Is a new breed of suburban entrepreneurs creating coffee’s next wave
The steaming cup is offered to me with great reverence, its curls of vapor encircling my road-weary head.
And the aroma emanating from this modern-day chalice is … blueberries! There’s no mistaking that sweet berry aroma. I take a sip and get a big hit of liquid blueberry cobbler. It’s as startling as it is delectable.
“Wine isn’t the only place to find terroir,” says Dr. Richard Berman, co-owner of Pour Richard’s Coffee Co. in Devon. “Isn’t it amazing? Coffee like this is what makes this place so much fun.”
Berman had served me a cup of Ethiopian 405, and was referring to the unique flavors imparted by soil and climate, most notably to grapes and, apparently, to coffee beans. I drank Berman’s offering black, something I rarely do, but this was a coffee that needed no augmentation. It was one of several extraordinary coffees I sampled while discovering a passionate community of suburban artisan roasters that ring Philadelphia.
A Quick History Lesson
Berman didn’t know it at the time (he does now), but like so many of his bean-brewing brethren, he was carrying on a millennia-strong Jewish tradition of coffee education and hospitality. From its origins in Ethiopia over 1,000 years ago, coffee has always been a vital social engine. The first actual coffeehouses opened in Constantinople in the mid-1500s and spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, according to Israeli professor of history Elliott Horowitz in his article “Coffee, Coffeehouses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry.” Religious Jews drank coffee to stay alert for nightly devotions, and it was a Jew who brought the concept to Europe, opening the first coffeehouse in Livorno, Italy in 1632. By 1650, a Lebanese national known only as “Jacob the Jew” opened the first coffeehouse in Oxford, England. Sephardic Jews took control of the commerce as coffee traders, along with Armenian and Greek merchants, and brought coffeehouse culture to the Netherlands, Austria and France. Vienna’s “café culture” was an incubator for Jewish intelligentsia, according to Horowitz, where writers, playwrights, psychologists and journalists could mingle and exchange ideas for the price of a cup of coffee. The American and French revolutions were planned in coffeehouses. Coffee then took hold in the Revolutionary era as a result of the Boston Tea Party, which branded tea drinking as unpatriotic.
Fast-forward 240 years to America’s birthplace, where the coffee scene has exploded, often described by its purveyors in terms of waves: Starbucks was the first wave, spreading its Seattle style of coffeehouses like McDonald’s built its burger empire. Philadelphia’s La Colombe, with its ultra-premium coffees and laid-back cafes (and its roster of top-tier restaurant clients) began the second wave of coffee appreciation. Smaller, artisanal roasters with names like ReAnimator, Rival Bros., Elixr and Counter Culture, and the dozens of coffee houses that serve their brewed beans are the so-called third wave. A fourth wave — Wave 3.5? — may be the exciting, quirky, romantic craft coffee boom in the ‘burbs.
Magic on the Main Line
It’s all about nuance at 18-month-old Pour Richard’s, a warm, sunny porch of a café with a glowing coffee counter covered in pennies, a small roaster tucked into a corner and the irrepressible Berman speaking in hushed tones about his coffees, the coffee farms in Costa Rica he’s discovered, the rigorous trial and error of roasting, and all the variables of just one varietal on his roster of exotic beans. He loves to talk about those berry-scented Ethiopian beans — the company’s most popular — and to watch people discover all those flavor nuances at his Sunday afternoon public cuppings.
“It’s exciting to have people find out what coffee can really taste like without adding non-coffee additives,” Berman says, referring to the tastings he uses as informal classes on coffee education. “Sometimes I don’t know yet what roasting level we will choose when we try a new bean for our coffees. We all learn something.”
His soothing manner — Berman is also a dentist — barely contains the passion he has for his hobby-turned-business. “We just sold our last of the Ethiopian 405, probably for the year,” he confides. “But I’ve just added two new Ethiopians, a Kenyan, a Sulawesi and our first ‘honey processed’ coffee from El Salvador!” Ask Berman’s baristas to make you a cup of his Sumatra Harimau Tiger, with notes of pineapple, lime and coconut, or his ultra-rare Panama Boquete, sweetly floral and honeyed. Their guidance makes coffee drinking a sensual experience. You’ll never want to leave.
