Even though the official Coffeeneuring Challenge won’t be back until the fall, for many, coffeeneuring never stops. And for some of us, bicycles and coffee are a way of life.
Sarah – a barista, bike rider, and member of BikeDC – completed the challenge for the third time this past October. Given the unique place that bikes and coffee occupy in her sphere, I asked Sarah if she’d be interested in a guest post.
Sarah offers an eye-opening and insightful exploration of people’s continued interest in blending coffee and bikes, the growth of coffee outside (including the setups she uses), and the resurgence of independent coffee shops in Washington, D.C.
I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I did, and thank you, Sarah, for guest posting today.
You’ve completed the Coffeeneuring Challenge three times now. What are your favorite parts of the challenge?
I really enjoy the challenge of trying new shops or visiting shops I don’t get to visit often, although each year I feel like I fall short of really branching out into new territory.
My favorite part of this year was doing two “coffee outside” entries.
You also work as a barista (at one of my favorite locales in D.C., too!). It seems as though there has been a resurgence and growth in independent coffee shops in cities, like D.C., as well as people’s support of them.
From your point of view, what is the current state of coffee in D.C., and what is driving the recent increase in local shops?
I think coffee drinkers are getting more savvy, and their palates are becoming more developed and more adventurous. This is super exciting and creates an environment where speciality coffee shops can thrive.
Specialty coffee draws a lot from the wine industry (and craft beer!) in terms of tasting notes and other details in processing. Increasingly, consumers look for more nuance, more craft, more attention to detail.
A sense of place and a story are likewise important; folks are curious about where their coffee comes from and who grows it. As a former librarian, when customers come into our shop with a sense of curiosity and adventure, my heart swells. This open mindset is so rewarding for consumers and for coffee professionals.
There’s also the aspect of folks being more cognizant of what they consume and the ethical implications, therein. What most speciality coffee shops provide is a more direct line to the producers of coffee. Through Fair and Direct Trade, there is a real effort to create more equity and transparency from seed to cup.
Someone who recently completed the challenge remarked that he found it difficult to find a traditional dark roast in his area, due to current coffee trends favoring lighter brews. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I have lots of thoughts! Like I mentioned earlier, specialty coffee owes a lot to the wine industry and a big part of that is this concept of terroir. Terroir is certainly complex, but a colleague of mine (she’s also a human geographer, which doesn’t hurt) put it beautifully by describing terroir as the way the human and physical landscape affect the taste of coffee (or wine, for that matter); which is to say, the type of soil, the climate, the many choices growers and producers make, and a myriad of other factors.
These factors will all vary from Colombia to Kenya to Ethiopia to Papua New Guinea. I say all this because roasting plays a huge role in highlighting these things. When coffee is roasted, volatile aromatics diminish the more, or the darker, a coffee is roasted; so in speciality coffee, medium (or even lighter) roast is preferred in order to preserve each coffee’s distinct characteristics.
For a darker roasted coffee, you are tasting more of the roasting process and not the coffee itself. I often liken this to eating steak well done – you are often tasting the grill and not the meat. (For vegetarian readers: it’s like cooking your portobello mushroom so you taste the grill and not the earthy goodness* of your shroom).
All that is to say, your individual preference should guide you. If you favor dark roast, think about the flavors that you enjoy. For example is it the chocolatey or nuttiness of a dark roast that you enjoy? Or maybe a fuller body? I would suggest checking out a coffee from South or Central America; even if it is a medium roast, those flavors will come out.
*Confession: I don’t really care for portobellos, but I acknowledge that many people do enjoy them.
What is your opinion about latte art, and does it make the coffee taste better?
I think when a drink looks beautiful, you tend to be more excited about drinking it. That said, ugly or lesser latte art can still taste delicious. It does take a lot of practice to be decent at it.
HUGE CAVEAT: if you are a skim milk person or a soy milk person, the latte art is highly unlikely to be be as pretty or crisp. Be gracious. There is a science behind why it’s trickier to pour good latte art with skim and soy, I promise, but I have multiple humanities degrees and my explanation will fall short.
Overall, as a barista, latte art is enormously enjoyable to do and something we regard as a kind of mark of our trade.
Coffee Outside (or Coffee Shops Without Walls, as they are known in coffeeneuring) have become rather popular in recent years. I think this method is also well liked by those who don’t have the same coffee options that a place like D.C. does.
But it’s also popular with those who like to brew their own cup and enjoy it outside. What setup/tools/coffee do you recommend for someone who wants to try coffee outside/a coffee shop without walls?
I love brewing coffee outside and many of my friends think I am bonkers for the lengths I go to, but they seem to enjoy the coffee I make them.
I have two go-to setups. If I’m super space conscious, I go with the Helix. It’s incredibly lightweight and packs down super small. The downside is that it does not retain heat while you brew, but it’s easy and so, so compact.
My other go-to is the Clever dripper. It takes up more space, packing-wise, but I’m such a big fan of this thing. I usually take the small (one cup) one, but if I really have a lot of space, I’ll take the larger one.
Another option, which I have yet to field test, but it’s pretty compact, lightweight, and user-friendly, is the Aeropress.
I have a Porlex hand grinder that I use for grinding my beans. It’s compact and easy to use.
As for coffee, I pick something versatile and tasty, and pre-weigh and dose it into baggies or something before I leave for my trip. I think I’d really lose camping buddies if I busted out my scale in the wild.
I usually start with 21 grams of coffee for about 300 grams of water. Speaking of water, this is where I draw the side eye from folks: I bring my own filtered water.
This seems extreme, but I contend that it is not. Coffee is about 98% water, so the stuff’s important. I usually grab bottled spring/mineral water or even just filtered water from home. I think it’s worth it.
I use my phone to time my bloom and pour(s), and there you have it, coffee outside!
This all might sound complicated, but I’ve got it down to an easy routine. Oh, and don’t forget proper filters. I learned that the hard way this past coffeeneuring season.
What are your preferred “with walls” coffee shops in D.C. and why?
Besides the coffee shop where I’m employed, I really love The Potter’s House. The folks there have really put a lot of time and intention into the coffee program and the space as a whole. It’s such a nice space, they make good coffee, and the people are lovely too.
I also really like Little Red Fox. This is a nice reward for biking up the hills to get there and the breakfast sandwiches are super good too.
Filter is also great (and very bike-friendly). There are so many shops in DC worth checking out.
What makes coffee and bikes such a good combination?
I appreciate the juxtaposition of movement and pause. Biking is so physically engaging and the ritual of drinking coffee can be so still. Both activities can be communal or solitary.
Describe the ideal bike-friendly coffee locale. Do any shops in the D.C. area, or that you’ve visited elsewhere, come close to that?
The ideal bike-friendly coffee place has ample and visible bike parking (and If I had my druthers, indoor parking, but perhaps that’s extreme).
I love The Coffee Bar on S Street. They have such a lovely outdoor space.
I love your coffeeneuring photos! How do you go about setting up the perfect coffeeneuring shot?
Thanks! I’m pretty introverted and I don’t like to draw a lot of attention, so much of my photography is a result of me trying to go unnoticed. It’s a bit of a hindrance, honestly, but I do what I can to capture the overall feeling.
I love natural light. I almost always use the camera on my phone, but occasionally I’ll bust out the DSLR.
What question did I forget to ask you that I should have?
What’s my favorite drink to make?
Right now, either macchiatos (the tiny ones) or cappuccinos. With whole milk.
What’s my favorite coffee currently? Tairora, a coffee from Papua New Guinea, roasted by Counter Culture Coffee. Pair it with a molasses ginger cookie, you won’t regret it.