When the temperature drops and the windows are speckled with frost, nothing banishes the chill better than a steaming cup of coffee. Central Coffee Co., on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood, offers authentic espresso drinks in the European café style. This style employs a barista who is trained in the art of pulling a shot – that is, using a pump or lever espresso machine to produce a precisely calibrated beverage, instead of merely pressing a button. Owner Jimmy Kleto says he always wanted to work in a coffee shop. While attending Appalachian State University, he got a part-time job at Higher Grounds Coffee Shoppe in Boone. He instantly fell in love with the coffee industry and knew he wanted to open a shop of his own. After several years of working in coffee shops around Charlotte, he opened Central Coffee in September 2008. Once it gets cold, Kleto says, the pumpkin spice latte is a customer favorite. But you can't go wrong with a vanilla latte or a mocha. Central Coffee’s signature drink is the Central Shorty, a six-ounce latte with a hint of vanilla, served in a small ceramic cup. His preferred coffee region is Central America, he says, as he loves the sweetness and sometimes fruity flavor of the region. Kleto says in the past five years he has seen more of an interest in the independent, locally owned coffee shops. He's also seen an increased desire in customers to learn more about coffee in general – where it's grown, how it's grown, what flavor notes can be tasted in different coffees from different growing regions. He says that despite opening in the middle of a recession, his business has done nothing but increase, even now. He had hoped to be well-received by the Plaza Midwood and Elizabeth neighborhoods, and that's exactly what happened – all due to his customers, he points out. He gets the majority of his coffee from Joe Van Gogh, a roaster out of Hillsborough, and some from Magnolia Coffee Company in Charlotte. In selecting the beans, he wants to offer a variety of light, medium and dark roasts from the main coffee growing regions of the world: Central America, South America, Africa and Indonesia. In addition to coffee, Central Coffee Co. offers a selection of teas. All of its pastries are baked in-house, including muffins, scones (both sweet and savory), breads (some vegan) and traditional Greek pastries like baklava. Amelie's, in NoDa, was already well-known for its delectable French pastries when it added coffee to the menu in 2008. "We felt adding a quality latte would be a great way to enhance the experience of our desserts," says front end manager Genevieve DeLucchi. "What could be more French than having your warm, buttery croissant with a perfectly creamy latte?" Setting Amelie's apart from corporate chains (which do lattes and espressos with automated machines) was an important factor in the way the shop crafted its espresso program, says DeLucchi. "We wanted each drink to be as special as the pastries we were hand-crafting in the back." Their most popular drink, however, is not a coffee beverage. It's their hot chocolate, made with house-made dark chocolate ganache infused with perfectly textured steamed milk, according to DeLucchi. "Milk texture is very important at Amelie's, which is why you'll often find a design in the top of your cup when you order a latte; perfectly steamed and poured milk gives the baristas the ability to create these designs. Learning the nuances of steaming milk is something that takes practice and patience," says DeLucchi. The best all-around beverage, she says, is the short latte. It comes in an eight-ounce ceramic mug – it's dwarfed by standard coffee sizes in the chain coffee houses. "The short latte offers all of the satisfaction of a larger latte in a package that won't fill you up with lots of extra milk."
DeLucchi says that in the past five years in Charlotte, more serious, independent coffee houses have opened and are educating their customers on what good coffee really is. They get their coffee from Jay Gestwicki of Magnolia Coffee Company, the only boutique roaster in Charlotte. Magnolia has a commitment to the growers in countries like Brazil, where the purchase price of unroasted beans is negotiated directly with the farmers and supports education in the community. "Gestwicki blends all of our coffees to our specifications and our signature espresso is designed to be bold and flavor-forward with hints of fruit and chocolate," DeLucchi says. "Our house blend is a medium roast coffee made with a blend from Papua New Guinea and Guatemala. And our dark roast, the Melange Riche, is a darker, bolder coffee that was blended specifically for the purpose of making a great cafe au lait but is certainly good the old fashioned way, hot and black." Before opening Magnolia Coffee this year, native Charlottean Gestwicki spent seven years with Caribou Coffee, opening multiple Charlotte locations. He was also a roaster and green bean purchaser for Dilworth Coffee for more than seven years, in addition to being their vice president of licensing and brand manager. (Dilworth Coffee no longer roasts in Charlotte; since December 2010 they’ve been outsourcing that task to Raleigh.) Gestwicki offers a line of locally roasted coffees and is supplying premium espresso bars like Amelie's and Julia's Coffee at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore on Wendover Road. Gestwicki says he is starting to see people in Charlotte seeking out locally-owned coffee shops with European-style espresso drinks, "where you can taste the coffee, not sugar, syrup or whipped cream." People are discovering the difference in quality, Gestwicki says, and when they have a latte at Amelie's, for example, it's like nothing they've ever tasted before. High-quality coffee has a natural sweetness, he says. You don't have to doctor it up with syrups. Boutique coffee is similar to boutique wine, Gestwicki says, and if you bought a bottle of fine wine, could you imagine pouring sugar and whipped cream in it? Kleto says for the aspiring home barista, it all starts with good espresso. "Only grind enough beans for what you will use at that time, and keep the rest in an air-tight container, not in the refrigerator or freezer." Filtered water is key, as is cleaning and maintaining your home machine. Recreating a true coffee house experience at home can be difficult, DeLucchi says. Before she started her barista training at Amelie's, she had a home espresso machine and remembers how much she fumbled around trying to get the grind right and the tamp perfect. Now, she knows better. "If you're not using espresso pods, invest in a burr grinder; you'll never be satisfied with your shots at home if you aren't able to manipulate the grind of your coffee. But mainly, pay attention to your milk, listen to it. It's a common misconception that the milk should be screaming while it's being steamed," she says. "Once you figure out how to make the milk the way you really like it, you will start to understand what a treat the perfect latte or cappuccino can really be." Coffee is meant to be savored, Gestwicki says. Winter is the perfect time to slow down, warm up and treat yourself to this soul-satisfying beverage.