On a tepid Saturday morning in April, the Baltimore 32nd St Farmer’s Market is always busy. Parents chase their children through the bustling crowds. Hipsters disguised as farmers pick up every vegetable to ask if it is organic. A potentially homeless man sits at the entrance with his guitar and his dog, playing a tune for the dancing kids. In the commotion, you easily miss the coffee stand with an aging white and wrinkled tent, scattered cups, and a cockeyed lines of coffee-bean bags, around which the market’s craziness slows.
Even at the Farmer’s Market, Zeke’s Coffee, a brewing company native to Baltimore, asserts a quiet dominance, as evident by their line wrapping through other vendors’ tents. Brett Rhodes, cousin to founder of Zeke’s Coffee, watches the snaking queue of customers proudly from his station inside the tent. “It’s 7:30 AM Saturday morning, and I’ve seen at least ten college students who rolled out of bed for a hot cup of Zeke’s coffee. Our coffee is good. Really good. It’s not any fancy brewing here at the tent, but it takes a decaffeinated version of you and makes you better,” comments Rhodes. Zeke’s continuous success at the Farmer’s Market proves it has all the trappings to become the root of a coffee revolution in Baltimore. With a trendy label, a homegrown story, and a small business motto, the question becomes: will businesses like these ignite a Coffeetown in Baltimore?
CEREMONY COFFEE ROASTERS
Ceremony Coffee Roasters, originally based in Annapolis, Maryland, expanded their business of microbrews and mochas to Baltimore. Located down an off-road from the main bustling action of Mount Vernon, the minimalist coffee shop contrasts its city surroundings with stark glass walls peaking into a crowded space of caffeinated comrades. Light-washed wooden décor patterns the seating arrangements, which is split between a large community table and smaller individual tables, where laptops are forbidden. The overflow of light creates a serene ambiance, one that would be photographed and put on Tumblr as a must-visit for any self-respecting hipster. Nick, a twisted mustache sporting-plaid shirt wearing barista, took a moment to describe Ceremony Coffee. “I’ve been working here for a few months,” he says. “I love it here. So many people roll through, but the coffee is definitely the best in the city. It’s always busy here, but never packed. It makes this space feel cozy.” On a Sunday morning after a long week, quiet hipster heaven is the perfect indulgence.
The barista bar at Ceremony Coffee is located in the middle of the café, forcing customers to admit their caffeine addiction as the center of attention. Ceremony Coffee Roasters offers a variety of high end coffee and specialty hot drinks, including a delectably foamy latte and a light but sweet mocha. Lily, a young barista working at Ceremony Coffee Roasters, had little to recommend from the menu. “It’s literally all good,” she claims, which is very unhelpful while attempting to weed through the various options. Lily, however, is not wrong; there’s not much to specifically point out from the menu because, quite frankly, everything is recommendation-worthy.
Ricky, a manager at the Baltimore Ceremony Coffee Roasters, spoke to the coffee joints success since its opening.
“We’ve been doing great in Baltimore, people here not only seem to love the unique coffee tastes, but I think they enjoy the aesthetic and the environment curated by Ceremony as well,” he says.
When asked about the potential for the coffee industry in the city, Ricky had some mixed feelings.
“We were started in Annapolis. We’re as homegrown as they come. I think moving to Baltimore was a great call, just for the sheer amount of potential customers. I’m personally from this area, and I’ve definitely seen the coffee industry grow. I wouldn’t call it a revolution, and I don’t know if it will pick up enough pace to become a Coffeetown anytime soon. In the meantime, we’re just enjoying our customers and our coffee.”
Hidden along a street of yoga studios, consignment shops, and boutique stores, Spro Coffee in Hampden is a caffeinated gem. The narrow café is lined with a few tables and extends backwards onto a patio. The reclaimed church pew at the shop’s entrance sits next to a glass window, allowing natural light to seep into the quiet ambiance. The succulent decorations and open-air space give customers a break from the grit of Baltimore. While the typical Baltimore odors of urine and burning rubber are always charming, Spro pours scents of warm coffee and fresh greenery into the customers’ cold, senseless souls. The ambiance is undoubtedly snug, allowing the customer to soothingly seep into their most likely unhealthy coffee obsession. No music and no WiFi allows for no distractions from the most important focus of Spro: the coffee.
The baristas at Spro are trained for a coffee battle. They take their jobs seriously, to say the least, a concept that was illuminated by Katie, a self-proclaimed witch and proud Tumblr blog writer. “When I started here and did my training, they told me that everyone needs coffee, but not everyone knows it. They told us that when people come into the shop, we’re their tour guides into the coffee world.” Katie elaborated on this, explaining that the Spro menu is filled with everything from run of the mill coffee to more specialty items with brewing techniques that sound like they came directly out of a science fiction movie. Jay Caragay, owner of Spro, popped in for conversation to add that no one needs a P.h.D to enjoy coffee; all they need is a guide. Spro is that dangerous foray into the very addictive world of caffeine.
Caragay himself is an international barista competition judge, and is undoubtedly optimistic about the potential of coffee growth in Baltimore. “Baltimore is an eclectic and quirky city filled with eclectic and quirky people that need to be caffeinated just as much as anyone else,” Caragay says. “There’s no reason why coffee shouldn’t grow in Baltimore. Coffee beans are like meat: you can sautee it, season it, prepare it in a million different ways. Same goes with coffee; it can be made into a million different things, so why shouldn’t everyone have it?” When asked about challenges in Baltimore becoming a Coffeetown, Caragay focused on logistical accommodations, stating, “Realistically, I don’t know if Baltimore has the volume capabilities to handle pushing out that much coffee. It’s still starting. Maybe in a few years, you’ll see Spro waving the Baltimore Coffeetown flag.”
Within recent years, the desert of decently good coffee in Baltimore has been replenished with actually good coffee. From your standard cup of Joe to the minimalist microbrew, the city’s caffeinated manifesto has swept through, making way for Baltimore’s new identity. “The City That Reads,” “The Greatest City in America,” and “Charm City,” some of Baltimore’s greatest slogans, are all ready to be retired with the emergence of the new moniker: Baltimore, Coffeetown. On the topic of rechristening as a Coffeetown, Baltimore natives and visitors had motley opinions:
“It’s no Seattle,” says a woman, from Seattle, visiting one of Baltimore’s more up-scale and minimalist coffee shops.
“Meh,” says a security guard holding a 7-11 coffee cup.
“Yeah Baltimore coffee is really good. I’m from New York so we have good coffee there too but I’ve been in Baltimore for three years now and I think it literally fuels me because I definitely don’t get enough sleep, I’m always doing work, but I really like coffee too so I usually try and get good coffee instead of watered down coffee crap because what’s the point if it’s going to taste like shit?,” rambles a MICA college student looking strung out on no sleep with four empty cups in front of her.
Whether or not the entire community is aware of the current coffee uprising in the city, Baltimore’s coffee shops undoubtedly expand past your run-of-the-mill-convenient-store-instant-coffee caffeine fix. With specialty brew shops, unique takes on classic caffeinated drinks, and passionate business stories, Baltimore may not be Seattle yet, but it is undoubtedly dipping its toes into that boiling pot.
This piece was written for consideration in Baltimore Magazine.