Raising The Bar-ista: Pouring Over The State of D.C.’s Coffee Culture

This article first appeared in Washington City Paper on January 5, 2017

The District got coffee for Christmas. The Cup We All Race 4 opened inside The LINE DC Hotel on Dec. 20. So did two fresh locations of Compass Coffee downtown. Two days later, the biggest Dolcezza to date opened at The Wharf, and New York-based Gregorys Coffee debuted at 19th and L streets NW on Dec. 12.

The growth in coffee shops D.C. saw in just 10 days in December is not an anomaly. Coffee—specifically third-wave coffee and speciality coffee—is booming locally and the industry as a whole is maturing.

“Seven years ago when I started, people in D.C. didn’t know what specialty coffee was,” says Daps Salisbury, a barista at Georgetown’s Blue Bottle Coffee. Salisbury recalls, while working at Dolcezza back then, coaxing customers out of sticker shock and explaining why pour-over coffee takes time.

Specialty coffee accounts for a small percentage of the java sipped around the world. It’s defined by the Specialty Coffee Association as hailing from geographic microclimates and having unique flavor profiles that score at least 80 out of 100 points in the organization’s cupping test.

After coffee’s popularity spread in the 1960’s with the advent of instant coffee from companies like Folgers, major chains like Starbucks made drinking coffee an experience for the masses with customizable espresso drinks. Following these two “waves,” the third wave brought about heightened interest in quality and artisanship that can be compared to craft beer’s meteoric rise. Professionals today carefully roast and brew specialty beans to draw out the best flavor.

“Now D.C. has become a city for young working professionals,” Salisbury continues. “People flocking to cities have a greater awareness of specialty coffee. They have an idea of what they want when they come in.”

Statistics back the idea that a more youthful population begets better coffee for all. At a 2014 coffee conference, Tracy Ging, chief commercial officer at S&D Coffee & Tea, offered some data: millennials started drinking coffee earlier in life (between 15 and 17) as compared to Generation X-ers, who held off until 19. Those between 18 and 35 also drink more coffee away from home.

The founder of Hyattsville-based roastery Vigilante Coffee agrees with Salisbury. “Before it was like, ‘That’s fancy coffee,’ and now it’s, ‘This is good coffee, this is what I’m going to drink most days,’” Chris Vigilante says. “We pay for great quality beer. We’re accustomed to that. Coffee is more of a learning curve, but you have to think about the labor that goes into it.”

To understand D.C.’s coffee culture, Young & Hungry spoke with a variety of professionals to learn what we’re drinking, where we’re drinking it, and who’s making it.

What We’re Drinking

When the term third-wave was first used in 2002 by Trish Rothgeb, there were three major specialty coffee roasters in the U.S.: North Carolina’s Counter Culture, Chicago’s Intelligentsia, and Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

“When I first moved here, most cafes serving speciality coffee were serving Counter Culture,” Vigilante says. He founded his company in 2012, giving D.C. specialty shops the opportunity to brew locally roasted beans. “At the time it was just me and Joel Finkelstein at Qualia.”

Fast-forward five years and you can find Vigilante Coffee at more than 100 businesses. “We roasted just over 150,000 pounds of coffee in 2017,” Vigilante says. His company gained three new wholesale partners in October alone.

The D.C. area is now home to several additional local roasters, including Compass Coffee, an offshoot of Peregrine Espresso called Small Planes Coffee, and Rare Bird Coffee Roasters.

Chad McCracken, who co-owns The Wydown on 14th Street NW and H Street NE, is happy to have variety. “Five or six years ago it was a Counter Culture heavy town,” he says. “Having more diverse options in terms of roasters is really nice.”

“Specialty coffee is booming in the region, but is still way behind other cities,” argues Bruce White. He owns Baltimore-based Perfect Brew Services and has been the main coffee equipment supplier and mechanic in the Mid-Atlantic for a decade. “There are lots of people starting to do their own roasting nationwide. Lots of people can make green beans brown, and some are pretty good, but the challenge is how to make it consistent.”

D.C. is also experiencing an influx of major out-of-town roasters. Philadelphia’s La Colombe already has five D.C. locations and the Bay Area’s Blue Bottle Coffee planted a cafe in Georgetown.

“It’s not quite validating, but it recognizes that there’s a specialty coffee market here in D.C. that’s been overlooked for a long time,” says Reggie Elliott, the coffee director for The Cup We All Race 4 and A Rake’s Progress from Spike Gjerde inside The LINE DC Hotel.