Unless you wander just a mile and a half east to Wayne, the Main Line’s red-hot restaurant row, for a visit to one of the most romantic boites for coffee you’ll ever find. In an unassuming colonial storefront just steps from the Wayne Theater hides a swoony, high-ceilinged room, its walls cluttered with oil paintings, watercolors and framed photography (all for sale) called the Gryphon Café. Dreamy-eyed couples and laptop-gazing singles fill the tables and upstairs lounge. Four towering windows at the back of the room reveal a staged garden scene, complete with dappled sunlight or moody twilight, creating an Old World atmosphere unlike any coffeehouse in the region.
Owner Rich Mattis has been roasting his own beans for about 3 years, first at the café (it opened in 1996) and now in a warehouse in Norristown. Like Berman, he has developed direct relationships with small organic coffee farmers, and one Guatemalan farm in particular, whose San Escobar beans he really enjoys.
“It’s been very important to really get closer to the growers of my coffee,” says Mattis. “It has taught me so much.” He is one of a very few certified quality graders in the local bean scene, and takes great pride in the careful processes of his bean selection and roasting.
You may have already sipped Mattis’ coffees at Teresa’s and Christopher’s restaurants in Wayne and the Bean coffee house in Conshohocken. You may have also discovered Gryphon’s new second location, an art-filled industrial space in the Oxford Mills residential-office complex in rapidly gentrifying South Kensington, just north of Fishtown. It was there that Mattis and I tasted cups of “natural process” Ethiopian Abeya, very floral and fruity, with notes and aromas of strawberry jam, and a “washed” coffee from Rwanda with hints of lemongrass, citrus and peaches. Gryphon’s medium-roast Louella, the company’s most popular, is enticingly aromatic and silky in the mouth, while the Vigor espresso roast is an equally soft sip with a bigger, smoky finish. Mattis roasts another bean blend more darkly, a counterpoint to Vigor. He calls it Vim. “We get playful with the names,” Mattis acknowledges.
Coffee is serious business. Roughly 54 percent of Americans — over 100 million of us — drink coffee every day, spending $165 billion for our java every year. But like the growing appeal of craft beer and organic produce, coffee drinkers are upgrading their caffeine fix from Folgers and Dunkin Donuts to more exotic-sounding brews with pedigrees. Chicken sandwich chain Chick Fil-A now sells a surprisingly complex and tasty specialty-grade “farmer direct” coffee in its stores, nothing like the thin, afterthought coffee served up by most fast-fooders. Even the ubiquitous Starbucks is upping its game, opening 100 luxe coffee bars called Starbucks Reserve Roastery, to lure lovers of high-end coffee with beans roasted on-site for as much as $45 a bag.
Similarly, La Colombe has created a showplace coffee emporium in Fishtown, in a soaring space replete with open ductwork, wood-burning oven, wine and beer on tap, a gift shop and an adjacent rum distillery turning out bottles of Different Drum, its coffee-infused spirit flavored with rare Panamanian Geisha beans.
They actually make an exquisite (and pricey) cup of coffee with those beans, too, hand-poured into an individual glass carafe and then into a hand-painted cup and saucer. It is an impressive indulgence, with layers of citrus, almond and salt air flavors, worth every penny of its $6 price tag. And customers seem perfectly willing to pay the high tariff to sit on curved benches and hard chairs while the venue’s baristas, bakers and other workers buzz around the place like commuters in a small train station. The coffees, baked goods and the rum (available for purchase by the bottle) are well worth a visit.
Cracking the Coffee Code
The rolling hills and farmland around Souderton, in northern Montgomery County, seem an unlikely place to find a dedicated band of coffee enthusiasts — and the folks at One Village Coffee like it that way. Head roaster Stephen Hoffman and his friendly crew of helpers roast about 2,000 pounds of beans a week in a small warehouse on a quiet country road, creating a variety of roastings impressive enough to get the attention of upscale grocery giant Whole Foods, where you may have seen their simple white pouches for sale.
Hoffman fastidiously tests beans using a micro roaster in his office, where he can concentrate all of his senses. “Aroma is key, of course, but so are the visuals and the sounds,” he confides. “I watch how the green beans turn color and I listen for that ‘first crack,’ when the heat cracks open the bean, and soon after, I might start sampling. I might take it to a ‘second crack’ — a darker roast — but not always. We like medium roasts and blends.”
One Village’s Artist Blend is a good example of that aesthetic, a mix of medium and dark roasted organic Honduran beans from a farm cooperative. “A mélange, really,” adds Hoffman, “not a 50-50 mix, but great toasty, caramel and dark chocolate flavors.” He brewed a cup of a seasonal blend called Winter Wonderland on my visit, carefully measuring the beans on a scale and pouring heated spring water into a filtered carafe. The coffee was stunning: slightly smoky and nutty, it smelled — and tasted — like a cup enjoyed in front of a roaring fire.
