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Something’s Brewing
After lagging behind other cities for years, Baltimore suddenly has a legitimate coffee scene.

Michael Wood, owner of High Grounds Coffee Roasters in Highlandtown, presses the single shot button on his 2-week-old La Marzocco Linea espresso maker—what he calls the “Ferrari of espresso makers”—and the sleek chrome machine whirs to life.

The water, already heated to a toasty 205 degrees, is forced through the ground beans and after 20 seconds, Wood catches it in a cup beneath a spout. He tilts the cup, revealing a mocha-colored foam. “What we have here floating on the top is called crema and the various colorizations are called tiger stripes,” he says. “That’s where all the fats are, the sugar. When I tilt the cup you can’t even see coffee. That’s crema so thick you could surf on it!”

Across town in Roland Park, Lindsay DiFabbio, the coffee auteur for Johnny’s in Roland Park, is equally jazzed about her new toy, a K-10 Fresh espresso grinder by a Spanish company called Compak. The $2,000 gizmo lets DiFabbio control grinding time for a single or double shot to within a tenth of a second. “As far as I know, it’s the only one in the city, and it’s really cool.”

In case you haven’t noticed, Charm City is riding a caffeine-spiked wave of sorts. With the recent openings of specialty coffee shops like Johnny’s, Lamill, Artifact and Spro and continued success of small-batch roasters such as High Grounds, Spoons and Zeke’s, Baltimore suddenly has a legitimate coffee scene. DiFabbio goes one step further: “Baltimore,” she says, “is about to become a huge coffee town.”

Not bad for a place that had only one free-standing Starbucks as late as 2004, and whose mayor at the time, Martin O’Malley, practically begged the company to open up more outlets because “real cities” had lots of Starbucks.

Now baristas are bragging about their Italian-sourced espresso machines, holding coffee cuppings or tastings and educating coffee drinkers about using alternative brewing methods like a Chemex, Abid Clever or a vac pot. 

“It’s all part of the third wave,” says Jay Caragay, the owner of Spro in Hampden, referring to a national coffee movement that began about 10 years ago.

Coffee’s first wave, according to Caragay, was characterized by “coffee in a can,” supermarket brands like Folgers and Maxwell House. The second wave took place in the ’80s and ’90s as national chains like Peet’s and Starbucks introduced Americans to lattes and double frappuccinos. Now, like the ubiquitous farm-to-table movement in restaurants, progressive, independent coffee houses are putting a greater emphasis on quality, preparation and sourcing beans with the farmer’s welfare in mind. 

Credit Caragay, 43, with helping propagate the movement in Charm City. Like the French Laundry’s famed chef Thomas Keller and his progeny of cooks who have gone on to open their own restaurants, Caragay has been training the third wave of Baltimore’s coffee baristas as they set out on their own. He counts Johnny’s DiFabbio, Lamill’s head barista Becka Dowding and Bonnie Hohman, owner of BB’s Café in the Towson Public Library, as former employees.

“Jay has the ability to impress the art of the craft and stay true to what quality coffee is all about,” says Hohman, who worked for Caragay when Spro was located in the Towson library. “He really is the go-to guy around town and has passed on his knowledge to us baristas. He’s internationally known and has helped create the coffee culture as we know it—here and around the world.”

“He’s a genius,” says High Grounds’ Wood. “He’s the godfather of third wave in Baltimore. Want to know what the fourth wave will bring? Ask Jay.”

CARAGAY, WHO GREW UP IN BALTIMORE, wasn’t always a coffee virtuoso. Originally, it was sno-cones.

In 2002, Caragay was running Jay’s Shave Ice in Timonium, when he decided to start selling coffee to complement his Hawaiian ices during cooler months. He found a grower he liked in Kona, Hawaii, and began importing beans—what third wavers now call “direct trade,” or dealing with the coffee grower without going through a middleman or coffee broker. “Without knowing anything, we were direct trading right away for no other reason than we didn’t know any better,” he says.

Over the next 10 years, Caragay increased his coffee I.Q., learning the industry from John Sanders, co-founder of Hines Public Market Coffee, the legendary Pacific Northwest roaster and coffee shop owner. In 2006, he decided to go into coffee full time, opening Spro at the Towson Library, and operating it at that location for five years before moving to The Avenue and selling the Towson location to Hohman.

These days, his speaking services are much in demand at Specialty Coffee Association events and he serves as a judge at the annual World Barista Championships, where competitors whip up the prettiest—and tastiest—cappuccinos and espressos for bragging rights and trophies. In 2011, as a competitor, he was crowned the National AeroPress Champion at the Specialty Coffee Association convention in Portland, Ore. (AeroPress is a method of brewing coffee that involves steeping grounds in a cylindrical device before plunging hot water through a small disc-shaped filter.)
When it comes to coffee, Caragay is like a jazz artist. He enjoys improvising and experimenting, hates pretension and talks as passionately about coffee beans as any vintner does about grapes. At Spro, which was named by Travel & Leisure in 2011 as one of “America’s Coolest Coffeehouses,” Caragay typically offers a half-dozen varieties of unusual coffees on a menu that changes weekly. Customers can choose from one of seven ways to have their cup of coffee brewed, from using a French press to a vac pot. “I kind of look at it like cooking,” he says. “Chicken is chicken essentially, but you can sauté it, bake it, roast it, braise it, smoke it—and it’s still chicken, but the experience of that chicken is very different. And I think that’s true of the methods we have here.”

