You may slam down your morning Joe every day, but did you know there is subtlety and complexity in good coffee that’s worth slowing down for?
At Artifact Coffee, a funky, high-ceilinged coffee emporium on Union Avenue that opened in June, they’ve got patrons swirling their caffeinated brew in tasting cups and (in a recent National Public Radio feature) discerning the “grassy” hints, “carmel-y notes,” “light creamy mouth-feel” and even a whiff of arugula.
Setting out to write about Baltimore’s premium coffee spots, I had pondered whether to begin by noting coffee’s health benefits (it seems to modestly increase longevity) or the fact that coffee is big business (the $4 billion we spend annually importing it, puts my morning fuel right up there with petroleum.)
But I think I’ll go with the deeper truth at the bottom of the cup – that coffee can be just as nuanced as a well-aged Bordeaux and that a growing number of cafes in Baltimore prepare it with the skill and respect it deserves. Here are three (please feel free, readers, to recommend others):
My visits in recent weeks to Artifact, in the restored Union Mills complex, gave me a chance to sample their product and to talk to Allie Caran. Artifact is a Woodberry Kitchen project and Caran heads the coffee program for both Woodberry and Artifact.
An artisanal glassblower, Caran met Woodberry’s Spike and Amy Gjerde when she and her colleagues were installing light fixtures at the soon-to-be-opened restaurant. She told me that at Artifact about 85 percent of coffee drinkers (such a precise estimate!) take the time to sit down and enjoy the moment in true coffee house style.
“When people come here first thing in the morning, their defenses are down and they want some human engagement,” she said. “The people who work here understand that coffee is only part of the experience.” (As Mid-Atlantic representative to the Barista Guild of America, Caran knows whereof she speaks.)
I mentioned to Caran that I favored espresso-based drinks and she suggested a macchiato, probably the most unforgiving.
If you are thinking Starbucks macchiato – forget about it. Macchiato is “marked” in Italian and the drink is an espresso topped (marked) with milk foam. This one was the best I can remember having. It was Counter Culture’s Espresso Toscano, topped with foam from Trickling Springs Creamery organic milk.
Artifact’s pastry is baked by the Woodberry pastry team just down the road. The croissants and other layered dough goodies can’t be beat. There are many other pastries to choose from, as well as a full breakfast and lunch menu.
1500 Union Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21211
Mon-Fri: 7 am – 5 pm
Sat-Sun: 9 am – 5 pm
At LAMILL COFFEE, the gestalt was part chemistry lab, part epicurean kitchen, with special brewing techniques and equipment, as well as food selections meant to pair well with specific kinds of coffee.
The coffee and espresso drinks served at this slinky establishment in Baltimore’s Four Seasons hotel are, not surprisingly, roasted by LAMILL COFFEE. in Alhambra, Calif. CEO Craig Min founded it in 1998. The company’s buyers visit relatively small coffee farms in Latin America and develop relationships with them so that they deal directly with LAMILL.
The coffee I tasted the day I visited was from El Tambor, from the Palencia region of Guatemala at an elevation of 5,000 feet. The body varies with the method of preparation, as it will with all coffee. Kris Fulton, the café manager, is at home in a caffeinated environment. One of his previous jobs was as the barista at the former Blue House.
Fulton approaches the making of coffee with great precision, using elegant coffee makers that resemble lab equipment. The first was the Eva Solo, a Pyrex French press-type of coffee maker with its own zip-up neoprene wetsuit. I was eager to try it with the savory accompaniment that Fulton recommended: a Mushroom and Goat cheese Pop Pie.
Quite honestly I was prepared to be disappointed. I have never thought of coffee as an accompaniment to anything but breakfast food or as a stand-alone espresso-based drink. But it worked. The black coffee was mild with no acidic mouthfeel, and the combination was a learning experience for me.
The second brew technique was with a Hario V60. It is a ceramic Melita filter-type drip top, with curved ridges on its slopes descending into a wide aperture. An organic paper filter is placed into it, the coffee measured and the hot water poured. If I hadn’t seen it being made I would not have thought it the same coffee as the Eve Solo method. To my taste it had a viscous quality that coated my tongue and none of the sweeter tones of the first.
The accompaniment, LAMILL’s famous beignets, did not disappoint. They are at least neck and neck with Café du Monde in New Orleans and maybe even have a slight edge.
The third preparation method was the Hario Siphon Method, which is the most like a science experiment and a lot of fun to watch. The equivalent of a 2-cup once-popular Silex coffee maker, it’s set over a small gas burner, hot water is put in the bottom sphere, coffee in the top glass tube.
The burner is lit, the water boils up through the coffee and filters back down to the glass bottom. It seems a fine way to linger after dinner and the coffee was, to my taste, as good as the first, though a bit stronger. It was paired with griddle-crisped zucchini bread that didn’t stand out as much as the other two I’d tried.
LAMILL also offers classic espresso and espresso-based drinks, but in this weather I favor their cold-water-brewed iced espresso.
Fulton has a background in photography and uses his keen eye to make sure everyone’s coffee experience is aesthetically pleasing. He has a great room to do it. The three-story glass walls give a full view of the Harbor and in good weather there are few outdoor tables.
The pastries were by executive pastry chef Chris Ford, who provides pastries for the adjacent Wit and Wisdom.
Four Seasons Hotel
2000 International Drive
Mon. – Sun.: 7am – 6 pm
At Baltimore’s venerable homegrown coffee houses, like Zeke’s Coffee Shop, in Hamilton, you won’t find much outré brewing glassware. But as Thomas Rhodes, the head honcho at the Zeke’s puts it, a good bean, well-roasted and simply brewed needs no bells and whistles.
“I want the coffee shop to be a comfortable place to hang out,” he told me on a recent visit, as I sipped a cup of Brazilian Santos that was a nice mild mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
Indeed, it was humming that day, with locals stopping in for bags of coffee, cups of coffee, sandwiches and pastries made at the nearby Hamilton Bakery.
Zeke’s also caffeinates Baltimore via the various farmers’ markets and by being the house brew at some of the best and most interesting restaurants in the city, as diverse as The Black Olive, di Pasquale’s, Gertrude’s, Chameleon Café and Bo Brooks.
Rhodes says one of his secrets is quality beans, from a particular New Jersey coffee broker he favors. All the beans they offer are hand-picked and for the most part from sustainable estate farms in hilly parts of South America. (Large commercial roasters get their less flavorful beans from flatland plantations that machines can harvest and pack and grind.)
His other secret is the roasting. The beans are roasted under watchful eyes, removed at the right moment for the designated style, cooled, and packed as individual varietals or mixed into one of the signature blends.
“If you choose to grind it yourself, a burr pass-through grinder is best,” he notes. “The little spice grinders produce a very uneven result.”
(I was surprised to hear that all of Zeke’s Coffee has been roasted in the two twelve-pound roasters they’ve had since November of 2005, when the business started. Soon they will be the proud owners of a 36-pound roaster.)
There are other changes afoot for the Zeke’s folks. They recently opened a branch in Pittsburgh, though Rhodes says he doesn’t want to over-extend and is waiting to see how that goes.
He’s not planning on any fancy new brewing paraphernalia at the moment and his main advice to those who want to savor coffee’s subtler qualities is to drink it as he does: black.
And to perhaps try the current favorite with Zeke’s customers, the Black-and-Orange blend:
“It combines Brazilian and Columbian beans that are French-roasted, smooth and bittersweet.”
Zeke’s Coffee Shop
4607 Harford Road