Great coffee cafes in Baltimore: two more

City “brew” houses where coffee is a serious pleasure.

SPRO Beth Ann Wilson P Maddox Crow Jay Caragay

Beth Ann Wilson, who drinks 4-8 cups a day, at Spro, with owner Jay Caragay and barista P Maddox Crowe.

Photo by: Francine Halvorsen

After a recent piece profiling three distinctly different coffeehouses in the city, some readers piped up to ask why their favorite places were left out.

We’ve since been to Charmington’s in Remington and Spro in Hampden and file this report. (More posts to come on other worthy java places. Thanks for continued reader suggestions; I’m liking this project!)

Charmington’s name reflects the cafe’s location at the crossroads of Charles Village and Remington. Residents of both neighborhoods, students, builders, architects, web developers, non-profit types and artists gather in the bright, airy room with the big windows to do their social networking the old-fashioned way.

With Single Carrot Theatre moving in across the street (to 2600 N. Howard St., now a tire shop) there will presumably, in a few years, be theater folks in there as well.

Cappucino in a sunny window table at Charmington's - sweet! (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Cappuccino at a sunny window table at Charmington’s – sweet. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

The cafe is the brainchild of David Buscher, the former owner of the “green” home furnishing store, Blue House.

As with Blue House, Charmington’s is run on a co-op model with workers as shareholders.

It’s located in Miller’s Court, a red-brick former tin box and can factory, converted by Seawall Development into apartments for city school teachers and office space for non-profits.

If there’s a vibe to the place, they didn’t stage-manage it, though, says Amanda Rothschild, the managing partner and an alum of Blue House.

“The atmosphere of a place like this can’t be too intentional,” Rothschild said. “We educate ourselves about our product, but our relationship to our guests is spontaneous.”

Charmington's head barista, Adrienne Kinsey, and managing partner, Amanda Rothschild. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Charmington’s head barista, Adrienne Kinsey, and managing partner, Amanda Rothschild. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

She said Charmington’s grinds their beans as they go and uses Counter Culture  blends that “are never roasted more than two weeks before we get them.”

They do an occasional “flavored” coffee, but not with chemicals. (Their November pumpkin latte was flavored with actual pumpkin.)

Head barista Adrienne Kinsey, previously a pharmacy technician, fills beverage requests with the same scientific attention to detail. They offer house-made sweet baked goods, delicious soups and made-to-order sandwiches.

While I was there I drank a really tasty cappuccino and nibbled at a super-rich oatmeal cookie, made that morning. On leaving, I took a lighter blend in a to-go container and enjoyed it even as it cooled.It was the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from the Idido Cooperative . Counter Culture’s website has a description of the coffee and the farm.

A quirk that I appreciate: they shut down the WiFi each day from 11 am to 2 pm.

2601 North Howard St.
Mon-Fri: 6 am to 9 pm
Sat: 8:30 am to 9 pm
Sun: 8:30 am to 8 pm

As our coffee crawl moves up one neighborhood to the north, we come to the place people frequently cite as “Exhibit A” when arguing that cutting-edge coffee culture exists in Baltimore – Spro Coffee Hampden.

Jay Caragay, owner and barista, is the creative force behind this unique coffee house. He brings encyclopedic coffee knowledge and a sense of pleasure to the job. Finding his first Baltimore food venture (Jay’s Shave Ice) too seasonal, Caragay moved on to coffee, journeying to Hawaii’s famed Kona region to learn coffee from the ground up.

Now, Spro (a barista’s slang for espresso) is one of the few coffee houses in town that multi-sources its roasters, from Hawaii to Ethiopia to Latin America.

SPRO owner Jay Caragay brings an encyclopedic knowledge of coffee to his Hampden cafe. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Owner Jay Caragay brings an encyclopedic knowledge of coffee to his Hampden cafe, Spro. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

“No one supplier can really provide enough variety to please the urge for the full range of tastes,” he told me on a recent visit to their shop on 36th Street (aka “The Avenue”).

I started out by tasting an Arabica, bourbon coffee from Chiapas, Mexico. Caragay makes it in a vacuum coffee pot, a style that was popular 50 years ago and is now used mainly in Japan. (The Japanese, I recently learned, are on a quest for coffee perfection. They’re now the third largest importer of coffee beans in the world.)

Spro uses both single origin and blended beans. They also use beans processed in a variety of ways.  Most coffee is “wet-processed,” meaning the husk and wet membrane around the coffee berry is removed before the coffee is dried.

But there’s also an older and less frequently used method, in which the beans are air dried till the husks are cracked open and the gel-like membrane is mainly absorbed by the coffee berry. This process adds more complex notes to the flavor.

Another Spro patron, Jack, the self-proclaimed "nosiest person in Hampden." (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Another Spro patron, Jack, the self-proclaimed “nosiest person in Hampden.” (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

In either case, the green coffee beans are stored until they are roasted. In fact, Spro boasts a stock of “vintage” beans.

As I talked with Caragay, I drank a cup made from beans harvested in 2007 and roasted at Spro only the week before. (Most aficionados say coffee is best drunk within two weeks of roasting.)

The second cup I drank was surprising in its contrast. It was a 2012 Harar Arabica bean from Ethiopia and roasted at Spro. (They use some already-roasted beans and also roast small batches themselves on the premises.)

Caragay buys directly-traded micro lots from growers as far afield as Chiapas, Mexico and Harar, Ethiopia. Exploring Spro’s variety of small batch offerings is not only fun, but it helps define your palate as you discover top notes, sugars and acids balanced to your liking.

Spro, on The Avenue, in Hampden. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Spro, on The Avenue, in Hampden. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

You can also discover which method of brewing produces coffee you prefer: vacuum siphon over a small portable burner, filtered pour-overs, French press, espresso machine.

The breakfast and lunch menu is small but choice. The soups and sandwiches are always made to order. Some pastries are made by Josef Poupon, others by Sarah, and my favorite – the delicious and very pretty French filled assorted macaroons – are made by Marieta Caragay, a Baltimore pediatrician and Caragay’s mom.

The ambience at Spro is very like a workshop, no music or WiFi. You’ll find a large array of coffee-makers are prominently displayed, many of them for sale. You can also select from a large assortment of beans to buy as well.

The space is a little narrow and can feel a crowded when people are waiting for takeout. If the weather is mild there is tiny outdoor space in the rear that you might find free.

I asked barista P Maddox Crowe what she liked best about working there. Without skipping a beat, she said, “I like the coffee.” Perhaps that best describes the reason people are passionate about the place.

All the baristas know how to make coffee that is as good as it gets. And if you are there when Caragay is, ask him anything you have ever wanted to know about coffee.
Spro Hampden
851 West 36th Street
Mon-Wed: 7am to 7pm
Thu-Fri: 7am to 9pm
Sat: 8am to 9pm
Sun: 9am to 6pm

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