Change has come to your neighborhood coffee shop. Maybe you've heard the names: Kopplin's, Dogwood, Angry Catfish, Urban Bean, Bull Run, Blue Ox. Like craft beer and craft cocktails, coffee is experiencing an artisanal spring. With that comes a new sense of intimidation for those of us who just figured out what "venti" means.
Still, I find myself enamored of the process -- the sourcing of the beans, the roasting, the slo-mo ritual of the "pour-over." All of which culminates in the thing that matters most: a better taste. It's like discovering Surly after drinking Miller Lite all your life.
The movement of expertly sourced beans and professional baristas began brewing last decade in such coffee-centric cities as Seattle and New York. Here in the Twin Cities, many point to Kopplin's in St. Paul as ushering in our own revolution in 2006.
I like the atmosphere at Quixotic in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. Micah Svejda, 30, remembers being in high school when the barista profession caught his eye.
"There was a lot of mystery to it that I didn't understand," he said. "I remember buying an espresso and it being this really complex and rich thing."
Svejda says the current wave of high-end coffee shops have one thing in common: an uncompromising devotion to quality. This manifests itself in three areas: beans, equipment and technique.
The buying and roasting of good beans is pretty complicated. St. Paul is home to Cafe Imports, one of the country's largest specialty importers. On a much smaller scale is Dogwood, Minneapolis' most acclaimed roaster (it also has a coffee shop in Uptown's Calhoun Square). Dogwood's operation is Minnesota-based, but its ambitions are large. This year, the company's Stephanie Ratanas has met with farmers in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Indonesia.
"You can't get that kind of knowledge by just sitting here and looking around on the Internet," she said.
Roasting technique can make or break a bean. Dogwood works solely with lighter roasts. They are harder to perfect than dark roasts, Ratanas says, but produce a broader flavor spectrum.
The equipment used in these shops can get expensive, with some machines fetching more than $10,000. But the espresso menu is typically parsed down to the bare essentials: espresso, latte (with latte art!), maybe a mocha. No "condiments," so don't expect to order a caramel drizzle peppermint white chocolate mocha thingy.
When it comes to a simple cup of coffee, a handful of shops have ditched the high-end machinery for the much-hyped pour-over method. The cone-filter setup should be familiar to anyone who's made coffee at home, but the technique and Japanese-designed tools are not. The time-consuming details (pre-wetting the filter, blooming the grounds, swirling ever so precisely) is almost surgical.
"If you want to serve lots of coffee to a lot of people, there are quicker options," Svejda said. Is all this pomp and fuss worth it? Yes, it is. I'm a convert. But, apparently, it's the little things that still confound me.
When I ordered an espresso at Quixotic some months ago, the barista immediately whipped out a metallic soda siphon and handed me a small glass of fresh sparkling water. She then turned away to make my order. After a minute of deep contemplation, my critical thinking skills kicked in and -- aha! -- I figured it out. It was a palate cleanser, meant to prepare my tongue for the flavor explosion hidden in the tiny cup of hand-crafted espresso.
WHERE TO FIND THE PERFECT CUP
Quixotic: 769 S. Cleveland Av., St. Paul. 651-699-5448. Dogwood: 3001 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. 612-354-2952. Angry Catfish: 4208 28th Av. S., Mpls. 612-722-1538. Kopplin's: 2038 Marshall Av., St. Paul. 651-698-0457. Urban Bean: 3255 Bryant Av. S. and 2401 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls. Blue Ox: 3740 Chicago Av. S., Mpls. 612-825-6650. Bull Run: 3346 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls. 952-285-4242.