America at work
Coffee Snobs Rejoice as Regional Shops Proliferate
Megan Anderle | September 29, 2015

Given the ubiquity of coffee shops across America, you’d think we’re drinking more coffee now than ever before. But that’s not true.

U.S. coffee consumption has declined rapidly in the last 65 years. In 1946, the average American drank 46 gallons over the course of a year. By 2010, we were drinking 18.5 gallons, according to The Huffington Post. Despite the drop in volume, the majority of us—61%, in fact—are downing a cup of joe daily, according to the National Coffee Association.

And our tastes for coffee have evolved over the years. Dark roast coffee made famous by Starbucks and Peet’s was predominant in the ‘90s, but now brewers such as Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Blue Bottle roast coffee lightly, preserving the bean’s natural subtleties. These brands have cultivated a generation of coffee connoisseurs who care about where their coffee comes from and the trading and bean growing process.

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“Consumers are much more savvy now than they were years ago,” James Tooill, La Colombe’s lead roaster, said. “People know exactly what they want and are making educated decisions. The coffee business is evolving the same way the craft beer business did, with a lot of diversity and tastes in the marketplace.”

Danny O’Neill, president and owner of The Roasterie, said expectations are higher than ever before for roasters.

“Back in 1989, when I started getting really interested in gourmet, specialty coffee, no one thought it was cool, but now consumers are discerning and want really high quality stuff,” he said.

More often, coffee drinkers are turning their noses to coffee conglomerates like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and Seattle’s Best in favor of smaller chains that are transparent about suppliers and have unique stories. Here are a few of the rising stars of the coffee industry that have loyal followings in their regions, giving Starbucks a run for its money.

La Colombe

With 11 locations in Philadelphia, New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago, La Colombe has a cult following. Founded by Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe Iberti in 1994, the chain features coffee from all over the world and has a television show on the Discovery Channel called “Dangerous Grounds” that depicts life inside the coffee business. Also, Carmichael invented his own brewer, a pour over machine with a manual siphon, the first of its kind. La Colombe captured the attention of Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud, and Boulud’s Michelin-rated Daniel will begin offering a tableside pour over service with the brand’s single origin coffees this week.

M.E. Swing Company has been part of the fabric of Washington D.C. since 1916 and is known for sourcing sustainable green coffee.

M.E. Swing Company has been part of the fabric of Washington D.C. since 1916 and is known for sourcing sustainable green coffee.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes since we began 21 years ago,” Tooill said. “But we’ve always prided ourselves on consistency and variety. We pride ourselves on being very international; we travel and borrow from a number of traditions and aesthetics.”

The Roasterie

The Roasterie, which has three locations in Kansas, attracts a coffee drinker that is knowledgeable “but not snobby,” according to O’Neill. With its air-roasted coffee, The Roasterie has a cleanness and freshness that other coffee chains lack. Because of the smoothness and non-bitterness of the coffee, most customers don’t use milk or sugar, O’Neill said. O’Neill has been roasting the coffee in his basement since 1993, back when Starbucks started to gain traction. He gives customers tours of the original facility daily, explaining the roasting process and where the beans come from. Philanthropy is also a big part of the company’s mission, with the Roasterie giving back to local organizations and selling special blends that go toward a cause.

Swings President Mark Warmuth shows off one of the company's signature varietals.

Swings President Mark Warmuth shows off one of the company’s signature varietals.

Pavement Coffeehouse

Massachusetts-based Pavement Coffeehouse began as a bagel shop. Once he established himself in the Boston region, founderLarry Marguiles purchased three cafes that were part of a larger chain and made them independent in the ‘90s. Pavement is also known for their breads, baked fresh every day. Today, the company has five locations that are within a few miles of one another so the chain can deliver baked goods frequently. It will soon open a sixth in Fenway Park. The chain serves Counter Culture Coffee because of their transparency with direct trade.

Andrew LoPilato, the director of operations, said one of Pavement’s distinguishing features is how thoroughly they educate staff.

“We focus on espresso preparation and technique as well as the coffee and where it comes from,” he said. “Customers definitely look for that — they want to know everything about the coffee.”

Swings is located across the street from the historic Old Executive Office Building on G Street in downtown Washington, D.C.

Swings is located across the street from the historic Old Executive Office Building on G Street in downtown Washington, D.C.

Port City Java

Port City Java opened its first shop in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1995 and has since expanded to 26 locations across the state, one location in South Carolina, and one location in Washington D.C. Port City Java also has a location in Jordan and in Abu Dhabi. The locations’ fireplaces and couches make the shops community hot spots. The majority of Port City Java’s coffee is home grown, with farmers using conventional and organic methods to grow the beans. They also sell single origin coffee from Brazil, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Sumatra, and Colombia. Port City Java’s roasting output is 230,000 pounds annually, which translates to 8.93 million cups of coffee per year, according to WilmingtonBiz.com.

Swings Coffee

M.E. Swing Company has been part of the fabric of Washington D.C. since 1916 and is known for sourcing sustainable green coffee. Located across the street from the historic Old Executive Office Building on G Street in downtown D.C., the shop has been frequented by White House staff for years. Its rustic charm comes from the same original mahogany and mirrored fixtures, vintage burr grinders, wooden coffee bins, and counter-weight scales of its original location in the Mesco Building, which is now a retail location. Mark Warmuth bought the shop, which has a second location in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2006 from Patricia Swing, the granddaughter of co-founder Michael Edward Swing. When he acquired it, Warmuth did away with flavored coffees and food, instead focusing on high-quality brews from places like Brazil, Guatemala, and Ethi­o­pia, much to the pleasure of local coffee purists.