Baltimore's high-end coffee scene is not your average Joe

Armed with score sheets to rate nine coffee samples, barista Allie Caran holds court in the morning quiet of Woodberry Kitchen's normally bustling dining room.

At the farm-to-table restaurant's free Friday coffee "cupping," she guides visitors as they sniff, slurp and scrutinize Ethiopian Haru roasted three different ways.

Brightness relates to acidity, she tells them, describing it in terms of fruits or colors. Body means how it coats your mouth, like milk or juice. You even need to pay attention to how the smell changes when you break the foam on the first stir. But be warned: The novice taster can easily suffer coffee fatigue.

"Your first coffee cupping is your hardest," she says. "You might want a spit cup."

Move over, Starbucks. High-end coffee is taking hold in Baltimore, and it's not as expensive or as snooty as you might think.

With November's opening of Lamill Coffee at the new Four Seasons hotel in Harbor East and Artifact Coffee coming soon to the Union Mill development in Hampden, the city's coffee scene is starting to come into its own. In Hampden, two-year-old Spro is challenging traditional notions of how to make coffee, offering customers a choice of a half-dozen types of beans brewed any of seven different ways. Zeke's Coffee in Lauraville is inviting customers to sample coffee so exclusive it costs $20 an ounce.

"We're definitely on the cusp," said Jay Caragay, who owns Spro. "Baltimore is really thinking ahead. All these cities like Washington and New York that have been lauded in the past two, three years in coffee media — I think Baltimore's tiny little coffee scene is pushing ahead of them."

The Long Beach, Calif.-based Specialty Coffee Association of America defines top-shelf coffee in part as "properly handled, freshly roasted, accurately dosed and ground, and well-prepared."

Coffee connoisseurs still quibble, however, about what constitutes "high-end." As with wine, Americans are starting to ask about coffee's source — not just by region, but by country or even a particular farm. Indonesian coffees are earthy and grassy, while Central American beans taste a little ashy — especially when they're grown near volcanoes, said Zeke's owner Thomas Rhodes.

Coffee purveyors have borrowed wine descriptions, too, when comparing the taste, using color, fruitiness and foods that pair well. Then there's freshness — was it roasted less than a week ago? Locally?

Price is also a factor, but it's not always an indicator of quality. A $2.50 cup of Panama's Birdsong Honey coffee at Lamill could be as enchanting as a $7.50 cup of Costa Rica's Santa Lucia coffee at Spro.

The Charm City coffee scene started percolating a decade ago with the opening of Patterson Perk, Spoons Cafe in Federal Hill and The Filling Station, now in Sparks. Only recently, however, has high-end brewing caught on.

"Baltimore's always been kind of a slow roller," said Kris Fulton, cafe manager at Lamill. "I'm not going to say that every single person comes down here instead of going to Dunkin' Donuts."

Still, he said, "People are looking for a little more of an experience."

Lamill offers only five blends of coffee at a time, each costing no more than $5. But its coolness factor is off the charts. This is a joint where you meet someone you're trying to impress.

Behind the bar, baristas wait for customers in front of a white-painted brick wall. Through enormous floor-to-ceiling windows, you have a waterfront view, which will improve once boardwalk work ends and a construction fence is removed.

With beans ground on the spot, most coffee at Lamill is brewed with the hand-drip method, in which a kettle of hot water is poured into a ceramic dripper. It gives baristas control over the process and assures that the coffee hasn't been sitting around, Fulton said. Patrons can taste Lamill's coffee for free through Feb. 4 at Saturday "coffee clinics."

On a recent Wednesday morning at Spro, a green eye-shadowed barista patiently explained her preferred brewing technique for a $5.50 cup of Ethiopian Ardi coffee. She poured just enough water to wet the grounds in a small carafe that looked as if it were wearing a sweater. After adding the rest of the water and letting it steep, she strained the liquid through a V-shaped mesh.

Pairing Ardi coffee with the Eva Solo brewing method picks up more of the beans' flavor as the liquid passes through the grinds when poured into the cup. Customers who choose the vacuum pot method enjoy crisper and cleaner flavors from a two-chamber brewing device with a cloth filter between, Spro owner Jay Caragay said. French presses result in a heavier taste, as the brewing process leaves more sediment. These are but three of Spro's seven brewing methods.

"Each one impacts the coffee in a different way, much like a different method of cooking affects chicken," Caragay said.

Spro's coffee might be fancy, but its décor is not. Its neutral-toned main room seats only a dozen in straight-backed chairs and a very long bench. A pair of 44-inch-tall Japanese cold-brewing towers give the space the feel of an apothecary shop.

"Our model of coffee presentation is very different than the industry norm," says Caragay.

Baltimore's next high-end coffee shop, Artifact Coffee, is set to open in March just up the street from Woodberry Kitchen. Artifact started in 2007 as a "pop-up" coffee shop, designed to temporarily occupy the former foundry that became Woodberry. Now it returns under the guidance of Caran, who leads Woodberry's weekly coffee cuppings.

With her back to Woodberry's enormous sunny windows, she recently led her listeners through the fine points of tasting coffee. Don't sip like a Ruxton dowager, or the coffee won't reach all your taste buds, Caran advised.

"The louder you slurp, the better it is," she said

Here's where to taste high-end coffee and learn some lingo that will have you sounding like a barista in no time.

Lamill Coffee

Located in the Four Seasons hotel, 200 International Drive, Harbor East.


To introduce itself to Baltimore, Lamill is hosting free "coffee clinics" on Saturdays at 10 a.m. A lesson about beans and brewing will pair a tasting of coffees from Panama and Kenya with foods from Lamill's menu.

This Saturday, it's Black Velvet blend prepared using a siphon, with a menu to be decided. On Feb. 4, it will feature Birdsong Honey from Panama prepared two ways — in the V60 hand-drip process and the Eva Solo process — paired with beignets and chocolate sauce.

Woodberry Kitchen

2010 Clipper Park Road, No. 126, Woodberry


Barista Allie Caran, who plans to open Artifact Coffee nearby in the spring, holds a "cupping" every Friday at 10 a.m. in Woodberry's dining room. Part coffee klatch and part tasting school, Caran says it's a standardized way of tasting coffees and a chance to learn what "makes coffee so special, so spectacular." Think of it as "courting the coffee," she says. Come prepared to slurp.

Zeke's Coffee

4607 Harford Road, Lauraville


Unless you frequent Zeke's or follow it on Facebook, you missed tasting exotic Kopi Luwak coffee earlier this month at a "roastery." Luwak sells for upward of $200 a pound because the rare brew's beans are ingested by a Southeast Asian cat called the palm civet and harvested from the feline's feces. Zeke's plans to sell ground Kopi Luwak later this winter at $40 for two ounces.

Owner Thomas Rhodes said he is putting together tastings of coffees from Jamaica and Yemen. Check Zeke's website or Facebook page for future dates.

Spro Coffee

851 W. 36th St., Hampden


Owner Jay Caragay plans to mark the shop's second anniversary in March, but no events have been announced. Call the shop or e-mail for more information.

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