Caffeinated Commonwealth

Virginia brews up a passion for great coffee.

Barista Ryan Moser at Brick & Mortar, Richmond.

Photography by Adam Ewing

If you’ve ever woken up one morning and found yourself wondering “Am I taking coffee too seriously?” then clearly you have never attended a round of the U.S. Coffee Championships. Because, yes, there is such a thing as the U.S. Coffee Championships. 

At the regional U.S. preliminaries hosted in September by Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company in Richmond, 23-year-old Ryan Moser of Richmond’s Brick & Mortar pulled a couple of espressos on a gleaming stainless steel La Marzocco machine. Were his flavor descriptors accurate? Was there a round and full-bodied mouthfeel? Was his espresso “served in a 60 to 90 mL vessel from which judges must be able to drink as required without any functional detriment to their ability to score accurately”? Moser had seven minutes to produce two espressos and two “milk beverages,” with a panel of clipboard-bearing judges scrutinizing his every move, ready to render their verdicts on matters painstakingly outlined in the barista competition’s 24-page guide to rules and regulations: flushing the group head, harmonious espresso-milk balance, proper usage of cloths. 

Brick & Mortar board.

Welcome to coffee’s “third wave.”

If the first wave was, broadly speaking, the rise in coffee consumption fueled by major brands like Maxwell House and Folgers and focused on convenience (pre-ground and instant) and affordability, then the second wave marked the growth of coffee as a specialty beverage and consumer experience—think Starbucks, second wave’s most recognizable, world-conquering brand.

The third wave, however, is all about the coffee itself. The emphasis is on quality, economic equity in the global market, mutually beneficial direct-trade relationships between growers and roasters, single-origin beans, lighter roasts, more complex flavor profiles, brewing innovations—and, of course, the rapidly proliferating small-batch roasters and craft coffee shops found anywhere there’s a handful of 25-year-olds with tattoos and Instagram accounts. 

And if Virginia doesn’t (yet) command the name recognition in coffee that other regions—like New York and the Pacific Northwest—do, nevertheless, we can boast a thriving and fast-growing bean scene of our own. From the hundreds of millions of pounds of coffee that move through the Port of Virginia every year, to the many third-wave roasters and cafés taking root across the state, to the Blanchard’s preliminaries event—which drew competitors from as far away as New York, Ohio, and Illinois—we’re decidedly team caffeine.

Barista Ryan Moser’s “rosetta.”

Virginia’s third-wavers, who regard coffee as equal parts calling and career path, want you to know that coffee has a story: one that begins with a farmer perhaps thousands of miles away and ends with that cup in your hand. They want you to know that, right now on the global commodities market, coffee sells for less than it costs those farmers to grow it, and that direct-trade isn’t a feel-good marketing angle with a premium price but rather a cornerstone to assuring the economic sustainability of those growers and the future of coffee itself. They want you to know that “coffee” shouldn’t be a uniformly generic experience; rather, how and when and where the beans are grown, harvested, processed, shipped, roasted, ground, and prepared all should express themselves distinctively in your cup. And yeah, they know you probably don’t have time to hear all that when you’re grabbing yours to-go on the way to work, but they want you to understand that the coffee choices you make really do have an impact.

And no: Asking for milk and sugar is not a crime.

Meet some of the people who are making Virginia’s coffee scene flourish.

The Regional Roasters
Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Co.

Richmond, BlanchardsCoffee.com 

Launched in 2005 by David Blanchard as something of a side hobby, Blanchard’s found itself quickly growing in reputation—and production volume—thanks to a partnership with local food manufacturer Ukrop’s. Blanchard’s now roasts between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds of coffee daily, serving retail outlets, restaurants and cafés, and direct-sale customers both locally and online.

“The Richmond scene really started to grow during the economic downturn,” says Stephen Robertson, Blanchard’s director of sales and marketing. “We saw a lot of people investing in small luxuries that did not cost a lot, and we really started to ride that wave.”

Coffee ready to ship.

The Rural Contenders
Red Rooster Coffee

Floyd, RedRoosterCoffee.com

Why launch a small-batch specialty roasting company in a one-stoplight rural Virginia town? It might seem an impractical choice. But Haden Polseno-Hensley, who owns Red Rooster with his wife, Rose McCutchan, says they knew they could “count on the community that was automatically going to support us because we were a local business.”  

That support (and a lot of hard work and hand-selling) paid off—today Red Rooster roasts 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of coffee a week, employs 30 people, ships nationwide, can be found in shops from New York to North Carolina, and has garnered multiple awards in national competitions—all while emphasizing ethical business practices and environmental sustainability. 

Polseno-Hensley says it’s easy to “go all the way down the rabbit hole” with coffee, obsessing over “the minutiae of information and all of the endless possibilities when it comes to roasting and brewing coffee.” In the end, however, “I am devoted to people drinking coffee whatever way they need to,” he says.