Allowing customers the choice of a rotating menu of brews is a hallmark of third wave coffee. Over in Hamilton, Zeke’s roasts between 40 and 60 types of beans, and owner Thomas Rhodes is constantly experimenting with blends—and giving them colorful Baltimore-centric names, like Tell Tale Dark, Mobtown Espresso or Montebello Reserve. 

At High Grounds, Wood offers customers more than 15 varieties of coffees he roasts daily in a back room. “Our customers love being able to try something from Brazil one day and Indonesia the next,” he says. He’s also the only coffee shop in town that regularly carries Ethiopian Ardi coffee, imported by Baltimore-based Keffa Coffee. (See sidebar.) 

Caragay acknowledges the Baltimore scene is nowhere near as developed as coffee hot spots like Seattle and San Francisco, but he prefers it to many more established coffee towns.  “Baltimore’s coffee scene is kind of exciting in that it’s very different than most places. You go to some cities that are known coffee places and they’re all getting their coffee from the same place. D.C. is like that. I personally feel that gives the town a little bit of a blandness—like you went to a city and all the bars just served Bud. Baltimore is very progressive in its coffee scene.”

He cites restaurants like Woodberry Kitchen as a national leader when it comes to restaurant coffee programs. “What they do is just as good as anything in New York City—and they’ve been doing it since 2007.”

Caragay also says the Baltimore scene isn’t as barista-focused as in some other cities. In other markets, like Seattle and San Francisco, baristas are like celebrity chefs, with their own legions of followers.
In D.C., baristas gather on the third Thursday of every month for Thursday Night Throwdowns, where coffee geeks from around town pack into a cafe after hours and, for a $5 buy-in, battle it out at the espresso machine. Competitors get one minute to pull a shot, steam milk and create the perfect design on the surface of the cup. Judges score based on symmetry and contrast within the design.

Lamill’s Dowding attended her first latte art competition in December and says she could see the day when Baltimore baristas duke it out. “I’d really like to see the Baltimore coffee scene expand even more,” says Dowding, who (insider tip) says Pitango Gelato in Fells Point makes some of the most underrated espresso in town. “There’s not a deep-rooted community among other coffee people yet, but it’s neat to be part of a growing trend in a small city.”

DiFabbio says she’d like to host coffee house crawls and organize latte art competitions in town, but there aren’t enough baristas—yet. “It wouldn’t be any sport with only five people,” she says with a laugh. “But we’ll be able to do it pretty soon. This is a really great town to be a coffee person.”

Out of Africa

From where do some of the nation’s most popular boutique coffee roasters source their Ethiopian coffee beans? Would you believe Towson?

Keffa Coffee, headquartered on Cromwell Bridge Road, imports a half million pounds of green (unroasted) coffee beans annually from owner Samuel Demisse’s native Ethiopia. Keffa then distributes the beans to more than 300 boutique roasters across the country. (The company stores its beans at a warehouse in Dundalk.)

Demisse, 41, who grew up on a coffee farm, began his import business in 2006, and with help from the Towson Global Business Incubator, where his business was based until last month, he has increased sales annually to more than $1.7 million. Every month, he imports shipping containers filled with 40,000 pounds of coffee from family farms throughout Ethiopia—including his family’s own. The main reason he chose to locate his business in Baltimore was because of its port. “The longer it takes to ship coffee, the more the quality goes down. It only takes three weeks to ship coffee from Africa to Baltimore,” says Demisse, who notes it takes 35 days for the same shipment to reach Norfolk, Va. 

Keffa’s presence in Baltimore has been a boon to local roasters, such as High Grounds, Annapolis’ Ceremony and Spro. “Here’s an importer bringing in amazing quality coffee that people across the industry are clamoring for and it’s warehoused in Baltimore,” says Spro’s Jay Caragay. “It’s a game-changer for us. There are a lot of great coffees coming in through Seattle and Oakland and now we’ve got great coffees coming in through Baltimore. That’s unheard of. Instead of buying a pallet at a time, we can grab a bag or two. For a small roaster like us, that’s huge.” —J.S.

Baltimore by the Cup

Third Wavers

Artifact Coffee

Artifact Coffee feels like a step back into a time that never was.  Vaulted ceilings and stone walls suggest a gentleman farmer’s barn more than a coffee shop. Mason jars of homemade provisions line up neatly on shelves like lab specimens, and orders are taken and delivered to tables by servers dressed in vintage duds.

