These days, anyone who's ever perused The New York Times dining section or seen a James Beard Award nomination form has heard that the Triangle is the Southern Part of Foodie Heaven. But some may remain unaware of our thriving bean scene.
When we say beans we mean coffee, and when we say scene we mean the roasters, purveyors and baristas who all help make our lattes and au laits some of the best in the country.
Just recently, two local roasters, Durham's Counter Culture Coffee and the Carrboro Coffee Company, were named finalists in the Good Food Awards coffee category (goodfoodawards.org/coffee), a San Francisco-based competition in its inaugural year. The roasting companies were among 10 winners nationally and the only two in North Carolina.
Last month, Michael Harwood, who works at Carrboro Coffee Company and as a barista for Caffé Driade in Chapel Hill and Open Eye Café in Carrboro, won the 2011 Southeast Regional Barista Competition in Atlanta. He dominated the contest with his knowledge of craft and superior technical skills in foaming, heating, pouring and making art out of froth. Zach Neuman, of Raleigh's Café Helios, won the Southeast Brewer's Cup competition at the same event.
Brett Smith, president and co-founder of Counter Culture Coffee, has witnessed the area's appreciation for, and discernment of, good coffee grow over the last 15 years. He likens this evolution to what's been happening with food: People care about where the coffee comes from, how it was grown and the way it was roasted. Is it organic? Fair trade? From a small farm in Latin America or a mountainous region in East Asia?
At Counter Culture, they've learned along the way, just as the public has. "Now we really bring in coffee at its peak freshness," Smith says, adding that the peak time varies throughout the year depending on where the beans were grown.
Robbie Roberts, owner of Hillsborough-based Joe Van Gogh, says he sometimes wishes he were based somewhere else, where there wasn't such a density of small-batch roasters. He just returned from Honduras on business; it's not at all unusual for local roasters to travel the world in search of the best beans. But the concentration of passionate roasters makes for better coffee all around, he says. And the local palate is becoming increasingly discerning.
All over the Triangle, coffee shops host free "cuppings," where coffee lovers sip and spit just like at a wine tasting. Places like 3CUPS and A Southern Season in Chapel Hill offer demos for making the perfect cup of coffee. Counter Culture also offers "Counter Intelligence" classes, for professional baristas in the making, along with Thursday Night throwdowns—open latte art competitions. If I didn't live around here, I might be surprised that such a thing exists.
All of this is in the name of community, not just coffee quality control, says Smith.
Perhaps it's that spirit that has nurtured our coffee scene along this whole time. Between the university culture of all-nighters and claustrophobic apartments, the medical community equally in need of quality caffeine and a moment to regroup, and the fact that coffee shops have a strong tradition of playing music at a volume that still allows conversation to take place, books to be read and work to get done, it all comes together.
I'm a coffee person. It must be smooth and rich, not acidic and biting. There should be a depth of flavor, with caramelized notes dappling your tongue long after you've swallowed. And it should be hot, but not scalding, and patiently stay that way as you sip it down.
Whether I've had five courses at a five-star restaurant or a light lunch at a neighborhood bistro, coffee signals a moment to relax and savor the experience as a whole. It prevents me from rushing off to the next obligation, and since I put an obnoxious amount of cream and sugar in my joe, it often doubles as dessert.
And then there's tea.
Until I began reporting this piece, I considered tea something people drank when it was too late in the day to have coffee. I've since learned that tea, as much as coffee, can be an experience unto itself. (See high tea and chai stories.)
What follows is a by-no-means-complete list of the Triangle's best coffee and tea spots. Have one to add? Post a comment below and let the world know where you get your beans and leaves.
Serving Counter Culture coffee within the walls of the old Plumbing and Heating building, Helios boasts architecture as award-winning as its baristas; Zach Neuman recently won the Southeast Brewer's Cup. Most drinks come hot or iced, like the white mocha and the miele, a latte with honey. The menu includes breakfast, lunch and dinner items, such as sandwiches, salads and papas bravos.
Flanking both sides of NCSU's campus are two of the most established coffee shops in the Triangle. Known as one of the original roasters in the area, the beans are cooked seven days a week. And owner Jeff Gold is soon to be the proud papa of a 20-year-old: Cup A Joe celebrates its 20th anniversary this October.