Roasting on the River
Head 45 minutes northeast of Souderton, to the postcard-pretty village of Upper Black Eddy, on the banks of the Delaware, and you’ll find the Homestead General Store, like something from another time. Locals gravitate here for groceries, breakfast, hearty soups, sandwiches and leisurely conversation on the front porch and at rustic tables inside and on a patio that opens to a canal towpath and lush woods. Just next door, the aromas of roasting coffee escape a restored 19th-century barn on the towpath, where brothers Michael and Trevor Lewis and Carolyn Gadbois have been the heart and soul (and only employees) of Homestead Coffee Roasters, turning out a wide variety of coffees, teaching proper coffee service to restaurant employees in their tasting room/classroom, and experimenting with aging and flavoring the beans they source from around the world.
Michael Lewis showed me a small sample of roasted beans that he first aged in a barrel from Dad’s Hat rye distillery in Bristol (cleverly nicknamed “The Manhattan Project”). I’d never smelled a coffee like it before: smoky, spicy, boozy and vanilla all swirled together. “We’re definitely going to do this again,” Lewis says. “The first batch sold out very quickly. Our next experiment will be with port wine barrels, and after that, a Woodford Reserve bourbon barrel.
“We want to be at the forefront of getting people excited about coffee,” adds Lewis, “but we also want to experiment. We don’t want to make boring coffee. And we’re small enough and personal enough to get it right. We’re getting into more restaurants and shops, so that’s a good sign.”
Homestead’s coffees have made it into restaurants and shops in the Lehigh Valley, Central New Jersey and most recently, New York City (and, yes, Whole Foods). The general store sells the coffee in bulk. Their darker roasts really display Lewis’ considerable skill at blending and roasting. Black Eddy’s Darkness, their most popular, is a blend of African and Indonesian beans roasted dark brown-black and oily, yet it is richly sweet and smoky without a trace of bitterness; Dead Man’s Brew, an Italian roast as black as night, shows even more finesse, with room-filling aromas and notes of fine dark chocolate and pepper — an unforgettable cup of coffee.
Across the river and a short ride south of Homestead’s idyllic setting, David Waldman has created one of the quirkiest and most interesting places for coffee in the Delaware Valley. A modern-day Renaissance man, Waldman has been an attorney, a Sony Music executive, a country-and-western musician (touring with George Jones and Willie Nelson) and music director of the Grand Ole Opry. He’s also an expert woodworker and plays a mean pedal steel guitar and cello. And he is most definitely a coffee fanatic, devoting the last 10 to 12 years of his life to coffee study and the creation of Rojo’s Roastery in Lambertville, housed in a former toilet bowl factory on the northern end of town.
“Rojo’s is the culmination of a lot of different skills,” says Waldman, “and years of study in organic chemistry, and in developing my senses of taste and smell, with the goal of releasing the intrinsic taste potential of the coffee bean.”
The lofty, restored space in Lambertville is part coffee house, part roastery, part warehouse, part Willy Wonka laboratory, at once relaxing and then a flurry of activity. Waldman is usually at the center of that activity, piling burlap bags of beans onto shelves from a small forklift, tending to his centerpiece fire engine-red roaster, calibrating digital measuring equipment, tasting sample roasts alone or with others, advising and selling customers on some of the high-end coffee-making equipment he retails there (there are two other strictly coffee bar branches of Rojo’s in Hopewell and Princeton, N.J.).
It is a coffeehouse without pretense, but with purpose. “We saw a need here for a place like this,” says Waldman. “Think of it as a Trojan horse for a community center. People hang out, have meetings, work, play chess, drink great coffee. We have jam sessions on Saturday nights with name musicians — we call it our house band — and we pack the place.”
Rojo’s offers over two dozen different roasts, many of single-origin beans, and some distinctive blends. Its most popular roast, Midwives’ Moonshine, is a snappy, robust Italian roast with dark chocolate bitterness; Bosco’s Blend is a sweeter, fuller, fruitier French-style coffee. Waldman even makes a blend of beans for thick, old-school Turkish coffee.
“Rojo’s is the expression of my passion now, my art,” says Waldman, proudly. “But I also think we’re the only coffee house in the world with a house band and a forklift!” o
Richard Pawlak is Inside’s chief beverage correspondent. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.