Best Coffee in Baltimore

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Since moving to Baltimore a year ago, I’ve made it my mission to seek out the best caffeine options Charm City has to offer. A self-professed coffee snob, (remember my little coffee shop in the mountains?) I have pretty specific criteria for what grinds my bean.

  • Ambience: this may come as a surprise, but I don’t care how good the coffee is, if you can’t serve it in a real mug in an atmosphere conducive to hanging out, it won’t be on this list.
  • Coffee quality: yes, I am judging your espresso machine. A dirty set-up makes me nuts.
  • Authenticity: what makes the coffee shop unique? Is there a story behind the business? Can love be found in that cup?

Best Coffee in Baltimore

(in no particular order)

  1. Common Ground (Hampden) – this is a case where ambience trumps actual coffee quality. While they source good beans (from Ceremony and Zeke’s) their espresso game is errr…better to order a drip coffee and one of the excellent muffins. The place is very busy so the coffee is always fresh. Well-trod, eclectic furniture basically forces you to makes friends with your neighbor. With tons of character and charm, it is the neighborhood coffee house perfected.
  2. Ceremony Coffee Roasters (Mt. Vernon) – coffee done right. Supreme attention to detail, talented baristas and excellently roasted beans makes this place coffee snob heaven.  As far as coffee quality goes, this is Baltimore’s best. The shop itself is very clean and modern without being sterile. This company obviously cares about the coffee drinker’s experience. Great place for a meeting.
  3. Charmington’s (Remington) – Hooray! The trifecta! This shop is basic, but adorable and obviously well-loved by a strong group of regulars. I even saw a barista from a rival coffee shop coming in to order her morning joe (with her work shirt on!). The coffee (sourced from Counter Culture) is excellent and the baristas know how to prepare it, with love I might add. The service here was super friendly and quick. Charmington’s embodies what’s good about Baltimore.
  4. Jabali (Fell’s Point) – this place is so unique, I have to mention it. As far as authenticity goes, you can’t get more real than the owner roasting, brewing, and serving the coffee himself. Assembling homemade coffee sleeves from paper towels and a glue stick, the quirkiness of Jabali is irresistible. The shop itself is full of antique character without even trying. Which is why I hesitate to send you there, the place needs an update and  an investment in coffee equipment. But it’s a fun experience all the same.
  5. Red Emma’s (District North) – another unusual coffee experience that can’t be missed, this coffee spot offers affordable vegan/vegetarian food amidst a politically fueled book store. You have to see it to believe it! Great place to send visitors from out of town for a true glimpse into the Baltimore arts scene.
  6. Park Cafe & Coffee Bar (Bolton Hill) – adorable little nook with darn good espresso and food to boot. The place gets unbearably crowded during peak times, but it’s worth making the effort to get here for the impeccable service, sleek atmosphere and spot on coffee served in REAL mugs.
  7. Dovecote Cafe (Reservoir Hill) – not exactly a coffee shop, this cafe is has so much goodness, it must be mentioned here. You will be most welcome to snuggle up to homemade baked goodies and a coffee, but their breakfast and lunch items are not to be missed. There is a lot of love in this place, from the decor, to the menu, to the extra welcoming staff and customers, it seems like this place is a magnet for straight up friendly folks. Going to Dovecote just makes me feel good. Plus! They have an exciting, continuous line-up of art and food related events and are making a helluva a dent in a neighborhood that needs it.

So go check out these favorites if you haven’t already. And a quick plea to the coffee Gods: we are in need of a cozy coffeehouse here in Highlandtown/Canton/Patterson Park neighborhood. (Maybe it’s time Yellow Arrow makes a reappearance?)

