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Coffee culture. It's European. It's sophisticated. It' intellectual. It's comforting. It's hot, it's cool, it's hip.

And it's right here in Baltimore.

"I love coffee," says David Key, whose 10-month-old Fells Point shop, the Daily Grind, offers quintessential coffeehouse ambience -- funky, laid-back, bookish and intimately social. "It's a stimulant, but it's an intellectual one. It sharpens the senses, it doesn't dull them."

Plus, he says, the taste is great. "For a lot of people in this city, we're their first exposure to good coffee," Mr. Key says. "We're educating people. They're finding out, 'Hey, I really do like

coffee.' "

A lot of people have already discovered what a fine thing good coffee can be. Sales of specialty coffees have risen by more than 60 percent in each of the past three years, according to the

Trends Research Institute, a social research firm in Rhinebeck, N.Y., that examines trends in all areas of life.

In its most recent quarterly journal, the institute noted that the coffeehouse phenomenon, begun in Seattle ("the unofficial coffee capital of North America"), just in the last decade has spread to other West Coast cities, and in recent years has invaded Denver, Chicago, Washington and New York.

It doesn't surprise David Ortiz that Baltimore can now be included on that list. Mr. Ortiz is manager of the Cafe and the Espresso Bar at the new Towson store of the Seattle-based retailer Nordstrom. Seattle and Baltimore are a lot alike, he says. "They're both 'hometown' cities that still have a very comfortable feeling. People greet each other, people actually take time to relax. Baltimore people would stop for that cup of coffee and a chat." And, unlike some cities where specialty coffees are a novelty, "People in Baltimore really seem to know the drinks and like them," Mr. Ortiz said.

A liking for the new coffee drinks is a big part of their growth. Flavor is one of two factors the Trends Research Institute cites for the rise in specialty coffee consumption. "These coffees taste good," says its report. "People don't have to develop a 'taste' for fancy brews, as they did for the inexpensive, mass-packaged swill."

A good cup of quality

People "first discovered all the different flavored coffees," says Gerald Celente, director of the institute. "Now their tastes are maturing out of the highly flavored coffee drinks to the better-tasting beans. . . . They're going to these places for a good cup of quality."

The other factor in coffee's ascent, Mr. Celente says, is a decline in popularity of alcoholic beverages (down about 10 percent overall since 1979 among adults 26 and older, according to institute research). "It's going to keep declining," Mr. Celente says. "People are going to be drinking a lot less" as concern grows about safety, health, fitness and nutrition.

All this means that good coffee is likely to become more popular as it becomes more and more accessible.

Ed Meyers, who with his wife, Vini, has just opened the cozy Java Blues coffee cafe on Read Street, cites several reasons for coffee's allure: "the basic smell, the addictive nature of it . . ."

The Meyerses have a background in catering, and their tiny, cheerful, blue-and-yellow cafe has more of an emphasis on food than some of the others. Luncheon fare might include a salad of organic baby vegetables, a tarragon chicken salad, or a quiche; there are also pastries, cookies and desserts, including lemon or chocolate squares, and chocolate-dipped macaroons, all to complement the coffee, espresso, cappuccino, mochaccino (made with cocoa), and caffe latte.

The buzz of the '90s

"People want to feel good," Vini Meyers says. A cup of really good coffee, a little sugar in the pastry: There it is. The buzz of the '90s.

"It's the only thing we can get away with these days without feeling guilty," says Donna Crivello, a local graphic designer and caterer, who, with partner Alan Hirsch, will open a new "West-Coast style" coffee bar and cafe, Donna's Coffee Cafe, on Mount Vernon Place next month.

"It's really catching on," Ms. Crivello says. "People are really going for the taste of coffee."

Peter Nobel, whose sleek Coffee Cafe in Towson was one of the area's first coffee bars when it opened in May, says, "I didn't know what to expect when I opened, but I can feel a real excitement from the public." His shop is unique in that it roasts all its own beans on the premises. Recently he has expanded the shop's product line, with more coffees and some specialty teas. He is also experimenting with "cupping," or coffee tastings that are similar to wine tastings.

But there's more to coffee bars than coffee. "We're going through a dynamic social restructuring," says the Trends Institute's Mr. Celente. "The baby boom generation -- 76 million strong -- drove the trend to bars and discos in the '70s and early '80s. Then there was a lull, and hot spots grew cold. Now people are saying, 'Hey, I still want to go out, I'm still a human being, I want to talk to other people.' "

Coffeehouses, Mr. Celente says, appeal to the "ideology of an older population: You can sit down, meet a date, or a friend, or go by yourself."

