You've ponied up the savvy and extra pennies for Westhampton Pastry Shop goodies and Farm to Family's Meow Milk, but you're seriously going to drop them into bargain-bin, pre-ground dreck? Say it ain't so. Thanks for the percolated memories, Folgers, Maxwell House and Juan Valdez, but we've secretly replaced Richmond's commercial coffee with seven microroasters chock-full o'passion. By the time you read this, I'll have earned my java stripes after 15 hours of hands-on instruction at illycaffè's Università del Caffè in New York City, but to get a proper bean-inspired buzz, all you have to do is support the "joe local" movement of craft batch roasters who lay expert eyes on every bean. Over a caffeinated 24 hours, I clinked mugs with most of them.
At Captain Buzzy's Beanery, Bob Buffington's vintage Probat G-12 roaster — 1,600 pounds of cast iron and steel — stands mighty in the window. "It's Church Hill's Pied Piper," his wife, Mary Ann, says. "Neighbors follow the smell." Bob refers to hand-sorted, triple-picked beans as "cherries" or "berries" and likens the buying process to trading pork bellies on the commodities
market. "We treat customers like stockholders. You want French roast but with Mexican beans? Small batching is not an issue," he says. "We ran a special for a regular," Mary Ann chimes in, "and named it Madeline's Blend." At Buzzy's, the customer is always right, "but the Captain is never wrong," Bob says with a laugh.
Black Hand Coffee Company's Chris Johnson, the cool cat with a ZZ Top beard, mans a modern Diedrich IR-12. "I go for flavor of the origin and roast as light as I can for every bean." Jen Rawlings, Lamplighter Roasting Company's babe of the black gold, concurs: "Let the bean tell you what to do." Michael James of Rostov's Coffee & Tea explains that drum-style roasters cook beans evenly, inside and outside. "Get ‘em hot and keep ‘em moving," says Rawlings. Of the 1930s Jabez Burns roaster at Rostov's, James waxes in they-sure-don't-make-em-like-they-used-to reverie. Like many of his colleagues, James roasts out in the open shop: "Just got to make sure when people are talking to you that a light roast doesn't accidentally become a dark roast."
Afterward, beans need time to repose and gas-off volatile flavors. Rawlings says that a batch at Lamplighter "sits for three days, lasts for three days." Once the beans at Black Hand are ready, says Johnson, "I don't care about anything other than making espresso and lattes." He's perfecting his microfoam barista art, too: "I watch videos and practice every day." At Shockoe Espresso & Roastery, Ryan Wirt's granddaddy-era 25-pound-batch L-12 is a tad larger than the Probat at Lamplighter. Wirt speaks affectionately of adjusting the flame by a quarter inch and babying the belts. "The Probat has its sweet spot, but it's finicky and takes a lot of TLC."
If white zinfandel converted America's cola guzzlers into wine drinkers, Starbucks is, to many, the entrée to gourmet coffee. Yet even if Starbucks is the gateway, it's not the promised land. "You mean Charbucks?" Bob chortles. "Because they dark roast everything." So what should the coffee cognoscenti drink? Local roasts, of course, but step away from the mocha syrup and whipped cream. "People who [add] milk and sugar beyond reason are not the people I stay up all night roasting for," says Rawlings. "And try more Americanos," Bob pleads, "made the right way, with long pours. I like it to kiss you, not slap you."
River City Roasters
Black Hand Coffee, 606 N. Sheppard St., 855-0800
Blanchard's Coffee Company, 5047 Forest Hill Ave., 687-9443, blanchardscoffee.com
Café Caturra Coffee & Wine, 3 Locations cafecaturra.com
Captain Buzzy's Beanery, 2623 E. Broad St., 377-6655
Lamplighter Roasting Company, 116 S. Addison St., 728-2292, richmondcoffee.net
Rostov's Coffee & Tea, 1618 W. Main St., 355-1955, rostovs.com
Shockoe Espresso & Roastery, 104 Shockoe Slip, 648-3734, millmountaincoffee.com
How much for a small cup?
Rostov's = $0.94, (also offers a half-price Cappy Hour, 3 to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday)
Lamplighter = $1
Black Hand = $1.39, just a buck if you bring your own cup
Shockoe Espresso = $1.53
Captain Buzzy's = $2.25
Café Caturra = $1.75