You Were Made For This

Fisterre, Galicia, Spain
Fisterre, Galicia, Spain

After walking a bleary two hours from the beach up into the hills, along a forested trail in the Basque country, I stopped to take in the view from the courtyard of a church. It had rained that morning and the stone floor and walls took on a silver sheen. The ocean stretched gray and large out beyond the greenest sheep pastures. A pile of teen pilgrims slept under the church awning and all was quiet. Emotion grabbed me without warning. How how how was I here, after everything that had gone on, how was I still standing? Not only standing but walking at least 10 miles a day saddled with a heavy pack and a heavier heart. The answer rang in my heart louder than any call I’d heard before. I was made for this. For long, silent walks through the forest. For carrying my life on my back. For leaving it all behind to seek adventure. For seeking it on my own. This was what I was made for, this moment, when all that mattered was taking another step. I’d survived, thrived, won.

I had one of these moments today. A defining moment, a wake up call moment, a serene moment, a moment of pure joy. Yellow Arrow Coffee was full of people: a group of women discussing a fundraiser, each of them cradling yellow mugs in two hands, a pair of men one young and one older comparing ski stories over a late lunch, a tween, now one of my regulars, taking a break from studying to savor a cinnamon steamer, our mutual favorite flavor, an older gentleman reading the paper and squeezing an extra dollop of honey into his Fire in the Heart tea and assuring me he’d be back several times a week. And emotion grabbed me without warning. This this this was why I was here. Yes, vacuuming and washing dishes and wiping tables are less than glamorous. Yes, most of my waking hours are spent within the four walls of a basement room. Yes, it is a risk financially, professionally, personally. But being able to give those people today a place to chat, to sip, to savor, to enjoy, to relax, to ponder, well this absolutely answers the song of my heart. I was made for this.

When you come to Yellow Arrow, I want you to feel welcome, to feel at home, to feel like being there is a secret special treat between the two of us. So that’s why my friends you won’t be able to order a breakfast burrito or a bagel on the run. This is a place to hideaway with a tea that gives you déjà vu, to clink a cup with a real saucer and a silver spoon, to have another refill and watch the snow fall, to remember something magical about childhood.

So let’s lock the doors after closing and pour the perfect French press with Kona coffee. Tell me everything you know about Spain or Turkey or France. Spend the day on the red couch reading a book cover to cover. Get inspired to find the song of your heart.

Welcome.

Artisan Kona Coffee

A rainbow of coffee beans

At least a thousand chickens come running as I pull into the gravel drive of Mele Maluhia Farm, where Kona Rising Coffee is grown, harvested, and roasted. From tree to table, Maria DaSilva and Shawna Gunnarson are the artisans behind a truly special product.

It’s 5:00pm, about an hour away from sunset and time for the animals to get fed. Not only do they grow coffee, but the farm may as well be considered an animal sanctuary housing sheep, goats, pigs, geese, and turkeys, most of them rescued from dire straits. Shawna shows me around the farm, feed buckets in hand, tailed by geese and sheep. The 4,000 coffee trees on site are all organically grown, and because Kona coffee trees are indeterminate, meaning the beans do not ripen all at the same time, mechanically harvesting beans is out of the question. Every bean is picked by hand. In a typical year, that amounts to about 3,000 pounds.

Shawna leading the way through the coffee trees

The mother-daughter team then take that harvest and “pulp” the beans, that is removing the outer red skin, ferment them, dry them, hull them and roast them. Phew! I surely minimized the steps involved here, so you should know that tree to table coffee making is laborious, especially when producing a gourmet product like Kona Rising does. Maria and Shawna estimate they spend about 20 to 30 minutes creating their coffee per pound. Did I mention their yield is about 3,000 pounds? You do the math.

And it’s more than just the time spent on producing the coffee, but the attention to detail that goes into each step that impressed me most. Kona Rising does not roast their beans until ordered, ensuring the customer receives their order at it’s peak of freshness and tastiness. As Shawna described the roasting process, she began picking over the green, un-roasted beans in her hand, tossing out any bad ones and explaining that each pound that’s roasted gets the same special treatment. Find out more about their specialty roasts here.