"Personally," says Nancy Smanko, "I think people are getting away from the bar scene." She and partners Krista Apitz and Peter Huebeck are opening a coffeehouse cafe, to be called the Vanguard Cafe, in the old Bowen & King building on North Charles Street in early November. They plan to serve light fare through lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch, coffee, espresso, flavored coffees and even some coffee drinks, such as Irish coffee, with spirits.

Linda Richardson, whose art-and-sculpture-filled Cafe Montage opened on East Preston Street in May, says she discovered when she was researching the business before opening that there were a lot of coffeehouses in the United States in the Depression and into the '40s. "It was purely economic," she says. "People wanted to go out, but they didn't have the deep pockets to go to the Savoys, the restaurants of the day. . . . The coffeehouse offers an alternative for people who want to linger over coffee and dessert, or who want to go out and don't have the money" for an expensive restaurant or bar.

A need to bond

"I think, like many fads, it's a return," says Mr. Meyers. "Coffeehouses were popular in the '50s and '60s, and now they're back."

"I think people just need to feel closeness, a place to sit and talk," Mrs. Meyers adds. In the last few years, the political climate has encouraged people not to care about each other, she says, and she believes that is now starting to change. "People just want to be together, with warmth and caring and sharing as part of the experience of their day."

All the coffee bar proprietors mention comfort as a big part of what they can offer customers.

At the Vanguard Cafe Ms. Smanko and her partners plan to create an "Old World" atmosphere, with "vignette" settings of sofas and chairs as well as tables. "We're trying to make it a very comfortable setting, so you don't feel guilty about sitting and having a coffee," Ms. Smanko says.

Ms. Richardson wanted her cafe to be "a place where, whatever your ethnic or economic or creative background, you would be comfortable. . . . I'd like to think it's a place where you could bring a child -- or your grandmother."

"I'm not always in the mood to sit in a bar," says Joe Gorman, who opened the Corner Coffeehouse across from Hollins market just a dozen weeks ago. "Coffeehouses are springing up everywhere. I think it has a lot to do with an alternative to alcohol. . . . Someone can come in here and buy a cup of coffee and sit for two or three hours." Like the other coffeehouses, his has already developed a regular clientele who drop into the eclectic blue-and-white space for coffee, conversation, or quiet time with a book or paper. "That's kind of the idea -- everybody should have their cafe, where they can come in and be comfortable, where they're bound to know somebody."

For David Key, the appeal of the coffeehouse is "a relaxed place, a relaxed social setting. A single woman can't just go to a bar, but she can come in here." And, he points out, coffeehouses also appeal to other groups of people who don't go to bars: People who don't consume alcohol, people who are too young to drink legally, older people who don't care for the sometimes raucous atmosphere in a bar.

Although the Trends Institute points out that coffee bars offer entrepreneurial advantages over regular bars -- no liquor license, no restrictions on hours or ages of those served, a profit margin "at least equal to that of liquor" -- it's too soon to tell if Baltimore's coffeehouses will all flourish. To a person, however, the proprietors all welcome each other's presence.

"I know there are coffeehouses opening right and left," Mr. Nobel says, "and that just brings more awareness to the public. We're not all in the same place."

"The more people who are coffee drinkers, the better it's going to be for everybody," Mr. Key says. "I think coffeehouses are going to start a whole new community of artists and writers."

"There's a phenomenal amount of talent here," Ms. Richardson says. "I hope more places will open up, so the creative soul has a place to keep warm."

"It's about time," Mr. Gorman says.

Coffee beverage definitions

Even books on coffee sometimes differ on the exact makeup of a coffee drink, says coffeehouse proprietor David Key. However, the following is a list of some of the more common coffee beverages and how they are made, based on Mr. Key's versions at the Daily Grind in Fells Point.

* Espresso: Coffee beans are roasted until very dark, then ground very fine. Coffee is brewed by forcing water through the grounds. "It should be strong but not bitter, with caramel-colored foam on top," Mr. Key says. Espresso is the basis of many other coffee drinks.

* Cafe au lait, or caffe latte: One-third espresso, 2/3 steamed milk, with a little froth on top to keep the milk from filming.

* Cappuccino: One-third espresso, 2/3 frothed, aerated milk, so the drink is foamy.

* Cafe con leche: Equal portions strong drip coffee and steamed milk.

* Cafe mocha: One-third espresso, 1/3 steamed milk and 1/3 hot chocolate made with steamed milk.

* Aqua sporca: Espresso diluted with steamed water, or drip coffee with a shot of espresso.

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