Coffee roaster Michael Wood

isn't in the habit of making sales calls; usually when customers want to carry his Highlandtown-roasted coffee in a bar or restaurant, they visit the High Grounds Coffee Roasters coffee shop on Eastern Avenue and ask for it. But when Harris Teeter opened in Locust Point in 2012, Wood, High Grounds' owner, put together a box of samples and called on the store's manager, Chip Schurr. "I asked them questions I already knew the answer to," Wood says. "I knew that their business model included local products, was interested in organics, and included a conscience"-traits that High Grounds shares with the East Coast grocery store chain.


Enthusiastic, Schurr sent some product to higher-ups in Harris Teeter. They decided to distribute High Grounds coffee in all 220 of their stores. Wood got a call placing the first order on the Friday of Labor Day weekend this past September: "It was gigantic. It was ridiculous," he says in the backroom office of the coffee shop. "I spent an entire day just on logistics: boxing it, bagging it, labeling it. We do it all here. All hands were on deck, my entire crew, and we got it done in 10 business days."

Wood and his small staff removed the conference table from the office to make clearance for the 240 cases that initial order called for. "It took an entire FedEx truck to come and pick it up," he says. "It was the very first time we had something that massive." The company, originally started by Wood's friend/professional roaster Brett Bixler, launched in the Eastern Avenue space in 2005. Bixler taught Wood to roast in the early 2000s. (Bixler has since moved to Colorado Springs to open another roasting outfit.)

Despite its appearance as just another unassuming coffee klatch, High Grounds services even larger chains like Wegman's and Whole Foods. That the coffee beans he uses are grown in chemical- and pesticide-free environments and are also harvested by workers paid living wages is "really a big deal to companies like this," Wood says.

On top of that, Wood and his wife, Shen, funnel a percentage of High Grounds' profits, and their own earnings, to their charity, 100 Orphanages. "Our goal is to build and/or support organizations that have a housing facility, a medical facility, and a school," says Wood, a former pastor and teacher at the juvenile detention center Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Parkville. Wood left teaching to work full-time at High Grounds in January 2011 in order to better fund the philanthropic effort.

Ultimately, though, the superior start-to-finish quality of High Grounds coffee wins them placement in not just conscientious grocery stores but also local, craft-minded restaurants like Of Love and Regret, Annabel Lee, and Bistro Rx.

Wood sources beans from 17 countries, and he establishes personal relationships with plantations and coffee brokers to ensure he's getting up-to-snuff product: 100 percent shade-grown Arabica. "There are two kinds of coffees," Wood explains. "Robusto, which is grown in lowlands, is robust against pestilence, but it tends to be bitter. It's the typical coffee you drink when you're drinking Maxwell House or Folger's. It's very inexpensive. Then there's the highland coffees-mountain-grown coffees-and those coffees are called Arabica. And those coffees are not as robust against disease, but they possess so much more flavor."

Wood can sound like an oenophile. He speaks a lot about terroir. He elaborates on the conditions of certain coffee crops, detailing the particularly perfect harvest of High Grounds' naturally lemon-scented Ardi coffee, from Ethiopia. He enthuses about the Cup of Excellence-winning Colombian bean he scored-he's the only provider in the area-that's noted with almond, vanilla, papaya. He defines the term acidity, in relation to coffee, as "the element that pushes the flavors of coffee to the surface," and then breaks it down by country: "In Indonesia, particularly Sumatra, the way that they process their coffee is unique in the world, and it results in very low-acidity coffee-smooth, strong chocolate notes, it's syrupy, it's a buttery mouthfeel. If you jump over to Costa Rica, now you're talking about bright, real pop-in-your-mouth with the flavors, also chocolate, but not as strong."

Wood keys in on that acidity when he's roasting. "As the roasts get darker, those sugars [in the beans] metabolize and become neutralized. And so as a roast gets darker and darker and darker, the flavors become flattened out." In the backroom, a plastic tube filled with beans illustrates the different shades of roast, from the greenish-gray of an unroasted bean to the near-black super-dark roast. An ultra-modern 12-kilogram Diedrich roaster that uses infrared heat can churn out 100 pounds of roasted beans in an hour. There's a delicate art to roasting. Wood knows how best to highlight a Brazilian bean versus a Nicaraguan bean. He knows which bean varieties work best in French roasts versus Italian. He knows espresso needs a medium-dark roast to allow for a robust body but not a super-dark roast that would flatten the flavor. He monitors time, temperature, texture, color, and smell to craft the perfect coffee. "It's an artisan approach," says Wood. "They have computers now that can run a roast. I like doing it by hand. I'm watching the beans, I like to be close to them as they're cooking."

Wood's warmth, knowledge, and almost-therapeutic style of communicating attracts customers to High Grounds about as much as a finely crafted cup of coffee does. For him, he's offering a unique experience to coffee-drinkers, whether they're in Harris Teeter or in Highlandtown-but especially in the shop, which has 20 different coffee blends to choose from each day. "You can walk in any morning and go to a whole lot of different countries," he says. '"What do I feel like today? Maybe I want to go to Papua New Guinea.' It's fun."