By Max Testa
As the number of independent coffee shops in the D.C. area has exploded in recent years, several best practices for serving truly excellent coffee and succeeding as an independent coffeehouse have emerged. The wide variety of new coffee houses in the area includes Compass Coffee and Lil’B Coffee and Eatery, as well as coffee houses from regions outside of the DMV (D.C.-Md.-Va.) area, like Rwandan brand Bourbon Coffee.
These are just a few of the new offerings in the last few years and these businesses represent several dramatically different business models. For example, Bourbon Coffee advertises itself as an African-based development enterprise, while Lil’B Coffee and Eatery is the latest offering from celebrity chef David Guas. However, there are a few ideas which seem to be mutually acknowledged by all of these shops.
Variety is a common aspect across the board, with each coffeehouse offering several distinct blends, varying not only in darkness of roast but also in where the coffee beans themselves originate. Compass Coffee offers nine distinct roasts categorized from light to dark, and by the origin of the coffee beans in the three major growing regions of the world; South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
According to David Guas, proprietor of Lil’B Coffee and Eatery, “Diversity is critical—Even if you come in every day, we will have provided six, eight, or maybe even 10 different varietals within a year’s time.” Kigali-based Bourbon Coffee also puts a premium on variety, offering blends made with coffee grown in distinct regions across Rwanda, each with unique flavor characteristics.
For some of the most successful coffee houses, the emphasis, interestingly, is not on serving complicated coffee drinks, but more focused on the natural complexity of the coffee roast itself. Compass coffee prides itself on unlocking the naturally occurring blend of flavors present in each of their roasts. According to its website, Compass Coffee’s idea of the perfect coffee is “Nothing fancy, nothing too crazy or hard to pronounce, just really good.”
In contrast, David Guas believes that “The serving and finishing styles are what truly elevate coffee programs and that is what separates a distinct coffee house from the mass-market of fast brewed coffee establishments.”
But while there are disagreements about style, the substance remains the same across all of these coffeehouses; quality coffee sourcing is an absolute must for any serious coffee establishment.
Lil’B Coffee and Eatery sources its roasts from Counter Culture Coffee, a high end provider based in Durham, N.C. Bourbon Coffee sources its own direct trade coffee from farms and estates across Rwanda, and Compass Coffee roasts its own, single origin coffee in-house.
Also key is the choice of pairings offered with coffee. It’s not enough to have great coffee blends and serving styles; a truly excellent coffeehouse has to bring more to the table. Lil’B Coffee and Eatery offers an adventurous take on this; founder David Guas says that “coffee is not only consumed alone or with breakfast goods or sweets, but with savory dishes as well.”
Whether it’s the variety, the roasts themselves, or the pairings, it is clear that the truly excellent coffee houses are the ones that blend not only great coffee, but also encompass great ideas of what a coffee shop should be.