The Economic Booster
Kevin Hughes, director of economic development

Suffolk 

Not coffee, but tea—Lipton has been processing here for nearly 70 years—set the stage for making caffeine an economic mainstay for the Suffolk region. But then Massimo Zanetti Beverage, which sources and roasts coffees for major brands like Hills Brothers and Chock Full o’ Nuts, established a roasting facility in Suffolk in the 1980s. And last year, more than 300 million pounds of coffee beans moved through the nearby Port of Virginia. Now, thanks in no small part to actively promoting itself as Virginia’s “Caffeine Capital” for business, Suffolk may soon become home to the first East Coast roasting site for the popular West Coast brand Peet’s. From here, Hughes hopes to keep building the buzz by drawing in a supporting network of suppliers like packaging manufacturers.

Drive along the Route 58 bypass in Suffolk and you can often catch of whiff of roasting beans from the 24/7 operations at Massimo Zanetti. “That,” says Hughes, “is the good smell of industry.”

The Global Ambassador
Todd Arnette, owner

Academy of Coffee Excellence at Williamsburg Coffee & Tea, Academy-Of-Coffee-Excellence.MyShopify.com

Given all the challenges, from weather events to price fluctuations to the many inequities in the supply chain, “It’s actually a miracle that there is a consistent supply of specialty coffee or even great-tasting coffee,” says Arnette, who for 25 years has been traveling the globe, working to promote economically and environmentally sustainable, high quality, direct-trade coffee “from the tree all the way to the coffee-makers.”

Today’s consumers, says Arnette, have come to expect better quality coffee. Now, he says, the next challenge will be getting them to really think about that coffee supply chain and to vote with their cups for ethical, sustainable coffee practices. “The things that you taste in coffee—good and bad—come from somewhere.”

Bins of roasted coffee.

The Groundbreaking Pioneers
Rostov’s Coffee & Tea

Richmond, Rostovs.com

When Jay Rostov opened a coffee shop in a moribund Richmond shopping district in 1979, his inspiration was part necessity: Nobody at the time wanted to employ a single father of two pre-teen girls, says his daughter Tammy, now 

the second-generation owner of the business her father founded. But if Rostov wasn’t setting out to set the stage for Richmond’s coffee future, when he began roasting a year later with a second-hand roaster (still reliably operating today), “He felt like Richmond was ready for it,” says Tammy. 

“The Richmond coffee industry as a whole owes a lot of homage to them,” says Stephen Robertson of Blanchard’s—as “the only game in town” for years,

Rostov’s educated Richmonders to appreciate carefully sourced, freshly roasted coffee.

“I think there are a lot of people in Richmond who can blame my father for their coffee habit,” Tammy jokes.

After 40 years in the business, Rostov’s has seen coffee trends and coffee challenges come and go, but serving customers has remained the focus of the business. 

“The more people who love great coffee,” she says, “the more it makes a better world.” 

Dawn Shanks’ winning Peach Ginger Coffee Flip cocktail.

Photo by Dawn Shanks

The Successful Competitors

Mo Koolphanich serves up a honey and Thai basil coffee cocktail.

Photo Courtesy of Mo Koolphanich

Mo Koolphanich, beverage director

Slipstream, Washington, D.C., SlipstreamDC.com

Dawn Shanks, director of education

Peregrine Espresso, Washington, D.C., PeregrineEspresso.com

Virginia residents Koolphanich (Rosslyn) and Shanks (Old Town Alexandria) took first and second place in the coffee championships preliminaries “coffee in good spirits” cocktail event, each securing a spot (along with fellow Virginian Ryan Moser) in a semi-final round of the championships in Nashville in January.

In both drinks, the competitors wanted to capture a taste of the lingering days of summer. Koolphanich headed to the South of the James Farmers’ Market in Richmond for inspiration on the morning of the event, returning with the honey and Thai basil that would flavor the whiskey-based cocktail she presented to the judges. Shanks took advantage of a “ridiculous amount of peaches” her roommate had brought home from a trip to create the syrup she incorporated into her rum flip, a light, modern take on a traditional egg-based cocktail that has been around in various forms for hundreds of years.

Get Koolphanich and Shanks’ recipes here.

Home-brew Like the Pros

Want to make great-tasting coffee at home? While you can get truly obsessive about beans, equipment, and methods, Blanchard’s experts say a few simple tips can make a big difference:

• Use a kitchen scale to measure both water and coffee; a ratio of 16-17 grams of water for every 1 gram of coffee is recommended for manual or automatic drip.

• Use filtered water.

• Use freshly roasted, good-quality coffee, and grind it just before brewing (a burr grinder is recommended).


This article originally appeared in our February 2020 issue.

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