Image by Tegan Harmony | Design by Scott Murry
It’s after work on a Thursday and I’m talking to Chris Malarick, head roaster for the local coffee outfit Barismo. Tonight is the industry unveiling of their new roasting location in a shared Somerville space with up-and-coming brewer Aeronaut and localvore delivery service Something GUD. There is a palpable buzz in the air, largely thanks to Barismo’s generous espresso service and Aeronaut stouts, but even more so from the inside track scoops around the room about the Hub’s burgeoning coffee scene.
“You can’t drink every variety of locally roasted coffee in one week,” I tell Malarick. “It’s physically impossible. I tried. It’s fun, but impossible.”
Witnessing this boom in good beans first-hand, it helps to sip in context. Greater Boston’s relationship with coffee is a strange one; we birthed one of the biggest, blandest outlets on earth–Quincy’s own Dunkin’ Donuts–and were also one of the first cities to forge contemporary coffee culture when George Howell established his Coffee Connection chain. It’s all pretty complicated; after Howell sold his stores to Starbucks in the ’90s–and Dunkin’ kept on reproducing like rabbits in a Viagra patch–the city’s bean scene became overrun by grotesque branded corporate caffeine dealers.
History noted, in true Boston fashion, a revolution’s now afoot. All over the city–heck, all over the state–micro-roasters are popping up and pouring their hearts into a product, while their efforts, equally industrious and artisanal, are being rewarded by a growing number of people who understand that good coffee isn’t just for snobs or elitists, but rather a product of highly knowledgeable, highly skilled craftspeople who work somewhere between the realms of science and art. Furthermore, they care about their communities as much as you do.
As for the industry talk around town … We caught up with Barismo’s Chris Malarick, Sharon Hepburn of Mystic Coffee Roasters, and Flat Black Coffee’s David House to take the temperature of Boston’s roasting scene. Long story short: Things are heating up.
CHRIS:About six years ago I moved into Boston from the suburbs where I grew up and I was working at a corner coffee store in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood … That’s where I discovered better coffee; it was through my first Ethiopian Natural Process that I had there that I discovered the wealth of flavors beyond roast levels, just the chocolate and caramels, that there was a vibrant fruit there. That was the beginning of the rabbit hole. I stumbled on Barismo and would make frequent pilgrimages out from Jamaica Plain to Arlington to watch them roast and have coffee.
DAVID: When I went to grad school we had a program, that if our department raised money, the school would match money. So we started a coffee kiosk that ran on the honor system. After 60 days, it started generating money which was pretty cool. Just a dollar a cup–get your cup and leave a buck–and that worked out well for us. You know, instead of doing car washes, or ya know, bake sales or anything like that, we put out a coffee stand. And as far as I know, the department still does that.
SHARON: I’ve always worked in industries that coffee is a very good lubricant for. I used to work for various photo processors back in the ‘80s working in the dark. You really need some caffeine to keep you going. Later on I was a software engineer, a lot of late nights. Software engineers probably consume more coffee per capita than any other profession. I’ve also done a little bit of traveling. It was kind of an eye opener when I went to Europe and especially Italy drinking the coffee over there and how great it was without needing to be dark. It was just like, ‘Wow this is really good, very flavorful, and it doesn’t taste like charcoal.’
DAVID:When we started, there weren’t a lot of independents in the city. It wasn’t too long after George Howell sold his stock in Coffee Connection to Starbucks … That left a huge void in the city. Starbucks just kinda rolled in and took over everything. Now there is a lot more competition in the city, every neighborhood has their own little coffee shop, which just didn’t exist 10 years ago.
CHRIS: There’s a growing awareness for the kind of approach that we implement here and our peers do nationally, but I will say that it is a very old city and with that there are a lot of old habits. And that trickles down to the coffee that people are accustomed to drinking. Over the years they grow up with bitter coffee that requires sugar and cream and this, that and the other, and there’s still a large demand for that–there’s still a lot of shops that are looking for that.
DAVID: There’s a little bit of overlap just ’cause we’re selling a similar product but no, I don’t consider them competition. Three of our stores are right across the street from Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s a different product … We used to have a slogan that we wake up to roast our coffee, unlike the other guys that wake up to make their donuts.
SHARON: It is really tough to get past the Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks kind of thing. You’ve got one extreme and the other. You’ve got a kind of not particularly flavorful or strong coffee and then you’ve got a very heavy, dark-roast kind of coffee. Trying to get the word out that you don’t have to have a dark roast coffee to be really flavorful and delicious is really tough. So that’s kind of tough but once people become regulars and they start tasting all the different types of coffee that we have it’s easy.
CHRIS: [The challenge] is getting people to understand the diversity and the dynamic range of flavors available in coffee, in trying to get them to try new things–new roasters, new coffee, new preparation of coffee. Getting them to buy into that.
Image by Tegan Harmony
DAVID: I love being in Boston. We’ve … consciously kept all our business in the city … we roast in the city … all our shops are in the city. We try to source locally if we can. Kinda tough with coffee beans [laughs] but we roast out of one of our shops. But we’re also a real, small microroaster. We roast small batches, with a real impact on the community. And we’re across the street from the old Baker Chocolate Factory, which used to be the nation’s largest chocolate factory. They used to roast all their cocoa there. And I guess the cocoa has a very similar smell to the coffee because people in the neighborhood say it brings back a lot of memories of the old days for them.
