Tour of coffee shops around town reveals hill of roasted beans

HAPPY EATER

January 25, 1995|By ROB KASPER

I was following David Key to the back of the Daily Grind coffeehouse when I saw a semi-famous shaved head. It was Frank from "Homicide," the detective whose smooth head and intense attitude light up in the NBC series set in Baltimore. Frank, whose real name is Andre Braugher, was reading a book '' and sipping coffee.

Key nodded hello but kept walking. Key was accustomed to members of the show hanging out in his Fells Point coffeehouse. He was more interested in showing me his stars, the dark coffee beans he roasts.

Key, who calls himself the head bean counter of Key Coffee Roasters and its affiliated Daily Grind Coffee House, is one of the city's small coffee roasters. I stopped there during my tour of the big and little coffee roasters in Baltimore.

The big roasters, such as Baltimore Coffee & Tea Co., Eagle Coffee Co. and Pfefferkorn's Coffee, ship much of their coffee to gourmet shops, restaurants and grocery stores.

The little operations, such as Key Coffee Roasters and Cuppers in Pikesville do some wholesale business, but they sell the bulk of their beans to people who walk in their doors.

Key beamed as he looked down on his roasted beans. The beans were darker and oilier than some of the other coffee beans I had seen. This, he told me, was by design.

"We roast a little darker than most other people in town. But we are not as dark as a Seattle roast," he said. This prompted a discussion about dark roasting between Key and his sales manager Gayle Nelson. If you roast a coffee bean too much you eliminate some of its flavors, he said. "There is the initial oomph, but nothing after." The trick, he said, is to roast the beans so you get both oomph and the subsequent flavors.

He talked about a few other coffee fine points, such as blending. Often a good coffee is made by blending two or more kinds of beans, Colombian beans, for example, with some beans from Ethiopia. "That way you get a well-rounded cup of coffee that you taste all over your tongue," he said. His espresso is a five-bean mixture, he said.

After viewing the beans, we jumped in a car and went to visit the coffee roaster, which had recently moved from the back of the coffeehouse to an old broom-factory building in Canton. As I gazed at the machine, Key explained that this was a "fluid-bed roaster," and compared it to a hot-air popcorn popper. Blasts of 550 to 600 degree air lift green coffee beans into the air, he said, and cook them while they are airborne. Cooking with air ensures an even roast, he said.

Finding Cuppers, another small roaster, was a bit tricky. It was in Pikesville, behind things. Sue Berndt, one of the owners, gave good directions.

Remembering her instructions, I turned off Reisterstown Road at Old Court, drove about a half a block to Bedford Avenue, then turned left into a parking lot and found Cuppers. It was next to a post office loading dock.

Cuppers was a bright, airy place filled with tables, chairs, coffee beans and fudge. The coffee was roasted in the front of the store in a French roaster. The guys, Sue's husband Bob, and Jim Sandoz, roast the beans. The fudge is made in the back by Sue. Once the guys made the fudge and it ended up in a big ball.

The roasters, Jim and Bob, grew up together in Catonsville. They started Cuppers a year ago along with a third partner Stan Varlas. It is a family operation, with teen-age children of the owners helping out. Sue supervises the store. The men hold down other jobs. Bob is a salesman. Jim teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

It makes for long days, but everyone seems to have maintained a sense of humor. The store's cut-rate coffee, for instance, is named after scientist Werner Heisenberg, who, according to Jim, was a major player in the field of uncertainty. So when one of the coffees is of "uncertain" quality, it goes into the "Heisenberg blend" and is marked down.

Many of their customers are Orthodox Jews who want their coffee to be kosher, Bob said. Keeping your coffee kosher, Jim said, essentially means making sure any added flavoring does ++ not violate kosher dietary laws. It also means having a rabbi periodically inspect the coffee-making operation. Cuppers complied and is now kosher.

The concept of kosher was new to Bob and Jim. "We are just a couple of Roman Catholics . . . from St. Mark's in Catonsville, trying like heck," Bob said.

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