Given that most people who have never been there still associate Baltimore with the adventures of McNulty, Snoop and Omar, you might be surprised to hear that the city is experiencing a coffee revolution. One of the driving forces behind it is the barista team at Woodberry Kitchen, a restaurant that preaches the local-food gospel. Of course, no eatery based in Maryland – or America, for that matter – can serve local coffee. But chef-owner Spike Gjerde and head barista Allie Caran have opted for the next best thing: a direct-trade, barista-driven coffee program.
“Fair trade was really great for the time being,” says Caran. “It was trying to help producers and equalize things, but there were a lot of loopholes.” Her alternative is a practice called “direct trade”—a model of buying coffee that scrutinizes those loopholes by using direct communication. “If you don’t know what’s going on in the community, you don’t know what’s going on in the coffee. At Counter Culture, our roaster, they visit the farms several times per year and are also in contact over the phone regularly.”
Caran should know. She and Gjerde have traveled with Counter Culture to several coffee-growing regions. Gjerde went to Nicaragua, where he met with growers to see for himself the various environmental, social and economical issues with which they struggle. It gave him a whole new appreciation for coffee.
Caran visited El Salvador, where she struck up a friendship with Aida Batlle, one of the coffee world’s superstars of the moment. (She was featured in a recent New Yorker piece on third-wave coffee evangelists.) Batlle is the first coffee grower to be certified by the Barista Guild of America, which means she’s one of the few people who truly understand full lifecycle of a coffee bean.
“On the trip, we got a really honest view of the life of a coffee producer, and it just brought my already nerdy enthusiasm for coffee to a whole new level,” she adds. “The majority of growers have never experienced coffee the way we have. They drink the worst of their crop because the best is always sold. So, with Counter Culture’s training and cupping programs, they get to taste their coffee the way you and I do.”
Back in Baltimore, the pair has used what they learned on these trips to preserve the integrity of the coffees they saw picked and processed. Gjerde says his restaurant’s coffee program could not be as successful as it is without a solid team of dedicated baristas. He and Caran look for candidates who display a ton of enthusiasm, even if they don’t quite have the experience.
For Caran, a chapter rep for the Barista Guild of America, the current push for barista certification is misguided. True passion, for her, trumps official recognition. She herself was hired as Woodberry’s first barista from the glassblowing studio she worked in next door to the restaurant. She and Gjerde have developed the coffee program, learning along the way, together.
And what a program it is. Their team offers a coffee experience that’s difficult to match in Baltimore. But for those who have been bitten by the coffee bug and want to learn more about making good coffee at home, Woodberry Kitchen hosts a public coffee cupping every Friday. It features a blind tasting of three coffees, broken down and tasted the way coffee professionals do it.
So, what gets a self-professed coffee geek’s motor running? Why, rare and exclusive beans, of course.
“Aida’s coffee is out now and I’m totally nuts for that one,” says Caran of Batlle’s Grand Reserve, a micro-lot coffee, which refers to beans that come from a small, especially coveted section of a farm and set aside for being, well, extraordinary. Direct-trade coffee is seasonal and so Batlle’s Grand Reserve is not expected to last long. Get it while you can on Counter Culture’s website, where it’s priced for a bold $35 per 8-oz. bag. How’s that for coffee love?
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