now I know a lot more and I hope you do, too. There’s always a cup somewhere around the corner, and the future of coffee is bright. I’m still looking for an espresso I had elsewhere in the states called a Café Bombon made with sweetened condensed milk and served as a layered shot drink.

And farther away in Europe in Italy, they are doing a thing called the suspended coffee or caffe sospeso that began during hard times in World War II. A customer pays for two coffees to their one, leaving their receipt behind to be collected by a stranger as a simple act of generosity. Sounds good to me as a gesture of a cup of coffee can become an instant bond and all shyness sheds. I’m not that great of a coffee maker, which may be why the writer’s block today. Maybe I should get over to one of these coffeehouses for inspiration, letting the baristas do the coffee for me, unless of course, there’s such a thing as barista’s block. I doubt it. I hear there are power baristas now at national competitions—so Café Americano like of them, eh? But that’s another article and another cup of coffee!