With white walls and machines, and long, clean communal tables, Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Mount Vernon feels more like a laboratory than a coffee shop.
It speaks to the nature of their craft: Making great coffee is a science.
Ceremony's opening in September was one more sign that Baltimore is moving beyond drip coffee and basic espresso and into what's been called the third wave of coffee. Newcomers like Ceremony, Argosy Cafe and 3 Bean Coffee are helping elevate Baltimore's specialty coffee market, a movement that was in its infancy a decade ago with a few early adopters locally.
"Baltimore's craft coffee scene is still pretty youthful — there's lots and lots of growth potential," said Vincent Iatesta, owner of Ceremony Coffee Roasters.
Iatesta had been operating his Annapolis-based roastery since 2002 before opening the Baltimore location at 520 Park Ave. It's not the only shop bringing a new level of technical advancement to the local coffee industry. Three Bean Coffee keeps instruments like refractometers on hand to measure the density of coffee in water, and it recalibrates recipes daily based on the age of coffee beans.
"We're trying to eliminate some of the subjectivity and trying to get to what the coffee is supposed to be doing at its most optimum levels," Ed Siu, 3 Bean's owner, said.
Siu's shop made its debut in September at 209 Key Highway. The shop followed Argosy Cafe, a restaurant that includes in-house coffee roasting, which opened downtown in August in the Munsey Building. James Shaffer, who owns the cafe with his father, Jay Shaffer, said from the start that he wanted the restaurant's coffee program to be as strong as its food.
"We're kind of in a weird market because everyone is so used to Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks here, and we're trying to break that," Shaffer said.
Ronnie Haas, Ceremony's director of wholesale, wants to see more restaurants up their coffee game. With 3,200 square feet in Mount Vernon, including classroom space, Ceremony Coffee is poised to facilitate coffee education for hospitality professionals and patrons alike. The shop hosts classes several times a week — highlighting techniques that range from texturing milk to pulling espresso shots — as well as weekly tastings.
"We feel as though we can be a catalyst to help propel the specialty coffee movement," Iatesta said. "That's why we're focusing pretty heavily on education."
But, Iatesta said, coffee can be fickle, and it's hard to replicate specialty drinks at home because of the science that goes into preparing a great cup.
As Baltimore's craft coffee market matures, Spike Gjerde, who owns Artifact Coffee in Union Mill, hopes to see more shops that express their personalities not only through their coffee recipes, but also through their atmosphere. The farmhouse feeling at Artifact is a world away from Ceremony's minimalist white space, but both deliver high-quality beverages and foster community.
Artifact opened in 2012 after Gjerde toyed with the idea for several years. On a family trip to California — before he opened Woodberry Kitchen in 2007 — he had a macchiato from Blue Bottle Coffee Co., which he described as one of the best cups of coffee he's ever had.
"It did change my life a little bit in that I got kind of seduced by coffee," Gjerde said.
The idea stuck, and Artifact was first conceived as a pop-up in Woodberry Kitchen's space while the building was under construction. The real shop opened five years later.
There are plenty of methods to brew coffee, and even more variables that affect each outcome — the coarseness of the grind, quantity of coffee, amount and temperature of water, pressure, time and turbulence. Many of the high-end coffee shops in Baltimore still offer batch brews and espresso drinks, but novel brewing methods like pour-overs, AeroPresses and cold brewing are beginning to gain traction. Below are a few techniques that set Baltimore's specialty coffee shops above the rest.
An AeroPress is the preferred method for making single-origin coffee at Argosy Cafe. The cafe has different recipes for each of its four single-origin varieties. Sometimes called the poor man's espresso maker, the AeroPress is a two-part, travel-sized tube. In one side, a barista places a filter, followed by coffee grounds and hot water. The coffee steeps for a designated time depending on the type of coffee, and the barista compresses the tube to push the coffee through the filter — weeding out the grounds and leaving a concentrate similar to espresso without the bitterness. That concentrate can be sipped alone or diluted with more hot water, served black or with cream and sugar.
Cold brew and nitro
Iatesta of Ceremony Coffee Roasters expects cold-brew coffee to continue to be a hot trend in 2016. Cold brewing is a simple method of making coffee by steeping grounds in cold water for up to 24 hours, then filtering out the grounds. Ronnie Haas, Ceremony Coffee's wholesale director, sees cold-brew coffee becoming more popular year round, rather than just in the summer.
Artifact Coffee uses the Japanese method for making iced coffee, which involves brewing hot coffee over ice cubes in a pour-over fashion. The heat melts the ice and dilutes the concentrate, and the pot is then poured directly over more ice.
The next level in cold brewing is nitro — cold-brew coffee infused with nitrogen. The nitrogen gives the drink a smooth creamy texture and frothy head, and it can be kegged and served on draft. Both Ceremony and Argosy Cafe make nitro coffee, and Haas expects it to soon become available at more bars across Baltimore.
There are different styles and systems of pour-over coffees. 3 Bean Coffee uses Silverton pots, which combine immersion brewing with pour-overs. The barista pours hot water over coffee grounds in the top chamber, where it steeps for about three minutes. The entire pot is then drained into a cup below and provides consistency from cup to cup. In standard pour-overs, the coffee drips through into the cup below as it's poured.
Even more consistent is the highly technical Modbar system used at Ceremony Coffee Roasters. The technology allows baristas to program recipes for coffees — variables including water temperature, grind size and amount of coffee — into the machine. Aside from providing nearly fool-proof consistency, the machine also gives the barista the freedom to engage with customers rather than focusing on the details that go into a perfect pour-over. Ceremony has similar technology in its two espresso machines.
Argosy Cafe is one of the newer coffee shops that roasts its own coffee.
"It's something you don't see very many places in the U.S.," said co-owner James Shaffer. "We thought it would be a cool way to kind of show people the whole process."
Sarah Walker, the shop's roaster and owner of Vent Coffee Roasters, gets Argosy's coffee mainly from local importers, and she typically roasts it in small, eight-pound batches. The shop offers light and medium roasts, but no dark roasts.
"So much of roasting is just trial and error," Walker said.
Shaffer said he'd like to see more shops do their own roasting. It's expensive to start up — a new machine like the one Argosy uses would cost about $21,000 — but ultimately provides a higher profit margin by cutting out the middleman.
"You're just getting retreads of the same brands over and over again as opposed to seeing someone take it all the way from paper to plate," Shaffer said. "That's when you'll start to get a lot of cool things happening."