By Andrea Bearce
Photography by Aimee Wenske
During the past decade, Austin has proudly played host to a bevy of craft brewers, charcuterie mavens and artisanal goods producers of every stripe. But until recently, coffee connoisseurs made only the rare appearance. That’s all changing rapidly, though, as specialty coffee shops have begun to percolate up throughout the city—awakening the masses to the joys of crafted joe.
Places like Houndstooth Coffee in the Rosedale neighborhood serve coffee of such impeccable quality that the addition of milk or sweetener borders on sacrilege; the lattes at Once Over Coffee Bar on South First hold the perfect temperature thanks to pre-warmed cups; and the organic, Fair Trade French press at La Boîte Cafe on South Lamar satisfies the demand for quality and ethics in one steamy mug. It’s this intense neo-dedication to the beloved brew that has Austin marked as the next coffee capital, and made it the location for the 2011 South Central Regional Barista Competition, hosted by Caffé Medici.
Talk to the owners of each aforementioned shop and they’ll gladly recount their experiences of coffee reconnaissance missions in other bean-happy American cities. Sean Henry of Houndstooth looked to Seattle and Portland for inspiration, while Jenée and Rob Ovitt of Once Over drew knowledge from New York and San Francisco. But while they may have looked beyond Austin’s borders for the initial inspiration, they’ve quickly gained the attention and respect of the consumers dwelling within.
Some have been dubious, fearing coffee elitism would taint their morning jolt. Slightly longer waits and occasionally heady explanations of the origin of a bean have caused doubters to raise an eyebrow. Is craft coffee just another stunt du jour pulled off by the skinny-jeans set, or can you really taste the difference? Austinites have answered with a resounding “Yes you can!”
“We just want to put more coffee in people’s hands because there’s so many great ones out there,” says Henry, of Houndstooth. “For our business, an educated customer is a good customer.”
To get the most out of both bean and barista, Henry recently took himself and two employees to Santa Barbara, California, for the Barista Guild of America’s inaugural Camp Pull-A-Shot, where they learned everything from manual brewing methods to milk chemistry. “You get a good feel for what people are doing in the industry elsewhere,” he says. “So we can continually try to make things better here.”
Michael Vaclav, owner of Caffé Medici, encourages his baristas to stay knowledgeable and passionate about their work, too. “Our macchinesti—this is similar to a sommelier for wine—is in charge of all of our training, continuing education, brewing techniques and general and specific quality control,” he says. “Go on and ask any barista about coffee . . . you will get an earful.”
At the end of the day, though, Rob Ovitt says, “even a good barista can’t make good coffee from bad beans.” And he notes that the beans themselves present a few factors and variables you just can’t manipulate. “It won’t cooperate,” he says. “It’s agricultural; it’s always different—every roast, every delivery—it’s a little different every day.” This is one reason why many specialty coffee shops shun the popular drip machines that offer less manipulability. But the Ovitts joke that on busy days, they wish they had an automatic machine like some of the larger chain shops. “It’s way easier not to do French press,” says Jenée Ovitt. “We do French press because that’s what we like to drink.”
While all shops are in constant pursuit of the perfect cup, they acknowledge the huge importance of atmosphere and customer satisfaction. “You can serve the best coffee in the world,” Jenée says. “But you need to provide good service in a comfortable place.”
The Ovitts want to spread the wealth, and encourage customers to grab a taco from the nearby stand outside and then get cozy at their full-length bar. They want Once Over to be the quintessential South Austin experience, where tacos and coffee go hand in hand, and a conversation with the barista flows as smoothly as Barton Springs.
La Boîte, the all-green shop housed in a repurposed shipping container, stuck to its convictions from the start by using a specially made blend from local supplier and roaster Owl Tree. The roasters helped co-owner Dan Bereczki source beans from nearby countries, like Mexico, El Salvador and Brazil, in an effort to maintain quality but lower the overall carbon footprint.
At Houndstooth, Henry keeps a tight focus on product quality, but says his mind is always on “the pattern of coffee and people.” He encourages customers to ask questions and join him in a weekly cupping, where various blends are sampled and flavor characteristics are identified. “We just want to share with whoever comes in,” he says. “I try to keep everything approachable.”
Caffé Medici also holds regular cuppings as a means for employees and customers to come together over a common interest. “Relationships are the most essential part of everything we do in this world,” Vaclav says. “It is the foundation of all things.”
The specialty-coffee movement in Austin is just getting started, but the longer it steeps, no doubt, the stronger it will become.