Coffee’s origin: Artifact mostly serves coffees from Counter Culture, which specializes in sustainable coffee practices including direct trade, shade grown, organic and bird-friendly coffees. 

Price, regular cup of Joe:  $3.50 for 12-ounce “pour-over” (daily “featured” coffee is $4.50)

Priciest pour: Occasional special or seasonal coffee drinks run $4.50

Programs: Free coffee cuppings every Friday at 10 a.m. 410-235-1881, artifactcoffee.com

BB’s Café

The bridge that leads from the parking lot to the Towson Public Library might be the most unusual place for a coffee shop, but book lovers—and coffee snobs—know this is the best place to get an espresso north of the Baltimore City line.

Coffee origin: Bonnie Hohman sources most of her roasted organic beans from Hines, the venerable Vancouver-based roaster.

Price, regular cup of Joe: $1.50/8 ounce, $2/ 16 ounce

Priciest pour: $4.25 for a 12-ounce mocha— homemade chocolate syrup, two shots of espresso, steamed milk and “maybe a little latte art, depending on which barista is working” 410-296-0023


The latest effort from the Foreman-Wolf Restaurant Group comes in many guises, from casual luncheonette to grotto gourmet, and emphasizes its coffee program, headed by barista Lindsay DiFabbio.

Coffee’s origin: Johnny’s usually offers two coffees, a house blend and a seasonal “guest coffee.” Roasting is done by Ceremony Coffee in Annapolis.

Price, regular cup of Joe: $3.50, brewed in a Chemex

Priciest pour: The Starfleet Captain,  a blend of espresso and half-and-half infused with bergamot, lavender and Earl Grey tea, and served in a shot glass sets you back $6—but it’s worth it.

Programs: DiFabbio hosts occasional coffee cuppings and informal classes. Call Johnny’s for a schedule. 410-773-0777, http://www.johnnysdownstairs.com


The only East Coast location of the Los Angeles-based coffee boutique serves up a full menu of roasts in a sophisticated setting on the first floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. The shop also features tasty baked goods by pastry chef Chris Ford of Wit & Wisdom restaurant.

Coffee’s origin: Lamill has a “green buyer,” who sources green coffee beans from 50 to 100 rotating farms throughout the world. Many are organically grown. All coffee is roasted at the
company’s California plant before being shipped cross-country to Baltimore.

Price, regular cup of Joe: $1.50 to $2 depending on ready made or custom poured hand-drip.

Priciest pour:The 16-ounce café con leche includes a whopping six shots of espresso layered with brown sugar and costs $9.75

Programs: Free “coffee clinics” every Saturday at 9 a.m. 410-576-5800  


Like a coffee chemistry lab, Spro offers seven different brewing processes, from the AeroPress to the Chemex to the Abid Clever to cold brew towers. That means coffee geeks (and wannabes) can do their own cupping experiments by trying the same beans brewed different ways.

Coffee’s origin: Spro gets beans from all over the world—Ethiopia, Mexico, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea—and buys from five roasteries nationally as well as small-batch roasting at their East Baltimore facility.

Price, regular cup of Joe: $3. Be patient—each cup is hand-crafted and take about four minutes to brew.

Priciest pour: $12 buys you a cup of 2007 vintage Rancho San Francisco coffee produced in Chiapas, Mexico.

Programs: Nothing scheduled, but check sprocoffee.com or call 410-243-1262 for events.

The Roasters


Baltimore Coffee and Tea

Maryland’s largest specialty roaster traces its roots back to 1895 and company president Stan Constantine says his family has been importing coffee since 1910. The Timonium-based roasting facility churns out 30,000 pounds of coffee per week, and does a brisk mail-order business, offering 120 different varietals and more than 1,000 kinds of teas. BC&T has retail outlets in Frederick, Annapolis and Timonium. 410-561-1080, http://www.baltcoffee.com

High Grounds

Owner Michael Wood began roasting coffee in his backyard shed in 2000 and took over High Grounds, across from the Patterson Theater,  several years later. He roasts about 1 1⁄2 tons of coffee per month,  and supplies various local restaurants, Wegmans and Whole Foods. 410-342-7611, http://www.highgroundscoffee.com


Co-owners Deborah Cogan and Bernard Kayes started roasting coffee 12 years ago in order to provide the freshest coffees they could for their Federal Hill restaurant. At one time, they would roast as many as 20 different varieties, but now concentrate on a half dozen or so organically grown beans, available only in-house.  410-539-8395, http://www.spoonsbaltimore.com


Owner Thomas Rhodes learned his trade while roasting for the now-defunct Key Coffee and built Zeke’s popularity via Baltimore farmers markets. Now you can find his coffees throughout the
Baltimore environs, including the company’s retail outlet/coffee shop along Harford Road. Rhodes says he just wanted to “make really good coffee and sell it at a reasonable price”—something the “everyman” could drink. “I mean, we still sell it in a brown paper bag,” he says. 4607 Harford Rd., 410- 254-0122, http://www.zekescoffee.com


January-February 2013

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