Where We’re Drinking It

“Over the past five years there was a boom of shops,” says Potter’s House barista Adam JacksonBey. He’s worked in coffee for six years and plans to launch two coffee businesses this year—Avalon and Tell Coffee. “You see a lot of shops clustering in an area. The biggest example is 14th Street [NW].” The corridor has The Wydown, Colada Shop, Peet’s Coffee, Peregrine Espresso, Dolcezza, and Slipstream.

“There are plenty of neighborhoods in need of specialty coffee,” Vigilante says. “There are coffee shops, but I don’t think there is world-class coffee on a widespread level yet.” He points to Colony Club in Park View as an example of a shop that took a chance on a neighborhood instead of only eyeing established coffee hubs.

Because it takes significant capital to open a coffee shop, there are very few proprietors who can make decisions free from investor input, and the result is areas cut off from specialty coffee, according to JacksonBey. “Investors will want you to put it somewhere with quick growth potential,” he says. “Maybe the second or third shop, you take a shot somewhere.”

McCracken set out to open both locations of The Wydown in dense neighborhoods with foot traffic and a mix of commercial and residential surroundings. “The affluence of the population is also a possible factor,” he says. “Our coffee is not cheap. We know that.”

Who’s Making It

Just as bartenders gained name recognition and new career opportunities with the craft cocktail movement, baristas are finding their way to financially viable careers within their field. Competitions, educational opportunities, and the diversification of the profession are contributing factors.

When Salisbury started as a barista there was a high turnover rate. “Back then there was no career path, so you had to cut your own,” says Salisbury. “As the industry has grown and demand for skilled baristas has increased, many experienced coffee pros won’t stick around for a job that doesn’t provide a living wage. It’s an employee’s market.”

There are also now jobs outside of the traditional coffee shop, including consultant gigs or positions within full-service restaurants. “Restaurants give baristas another avenue for expanding our skill set,” Elliott says. “With the cocktail and food scenes reaching out to the coffee scene more, that will help the coffee scene grow.”

“I’ve been able to live in D.C. for six years on a barista salary,” JacksonBey adds. “More people will be able to do that.” The coffee shop boom has created hundreds of jobs and most major cafes have a dedicated staffer to swiftly train-up new employees. McCracken says 80 percent of people he hires have no coffee experience. “I can teach you how to make coffee,” he says. “I can’t teach you to be nice and kind.”

Diverse baristas make D.C.’s coffee culture distinctive. Take the U.S. Coffee Championship preliminaries that were held in September in D.C. as a litmus test. “There’s women and queer people and people of color,” Salisbury says. In contrast, Salisbury noticed that heterosexual white males dominated winners circles in other cities. Men made up the top eight in both Colorado and Seattle.

JacksonBey, who is African-American, plans to compete in New Orleans this year. “Traditionally it’s been a lot of white males that have won or done really well for reasons like money,” he explains. Those with the funds can hire a coach or afford better beans. “When two or three points separate 3rd from 4th place, that all comes into play.”

The tightly bonded D.C. barista community is on display at monthly Thursday Night Throwdown (TNT) events. Elliott, JacksonBey, and Salisbury are the current organizers of the decade-old, monthly latte art competitions. The next one is Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. inside Takoma Beverage Company.

“Looking at the baristas I interact with at TNTs and other events, there is no typical D.C. barista,” Dawn Shanks says. She’s the head coffee quality manager for Peregrine Espresso. “A lot of baristas are focused on inclusivity in a way that I used to take for granted.”

Shanks wears a special “Force Majeure” pin at work. She and two other baristas, Sarah Rice Scott and Lenora Yerkes, made and sold them to almost 150 coffee professionals in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. “It’s a statement pin worn by baristas who oppose the SCA’s decision to hold a competition in a country where some participating baristas may feel unsafe,” Shanks says. Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is the host of the 2018 World Coffee Championships. “Of course we all think this is wrong and we want to brainstorm a solution,” Shanks says.

The SCA is moving ahead as planned, but adding an option for competitors to defer. JacksonBey says the backlash they got was important. “It got a lot of voices heard that wouldn’t have been heard two or three years ago.”

JacksonBey, Salisbury, and Elliott argue the next important step is promoting LGBTQ baristas and baristas of color into positions of leadership. “We need a wider range of people who run these shops,” Elliott says. “There’s more to coffee than tattooed white guys, and with D.C.’s gentrification issue, it’s even more important to embrace diversity.”

 

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