This restaurant falls under the Empire Eats umbrella. Head barista Casey Porn serves Counter Culture brews from a pretty expansive coffee menu, along with breakfast items that were made to go with coffee: bagels, biscuits, muffins—you get the picture. Coffee goes just as well with their menu in the evening: Breakfast is served until 10 p.m. Works from the featured artist of the month can be enjoyed at The Morning Times Gallery upstairs. Try not to spill any coffee while you're up there.
It's a good thing owner Ryan Hinson had a hard time sleeping. That's what led him to try tea—anything for some shut-eye. Turns out he fell in love with the act of steeping leaves, even though it did little to cure his insomnia. Partnering with his brother, he opened the teashop in Cameron Village in the fall of 2009, originally called TeaGschwendner as a distributor of that line. Though he still contracts with the company, he is now independent and has changed the name to something a little easier to pronounce. The shop features tea accessories as well as a tea-to-go bar and some 250 varieties. Turns out running a business and vending something he's passionate about was just the trick; he now sleeps like a baby.
With a focus on coffee in all its iterations, this might be the largest coffee menu Durham's ever seen. There are caffé cocktails, frostaccinos (ice-blended coffee drinks) and traditional caffé beverages like the espresso con panna and caffé au-lait. Owner Dorian Bolden left the corporate world and opened Beyu in late 2009 to create a place where you can "be you." And drink lots of coffee as you have breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch or just dessert. Bolden currently sells his locally roasted "Heart & Soul" house blend, as well as single-origin and flavored coffees.
Cuban-style coffee is not the star of this authentic Cuban menu, but it was a big motivator for the owners to take the plunge and try their hand as restaurateurs. Elizabeth Turnbull swears her real motives reside in a barista fantasy. Don't be dismayed by the paper cups; she dishes up the steaming hot café con leche using real Cuban coffee. Enjoy it with a traditional Cuban breakfast of guava pastelitos or pan con timba.
A new coffee machine and local milk make owner Jennings Brody boldly state that she serves the best coffee in Durham. They use Counter Culture's Espresso Toscano beans and Homeland Creamery milk, and they sport a new La Marzocco machine with dual boiler technology, which optimizes both brewing and steam production. It also has three group heads and two steam wands, so the line moves fast. Seasonal drinks frequent the expansive menu. Parker & Otis also sells loose-leaf teas and accessories throughout the store.
Managing partner Lex Alexander had no shortage of forethought when he opened this coffee and tea (and wine) place. This is the same guy who founded Wellspring Grocery and then helped bring Whole Foods Market to the Triangle. With a focus on buying beans from small farms in origin countries, he works with Counter Culture to foster direct-trade relationships with the farmers themselves, all over the globe. In the store, the coffee is made to order in press pots, from beans custom-roasted to medium level, since that's how 3CUPS rolls. In the shop, you can buy everything one needs to make the perfect cup of coffee, from grinders to scales.
Owner Scott Conary also owns Open Eye Café and the Carrboro Coffee Company. Michael Harwood, who works at all three, won the 2011 Southeast Regional Barista Competition last month. Driade keeps it simple: There are about a dozen espresso drinks, along with traditional brewed coffee and a large selection of whole-leaf teas, all reasonably priced.
For the last three years, this landmark (previously a bait shop) has been known mainly for beer, wine and the food trucks that frequent its parking lot. But owner Brian Plaster has big plans, which include bagels, a breakfast bar and a shiny new Cimbali espresso machine. He already sells locally roasted Kind Coffee, thanks to his friends over at Jessee's Coffee & Bar (jesseescoffee.com), and he loves his particular roast with beans that hail from New Guinea, but a whole new coffee menu with a focus on traditional Italian caffe is on the way.
In the name of Southern hospitality, Kendra Haden and Carol Bolding opened this tea parlor in 2002, hosting special events and selling tea and tea accoutrements from the homey confines of their Apex shop. They serve a high tea featuring tea sandwiches, sweets and scones with clotted cream and lemon curd, accompanying the pot of your choice—and they offer more than 100 teas to choose from. (Reservations are required since they do not prepare the food themselves.)
For more than 15 years, this local roaster has been serving coffee around the Triangle, with two locations sporting the name Cup A Joe. Founder Robbie Roberts split from the Cup A Joe franchise long ago but kept rights to the name outside Wake County. Roberts works with small farms in origin countries whenever possible, but he also maintains relationships with distributors who honor his philosophy. He says the next focus will be on single servings of coffee—brew bars as the wave of the coffee future—and he is on top of it.