SHARON: When somebody comes in and they’ve never been here before and sits down for a cup of coffee or a cappuccino or something, they come over and say, ‘This is the best coffee I’ve ever had.’ That is so satisfying. But also, we’re really starting to get a bit of a coffee culture in the area. I’m trying new coffees–don’t know if you know about an Heirloom Coffee in West Medford, they import Southeast Asian type coffees like Vietnamese. We’ve worked together quite a bit and [are] trying to find new and different kinds of coffees and figuring out how to roast them. That’s been really gratifying too.
CHRIS: It’s a small community but it’s a growing one and that challenge allows us to build these relationships and build new dynamics with local coffee shops and new customers and new neighborhoods. I think being able to link our partners, the coffee shops and the customers that frequent them, with the producers that we work with at origin [is rewarding] … We’re just really passionate and really nerdy people and we really are excited to welcome our community into that mindset and take them on the journey with us a little bit.
SHARON: Just learning about the different kinds of coffee that aren’t very popular or very easy to come by, they’re really, really interesting. Just getting people to taste it and a lot of people have become really big fans of our Vietnamese coffee and we have one from the Philippines now that people have been hooked on. [Regarding Filipino coffee] … I don’t have a lot of it and I just started roasting it within the last month or two. And it’s really interesting. It’s definitely even more unique than the Vietnamese I think. Hopefully we’ll be getting some more in larger quantities. Lately I’ve only been able to get like 10 or 20 pounds into the shop in the last few months. That only lasts me like a couple of weeks. I really ration it.
CHRIS: There is a growing awareness of the culture of coffee in Boston and that’s part of the reason we’re so excited to move into Somerville, to really embrace the community and work here. We’ve been doing this for a little while and it’s something that we’re really passionate about and it’s something we want to share with our neighborhood and our peers.
SHARON: One thing I’d like to try to change is the idea that if you like good coffee, you’re a coffee snob. Anything outside of a coffee chain; they’re kind of snobby about coffee, and I am totally not. A lot of people come in and they’ll say, ‘Oh I want a cup of coffee. Don’t look down on me for putting milk or cream in it,’ and I am so not like that and I don’t think people should be. If you want to drink your coffee whatever way you want, that’s totally up to you. I’m not going to tell people how to drink their coffee. So the idea that a nice coffee or café or coffee roastery is going to be a really snooty kind of place, I hope people can get past it.
DAVID: Well, I wish it were more of a community. It’s more competitive in nature it seems. Ya know. Where we are all doing the same thing, it would be nice if we were all together, ya know, sharing … sharing information, sharing the common goals of educating people and trying to raise the bar for good coffee. A lot of things simply come down to … ‘I’m from here and you’re from there,’ and we all do the same thing. In general, we’re all roasting specialty coffees. Trying to provide the best we can.
CHRIS: I’m really excited to see more local shops embrace local roasters, and really buy into that whole transparency of relations from origin, from the farmers, to our importing partners to the roaster and the cafe. I think it’s those relationship from A-to-B all the way down to Z that make it such a special industry to work in. Seeing more and more shops, more customers become aware of how dedicated the people are all along the way. We’re just really passionate and really nerdy people and we are really excited to welcome our community into that mindset and take them on the journey with us.
Barismo has Middlesex County on lock. From Voltage and Simon’s to Clover Food Labs and Fromaggio Kitchen, you can find them in all your favorite Cantabrigian haunts.
171 Mass Ave., East Arlington barismo.com
BARRINGTON COFFEE COMPANY
Sure they roast way out in the Berkshires, but mountain folk make good coffee, and the beans are fresh when they show up on Friday (Thursday is roast day.)
346 Congress St., Boston 857-277-1914. barringtoncoffee.com
BOSTON COMMON COFFEE
There are few things greater in this city than sitting on the Common sipping iced coffee on a beautiful spring day. We suggest the cold-brewed at this downtown beachhead for something from the Hopedale-roasted bean peddlers.
515 Washington St., Boston. 617-542-0595. bostoncommoncoffee.com
Simply stated, we have a weakness for Brazilian pastry. And by weakness we mean we have a problem. And we like to accompany our sweet bread and fried casava fix with this Everett-roasted Brazilian brew.
1727 Revere Beach Pkwy., Everett. 617-381-1700. commongroundcoffeeroasters.com
Equal Exchange doesn’t quite fit the scope of this article–being one of the nation’s most respected names in fairly traded coffee makes them a bit macro for this roundup–but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention how much we adore them.
226 Causeway St., Boston. 617-372-8777. equalexchange.coop
Hands-down the best reason to wake up in Forest Hills–except maybe J.J. Foley’s Fireside Tavern, but that’s another article altogether. While you can find their product at farmers markets around town, you can find us sipping cups and strolling through the Arboretum.
3710 Washington St., Jamaica Plain. 617-477-4519. fazendacoffee.com
FLAT BLACK COFFEE
The flagship store and roastery are located in the Lower Mills neck of Dorchester, but you can find Flat Black outposts on Broad, High, and Franklin Streets downtown, where they wire the Financial District.
1170 Washington St., Dorchester. 617-823-2032. flatblackcoffee.com
The paterfamilia of Boston coffee culture, Howell’s return to the scene he helped start was a welcome one. His Terrior brand is adored by coffee nerds across the nation, and you can find it at hot spots like Sip Cafe, Crema, and the George Howell Cafe in Newtonville.
312 School St., Acton. 866-444-5282. georgehowellcoffee.com
MYSTIC COFFEE ROASTERS
You’ve been looking for a reason to visit friends on the outer edge of Somerville, and Mystic’s collaborations with importers Heirloom Coffee are that reason. Also recommended: complementing your fresh roast dinner at Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Davis Square.
30 Riverside Ave., Medford. 781-391-0042. mysticcoffeeroaster.com