With a cluster of edgy new coffee shops opening or just opened in Charlotte, “if you’re not paying attention to coffee – you should absolutely be paying attention.”
That’s Ian Kolb, co-owner of CupLux. “This year particularly is a huge year for coffee in Charlotte.”
His place, in the Freemore West area, opened in June. So did the Charlotte location of Trade and Lore, in NoDa – whose Lindsey Pitman is also launching the coffee bar component of the much-anticipated Suffolk Punch, part of the Hyde Brewing complex in South End. (That’s due to be open by the beginning of August.)
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The rise doesn’t mean Charlotte has become a battlefield for best cup: Coffee people say they’re more collegial. “This market’s so small and niche that if you come in thinking that you’re in competition, you’ve come into the wrong market,” said Basal’s Bryce Laguer.
(Coffee people also do not despise the likes of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. In fact, several nod to Starbucks for bringing the concept of community coffee shops to the United States – even if they roast their coffee “too dark,” according to Todd Huber, founder of Undercurrent.)
Don’t let these experts’ extensive knowledge in coffee intimidate you. They would love to chat with you, and answer your questions, but they also understand if you are just there for the caffeine.
We got a chance to get some advice and find out what’s newest. First, take a look at what’s new:
1. Coffee on tap. Pitman has put coffee and tea on draft, just like at a bar. (Which makes sense, since Trade and Lore is in the Salud Cerveceria brewery space, and Suffolk Punch’s coffee bar will share the Hyde Brewing space.) And that means – besides ease of service – that if you aren’t big on drinking alcohol, these “look like beers, so you can socialize and interact with everybody,” she says. “They don’t have to know that you’re not partaking of alcohol if you don’t want (them) to.” Examples: Rwandan white tip tea with honeysuckle syrup, topped with a bit of thyme, looks beerily golden.
2. Color-changing drinks. Undercurrent will have a rotating list of signature drinks, and general manager (and Charlotte coffee fixture) Diana Mnatsakanyan-Sapp says she’s been experimenting with different ideas – color-changing beverages is definitely one of them.
3. Drive-through coffee that’s ... crafted? That’s CupLux’s concept – and, by the way, CupLux keeps kegs of coffee in the back to tap as needed, too.
4. A lab and classroom. The first Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCA) lab and classroom in North Carolina will be inside Undercurrent Coffee. Mnatsakanyan-Sapp, an SCA-certified instructor, will lead these classes. Undercurrent’s Huber says they will be open to the public, and can “add another layer of enjoyment” to customers’ coffee experience.
5. Flash-chilled coffee. Cold brew coffee is getting hot now, but you should try flash-chilled, which Pitman says is even better. Instead of using room-temperature water to brew coffee, then letting it sit up to 24 hours like cold brew, flash-chilled uses hot water to brew it, but then chills the coffee immediately. “I prefer flash-chilled because you can’t properly extract certain flavors in the coffee if you don’t use hot water. It removes that kind of stale element that can be in cold brew,” says Pitman.
Now, some tips to get you sounding as if you’re plugged in – even if you’re not:
1. Stop ordering ‘American’ coffee ... “[People] say, ‘I just want American coffee.’ You mean Central or South America? Because we don’t grow any in the United States,” points out Pitman. Beyond a few experimental outposts, coffee doesn’t grow in the continental United States – it does best in regions around the equator. “Coffee is Africa’s gold,” says Laguer. So that cup in your hand has traveled some ways before landing here.
2. ... And start thinking more about flavor. “You wouldn’t asked for a ‘beer-flavored beer’ or ‘wine-flavored wine,’ ” says Mnatsakanyan-Sapp of Undercurrent.
Pitman puts it another way: “‘Normal’ coffee is not a thing... Coffee is so diverse that there is no such thing as ‘normal.’”
So what does play a role in the flavoring of coffee? Everything from the climate where the coffee beans grow to how it's poured into your cup. “Coffee can taste like tangerines and coffee can taste like jasmine flowers, and it can even taste like tomatoes sometimes and that’s just what’s naturally in it,” says Mnatsakanyan-Sapp.
3. You're paying for more than just the coffee. You’re also paying for high-quality water. As the most important component, according to Pitman, water is analyzed down to the molecule by coffee experts, and chosen accordingly.
4. Freshness matters ... Coffee is a fruit, and like every fruit, it goes bad. Kolb says CupLux gets freshly roasted coffee every week, and changes out leftover brewed coffee about every hour and a half throughout the day. Mnatsakanyan-Sapp says Undercurrent will brew new coffee every hour. (So you might think twice about that office pot that’s been sitting in the breakroom since 7 a.m...)
5. ... And so does the farming. Coffee specialists are paying increasing attention to the farmers from whom they get their beans. “A barista is only as good as the coffee that they start with,” says Pitman. “You can start with phenomenal coffee and butcher it, but if you don’t have good coffee that you’re starting with, there’s only so much you can do to make it taste good.” That’s why it matters which country is best to get coffee from, based on the season, and how the coffee is picked and processed. Pitman was recently in Panama at a farm, helping with the processing and fermenting of coffee.
With awareness, comes responsibility too. Mnatsakanyan-Sapp says, “It requires me, as a barista, to ask my roasters the hard questions like … ‘How much are you paying your farmer? Is your farmer able to see his children and give them education and take care of them?’ ”
If all this seems overwhelming, take a deep breath of espresso-scented air. “Don’t take it too seriously,” says Kolb. In the end, what they want is for you to enjoy your cup of coffee and have a great experience in their new shops.