Baltimore’s coffee landscape looked very different when Jay Caragay opened up his shop in Hampden in 2010. There was no Ceremony just down the road, not to mention places like Artifact Coffee, Good Neighbor and Vent Coffee Roasters, where customers can buy green coffee beans and sip Portuguese-style iced coffee mixed with club soda.
“When we opened this place it was really bringing a new approach to Baltimore,” said Caragay. Spro, barista shorthand for espresso, was a rare haven for coffee purists. Caragay eschewed brewing machines in favor of techniques like pour overs. He sourced beans directly from farmers. “This kind of approach was very radical at the time.”
And yet, this past weekend, Caragay served the shop’s last pour over and cold brew. He shut down the business on Hampden’s Avenue, where he moved after starting his coffee shop at the Towson library. A separate location in Cockeysville will remain open for coffee roasting and then reopen for on-premise consumption later this year.
Caragay said that with the pandemic, Spro saw a 90% drop in revenue overnight. “Recovery from that has not been as fruitful as we would have liked,” he said. He noted that other Avenue stalwarts, Trohv and Ma Petite Shoe, shut down last year amid the pandemic, developments he called “a definite wake up call.”
Right now, Caragay, who previously ran a Hawaiian shaved ice business in Timonium, is exploring new business options including possibly building a coffee facility internationally. “I do a lot of coffee judging for coffee competitions, including in Eastern Africa and other parts of the world,” he said. A flavor wheel drawn on a dry-erase board in Spro charts aromas and tastes, which can range from caustic to alkaline, and piquant to acrid.
Spro’s closure marks the end of an era for local coffee aficionados including many who worked there over the years. Today, Sarah Walker owns Vent coffee roasters in Hampden’s Union Mill Collective, but says she worked at Spro in 2012 after moving back to the area from California, where she had been studying third wave coffee, a term that refers to the post-Folgers, post-Starbucks era of specialty brewing that emphasizes roasting styles and relationships with coffee farmers.
“I had moved out specifically to learn third wave,” she said. Years later, Baltimoreans are spoiled for coffee shop options, but back then, she says, “There wasn’t really much happening outside of Jay. He was doing something unique to Baltimore.”
He used methods rarely seen in Charm City, such as Kyoto towers, imported from Taiwan, which brew coffee over a 12-hour-period. “We did almost every brew method … That wasn’t going on at other places.”
But the small staff at Spro, including Caragay, weren’t the stereotypical coffee snobs Walker had encountered on the West Coast. From him she learned “coffee’s not that serious… Sometimes it’s just coffee and we need to reign it back in a bit.”
Spro’s last day of operation was Sunday.