A friend of mine recently told me, “I want to drink good coffee, but I don’t want to be like you” Ouch. This was meant as a joke, but he definitely had a point. In the past year, I had tasted truly amazing coffee for the first time and, in doing so, started a chain reaction that caused me to “go full-barista.” I began to amass a collection of all things coffee. I weighed my beans on a digital scale like a small-time drug dealer stretching my stash. I packed a travel brewing kit for long drives, lest I had to stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts on the turnpike. I even bought an old-school popcorn popper on eBay so I could roast my own raw coffee beans.
Now that I knew just how good coffee could be, I couldn’t go back. And I wanted to spread the good news. “You, with the Folgers: there’s so much more out there!” But, many hold dear to their way of doing coffee, and my soapboxing rubbed them the wrong way. So, I had a dilemma: how do you get people to buy into better coffee without pissing everyone off?
I would need to recruit some help. I wanted to see if people were asking for better coffee in Cleveland and if the city could deliver. In a country where mediocre to poor coffee is the common currency, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleased to find a healthy, growing community of roasters, baristas, and entrepreneurs who were leading a grassroots campaign to bring coffee, and the city, the respect it deserves.
One of the figures in the fight for better coffee is John Johnson, the Director of Quality at Rising Star Coffee Roasters. We met at their roastery, just south of their Ohio City cafe. Music blasted as the roasters hummed, and shouting was the only way to converse across the warehouse floor. The best part was the exhaust from freshly roasted coffee, which was spicy, sweet and warm, like good home baking. “It’s my perfume,” chimed one employee.
I got the feeling Johnson could talk about almost anything with passion as he shared his thoughts on hating football, loving basketball, and cherishing the Lakers ineptitude. We eventually got to coffee, and he described an early formative experience: after years of bad coffee, he was taken by Ethiopian coffee that had sweetness, acidity, and a personality. He added, “That was the most eye opening thing I ever had. It was almost like a psychedelic experience in a way. It totally destroyed my notion of what coffee was.” The experience also led him to actually consider where his food came from, an idea that is now essential to his role at Rising Star. Johnson seeks out and builds relationships with farmers from Rwanda to Nicaragua in order to ensure that the best quality coffee makes it back to Cleveland.
Since opening in 2012, Rising Star has become one of the larger specialty coffee operators in Cleveland with its three locations. Another is Phoenix Coffee, which has been in business for over 25 years and has four locations. These establishments, along with some upstarts, helped Cleveland earn a nod as one of America’s Best Coffee Cities 2014 in Travel & Leisure magazine. But, since Cleveland has established itself as a great beer city, its coffee still has some catching up to do. Johnson estimates that the nation’s specialty coffee scene is about ten years behind. Many future establishment companies are still independent, and you can still hear people griping about the cost of a latte in Rising Star’s new downtown cafe.
Johnson believes in educating consumers about why their coffee is different, and why you’re paying three dollars for it. “Once you taste a really well made cappuccino in one of our shops, you don’t need it to be explained to you after that.” Tasting is believing when it comes to fresh craft coffee, but some people never make it inside, believing that all third-wave cafes harbor snooty baristas with art degrees. In Cleveland, however, things work a little differently. “There’s no pretense,” Johnson said. “People just want to make good coffee. I hear this all the time from other coffee professionals, ‘Everyone was so friendly. It’s so refreshing.’ It’s like, yeah, there’s no reason to be a dick about this stuff.”
Peter Brown, founder of Six Shooter Coffee, is another member of Cleveland’s friendly coffee community. He left the coffee-rich neighborhoods of Columbus to establish himself in the Collinwood neighborhood. “I kind of just wanted a baptism by fire,” he explained, “in a place that wasn’t blinded by superficiality.” He believes that character matters in Cleveland, where the quality of his product is paramount. And though Six Shooter takes it’s name from President LBJ’s cowboy-coffee, rumored thick enough to float a revolver, Brown stays true to the third-wave “exhibition of the bean” nuanced pursuit. When his Collinwood cafe opens, set tentatively for February, he’ll gives his customers a wide range of roast profiles from light to dark. “I don’t want to tell people what’s good and what’s not,” he said. “If you’re enjoying your cup of coffee, then it’s a good cup of coffee.”
To win over a Folgers or Starbucks diehard, Brown suggests a side-by-side comparison taste test. Then try reason. If you like his coffee more, would you pay an extra dollar? Because that’s typical cost of pour-over. And percolated drip coffee from Brown’s shop will be around the standard two dollars that many have come to expect. But, this all depends on whether the party in question is willing to keep an open mind. “I have a lot of working class buddies that will never come around,” he said while laughing. “That’s ok, I don’t care.” Still, Brown shows that you can have it both ways, and that refusing one type of coffee or another doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing your authenticity. “I drink Folgers. I drink gas station coffee if it’s around. I don’t turn up my nose to anything.”
If you still need a reason to buy local coffee, there are benefits that stretch far beyond the cup. When you buy from an artisan roaster, you can be sure they have respected the beans that were painstakingly harvested halfway across the world. Also, knowing where your coffee comes from may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a blow to the rampant anonymity behind consumer goods. Johnson loves it when he gets to give direct feedback to his farmers. He’ll say, “Dude, our customers love your coffee. That’s something they’ve never heard…We’re trying to recognize the work that farmers are doing.” Also, coffee shops are reflections of their community and supporting local coffee is also a bid to support Cleveland.
There are plenty of craft coffee options in Cleveland and around Northeast Ohio. There’s the multi-roaster Pour, which showcases a variety of third-party roasters. Loop in Tremont is a record store/coffee shop combo with an impressive display of new and used vinyl. Grab a Guinness-like cold brew draft pulled with nitrogen from Bent Tree in Kent. Duck Rabbit is another up and coming Cleveland roaster, and Cold Bloom Coffee will deliver a six pack of cold brewed coffee to your doorstep like old-school milk. And Akron has added Artisan Coffee and Akron Coffee Roasters.
If you look at industry trends, craft coffee may become mainstream in the very near future. But in the meantime, if you want to drink better coffee in Cleveland, it’s right there waiting for you.