The Gourmet Coffee Craze Hits Philly

Even Jose Garces has a fancy coffee to call his own. We break down the bean scene.

In Philadelphia, choosing a cup of coffee no longer means reaching for either the regular or decaffeinated pot at Wawa. Now, beans come with increasingly indecipherable labels—do you want “fair-trade” or “direct-trade” coffee? How about “artisan-roasted”? “Small batch” or “seed-to-cup coffee”? You can even buy coffee beans that have passed through the digestive tract of a tropical cat—yes, essentially cat poo coffee — for just $30 a cup.

In the past six months, several boutique coffee shops and brands have popped up on Philly radar. Bodhi Coffee, a café that serves cult-favorite Stumptown Coffee, opened at 410 S. 2nd Street in HeadHouse Square  in early May; even Iron Chef Jose Garces has debuted his own Garces Trading Company line of artisan coffee at his market of the same name, plus it will be served at a kiosk adjacent to his new restaurant JG Domestic Fine Food & Spirits, opening in the Cira Centre in September.

How does this java earn its gourmet status? According to J. David Waldman of Rojo’s Roastery in Lambertville, NJ, it’s all about babying the bean. Rojo’s Roastery cooks up the GTC coffee, guiding the beans from growing to roasting to bagging (i.e. “seed-to-cup coffee”).

The distinction between “fair-trade” and “direct-trade” is sticky. Fair-trade farmers are members of cooperatives through which roasters purchase beans. “Fair-trade can mean mediocre coffee and you don’t reward the grower—there is corruption in the coops,” Waldman says, decoding gourmet joe lingo. On the other hand, with direct-trade, the roaster has a face-to-face relationship with a particular farmer; they can reward him monetarily for growing the crème de la crème crop.

Purchasing coffee with such care is akin to the seasonal, local, organic produce movement. “The study becomes one of understanding the growth cycles and varying the availability of new arrivals, just like you’re not going to have an heirloom tomato in the middle of the winter,” the roaster says. “With coffee, you get one shot a year for each region.”

Once they’ve chosen the beans, Rojo’s focuses on cooking them attentively. “The ‘artisan’ label is more self-designated—it’s an acknowledgment of roasters who pay an extra degree of care to each step of the roasting process,” Waldman says. Artisan roasters work with much smaller batches of beans than their commercial counterparts, allowing more control over the process. “We roast everything lightly to develop flavor nuances in the roast,” he says.

“If you see a mahogany brown, matte bean that still has wrinkles on it, there’s a good chance that’s been roasted properly. Commercial roasters buy beans that are tainted and roast them dark and shiny enough to mask or obscure the underlying defects.” The sheen on a standard bean indicates that it’s burnt; the oils have migrated to the surface.

The pampering doesn’t stop at roasting. Boutique cafes like the new Bodhi Coffee make an art of brewing. As one of the few cafes that serve direct-trade Stumptown Coffee, Bodhi takes java seriously. “You need to show [to Stumptown] that you’re going to handle the coffee with a lot of TLC,” says Bodhi owner Bobby Logue. “We have a well-trained staff who know proper extraction techniques.”

Logue’s shop—which features counters and tables made of reclaimed and recycled wood—is dedicated to giving customers “the purest experience in coffee you can possibly have.” They use fresh, precise brewing and presentation methods, grinding each serving of coffee separately and brewing using the pour-over method. Baristas pour piping hot water over each cup of beans, giving a whole new meaning to “freshly brewed.” And the taste difference is distinct—a Stumptown Indonesian coffee I sipped had a tang of blackberries and plums.

Such care comes at a price. Bags of Stumptown beans go for about $13 at Bodhi; GTC coffees cost up to $14.25.

It seems that coffee—a beverage enjoyed worldwide by people of all backgrounds and classes—is becoming akin to wine: this morning pick-me-up deserves a sensitive, trained palate.