Shop's closing, but his life's still steeped in good coffee

February 19, 2003|By ROB KASPER

BACK IN 1974 when Tom Thompson, then a teacher in the Baltimore City school system, got into the Baltimore coffee business, no one asked him if he knew about coffee beans that were "bird-friendly," "certified organic" or "fair trade." Instead he was asked if he was a Catholic.

The enterprise he was buying, the J. Edward Custy Coffee Co. near the Hollins Street Market, did a lot of business with Catholic institutions around town. Proprietor Marie A. Custy and her associate, Lillian T. Kogler, wanted to be sure the young man who was bidding for the family business was the right sort.

"I had to sell myself to them as a bona-fide Catholic," Thompson recalled. "I told them I went to St. Mary's Elementary School in Govans and Towson Catholic High School. I had to recite all the names of the Catholic seminaries and convents around town." This performance put the women at ease, he said, and when he told them that his mother and his sister had graduated from the Institute of Notre Dame, the deal was done.

But to make sure that Thompson handled their old customers properly, the two Custy women, along with their deliveryman, Henry Keys, regularly visited Thompson's Chestnut Street operation.

"They schooled me," Thompson said. "They taught me the delivery routes, the loose-tea business and how to blend coffees, mixing Colombian beans with Brazilian to get house blends. They showed me the path to good coffee."

Now that path has taken another turn for Thompson, who, at 55, is getting out of the retail side of the business. His Coffee Mill shop, which has dispensed good beans, flavorful brew and lively conversation in Hampden since 1974, will close this week. Everett Ellis, Thompon's longtime assistant at the shop, is hoping to open a similar shop on 36th Street in coming weeks.

Thompson, meanwhile, has begun to work for the Baltimore Coffee & Tea Co., selling coffee to commercial and wholesale accounts for the Timonium-based concern. His new duties, he said, will be easier on his health and still keep him in the swirl of the area's coffee culture.

That culture, he told me, has changed markedly over the years. As an example, he talked about the various phrases some customers use nowadays when asking about how the beans they are buying are produced.

"Bird-friendly" coffee means, he said, that a grower cultivates his coffee under the canopy of shade trees, which serve as nesting spots for tropical birds. "Certified organic" means, he said, that the coffee is grown without the use of pesticides and fertilizers. "Fair trade" coffee means that the beans come from a grower who has agreed to pay a living wage to his workers.

Thompson thought that many of the coffees sold in his Hampden shop met these standards. Yet he began carrying coffee from the Java Journey Coffee Roasting Co. of Baltimore that costs a little more per pound than other coffees, but had its organic and bird-friendly claims clearly stated on the label and its backup paperwork in order. His new employer, Baltimore Coffee & Tea, will soon be adding coffees that are certifiably organic and free trade, he said.

"It is a niche market," Thompson said. "There is some demand for it." While he was initially skeptical of coffee labeled "organic," thinking it was just a marketing tool, Thompson said he has come to appreciate it. The certification process has become more credible, he said. Moreover, he said, "Generally speaking, your organic coffee is better quality, and comes in smaller crops."

And, most importantly, the coffee tastes good. Whether your cup of coffee is bird-friendly or sold by a good Catholic boy, what matters most, Thompson said, is its flavor.

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