Coffee ready to be roasted

Passionate coffee drinkers themselves, Shawna introduced me to the world of coffee cupping. In their tiny roasting kitchen, she heated water to exactly 195 degrees then measured out exactly nine grams of three different roasts, freshly ground, into each cup. The cups must also be a standard size and color and after previewing each roast by smell, added exactly four ounces of water to each cup. We waited about, no exactly, three minutes before using a special cupping spoon to remove the floating grounds and then sampled each coffee by slurping it as loud as possible. This allows the coffee to hit all your taste buds, plus it’s pretty fun. Cupping in this way is done when coffee is being judged for quailty. Judging is typically based on fragrance, aroma, flavor, acidity, body, uniformity, and balance. Like wine, coffee tasting is complex. Get a first hand glimpse of competitive coffee by attending the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival cupping competition on November 6th and 7th.

Over wine and cheese over looking a calming koi pond, Maria and Shawna describe the work they’ve done on the farm since taking it over in 2006. Most of the 4.5 acre property was overgrown at that time and needed to be cleared of invasive trees and shrubs to make way for more coffee trees and a slew of native trees and plants they’ve added since then. The farm had been using conventional practices for over 50 years, meaning it took some time to convert the land to the organic methods they use now.

While I would have liked to spread out my sleeping bag under the stars right next to the fire pit and stay awhile on this peaceful farm, it was time for a shot of espresso for the drive home. Not only do these farmers drink coffee all the time, I think it must run through their veins.

Going to cupping school

*Kona Rising Coffee Company is sponsoring me in the upcoming Kona coffee recipe contest on November 3rd. 

Cream of the Crop: Kona Coffee and Dessert Tasting

Kona Rising Coffee Co. offering up their excellent cold brew

Where can you taste all the very best Kona coffee the island has to offer and work on a sugar high at the same time? At the Cream of the Crop event held every August at the Four Seasons Hualalai of course.

Elite Kona coffee farmers and roasters face off in cupping competitions to see who has the best cup of joe in categories such as organic and estate grown coffees. There is also an amateur and professional Kona coffee dessert competition. Winners will be announced soon, check back here. Entrance, parking and coffee and dessert tastings are all free to the public.

Although it can get very hot at this event, the outdoor venue offers plenty of shade and the ever mindful Four Seasons supplies ice cold water for all. Live music plays in the background and a it’s only a short stroll to admire the shoreline or enjoy one of the resort’s restaurants. In addition to coffee and desserts, there are plenty of other vendors offering locally made products such as art and clothing.

Coffee highlights came from Kona Rising Coffee Co. and Buddha’s Cup. Good luck to all. If you missed the event this year, mark your calendar for next August.

Ka’u Coffee Festival Ho’olaule’a

Iced mocha from the Flyin’ Hawaiian

The Ka’u Coffee Festival‘s big event was held on May 4th in Pahala. Crowds of people from all over the Big Island and beyond gathered to enjoy the best coffees Ka’u has to offer.

There were plenty of coffee samples, ono food, crafts from local vendors, music, dancing, and the “Ka’u Coffee Experience,” a sampling of coffees prepared in a variety of different methods by brewing experts.

Clouds for days but no rain

Who knew there were so many different ways to make coffee? The coffee experts carefully weighed the beans before grinding, brought the water up to specific temperatures before brewing, and showed us that the size of the spigot matters when pouring water over coffee grounds. The most unique brewing method was the cold brew; ice slowly melts and drips through a coffee filter to create a special drinking experience 12 hours later. Now that’s caffeine commitment.

Cold brewed coffee

We enjoyed a teriyaki beef plate made with local beef by the 4-H club and an iced mocha from the Flyin’ Hawaiian coffee truck. Our favorite coffee of the day (although it was extremely hard to choose) came from Rusty’s Hawaiian with great, fruity flavors.

4-H’ers say, eat local!

If you missed it this year, mark your calendars for next year’s Ka’u Coffee Festival held in spring in Pahala.