Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Attention, Jay Caragay! I suck.
Last fall I took a trip to Kentucky to visit my parents, during which time me and my mom drove out to Maryland together to visit my brother and his family for a few days (nine hours in the Buick with a box full of Rodgers and Hammerstein CD’s – I won’t deny it: some seriously cheesy white people singing went down). My brother lives in Eldersburg, a smallish community west of Baltimore, so in between catching up on General Hospital with my sister in-law and attending my nephews’ little league games, I got a chance to pay a visit to Spro Coffee in nearby Towson, Maryland. Here’s what I think about Spro Coffee: FUCK YEAH!!!
Seriously, I have been dreaming about that coffee ever since. I think I may have encountered the platonic ideal of espresso. No joke. But let me get into the particulars…
Spro Coffee is owned and operated by a character named Jay Caragay. I was familiar with Jay because he is the co-host of the portafilter podcast (which I have mentioned in this blog before) and because I saw him compete in the 2006 U.S. Barista Championships in Charlotte, N.C. I particularly remember his presentation, because he made a specialty drink involving a liquid (was it half and half?) that had been infused with cigar tobacco. Not for the first time, I found myself sitting in the audience at a barista competition wishing I were one of the judges so I could TASTE this stuff. I also knew of Jay prior to visiting his shop because he is something of a vocal presence on the coffee internet; he’s outspoken, irreverent, and not one to back down from a verbal online tussle. So… imagine my surprise when I learned that this man’s coffee “shop” is actually a kiosk located inside the local library. That’s right. Mere feet away from the spot where Miss Nancy treats the children of Towson to heartfelt readings of Where The Red Fern Grows during story hour, this shit-starting, smartmouthed badass of the Third Wave plies his trade.
I love this.
Anyway, over the course of an afternoon spent hanging out with Jay, I tried three different drinks, and they were all stupendous. The first was, of course, a cappuccino, made by Jay himself. This was it (yes, I took a few sips before I took the picture. Sorry to ruin your viewing pleasure.) It was textbook: smooth liquid-y foam and espresso that complemented the sweetness of the milk perfectly. Jay had recently made the decision to switch from commodity milk to organic milk from grass-fed local cows; in my estimation, the change was worth it. (You can read more about the agonizing decision to switch to better-quality-but-more-expensive milk on Jay’s blog.)
After I drank the cappuccino, the lovely barista in the picture (whose name I am blanking on because it’s been MONTHS since I was there – see title above) made me a house specialty drink that was equally impressive. In the intervening months, the memory of exactly what that drink was has failed me. But I remember that it involved honey, and it was nice and small – about the size of a macchiato – and it reminded me of Italy, where they know how to make flavored drinks without blenders and without the need for a 20-ounce plastic cup with a domed lid.
After two excellent drinks and some hangout time at the library, Jay took me over to nearby restaurant Woodberry Kitchen. And that’s where I saw god. We were just hanging out, taking a look around, and shooting the breeze with the restaurant’s owners (who formerly operated Artifact Coffee out of that same location) when Jay jumped on the restaurant’s 2-group Synesso and pulled me a plain old shot of espresso. Holy heck. It’s hard to put into words just what made this shot of espresso perfect, but it was certainly my idea of perfect. It was round and full and delicious; it was simply the coffee-est tasting coffee I’ve had in a very long time. And that is saying something. As has been noted repeatedly in the recent press about specialty coffee, the world of high quality coffee has adopted some of the attributes and affectations of the world of wine. Among the people who are doing exciting things with coffee, a lot of effort has been going into raising awareness of the terroir of individual coffees, and this often involves isolating or emphasizing the component flavors that make a particular coffee unique – a note of cherry over here, a floral aroma over there. Roasters, baristas and tasters alike, we’re all sitting around marveling at the melon-rind flavor in this coffee or whatever. Last time I was in Tulsa, I had a Guatemalan coffee that tasted a lot like pork chops. I kid you not. I mean, we are talking delicious, wonderful pork, king of the beasts. But still. This is something new. Espresso made from single-origin coffees rather than blends is new. Third Wave shops using their clovers to get customers to pause and identify the hint of hibiscus in their coffee is new. The cappuccino I had at Lulu’s in Santa Cruz a few weeks ago that was like somebody shoved a fruit basket up my nose is NEW. Don’t get me wrong. I have been REVELING in all these coffee experiences. I love all the experimenting that’s going on. I love that American roasters are playing around with espresso (and coffee in general) in ways that are standing Italian conventional wisdom about espresso on its ear. I love coffee that tastes like pork!
But it was nice, on this particular day back in September, to have a shot of espresso that was so perfectly espresso-ey. It was complex and simple at the same time; there were multiple taste sensations, but they were in such perfect balance that it would have been very difficult to single them out; they just gave me an overwhelming sensation of… COFFEE. That single shot of espresso has had some serious staying power in my psyche too. I’ve been tasting it over and over again in my imagination in the months since, which is extremely rare for me. (No kidding, the sense memories I have been having of this particular espresso would impress even the Norma Desmond-esque old bat who endeavored to teach us the Stanislavski Method back in film school.) Both Spro Coffee and Woodberry Kitchen get their espresso from Hines Public Market in British Columbia. So I guess a big shoutout goes to them. And to Jay for pulling such a beautiful shot on a machine that had mostly been sitting around doing nothing all day. And (I guess) to the folks at Synesso for making a good machine, and to the folks at Woodberry Kitchen for maintaining it.
(How did this suddenly turn into an oscar acceptance speech? All that’s missing is god and my agent.)
Anyway, thanks, Jay, for giving me a memorable coffee day! And sorry for taking so long to get around to writing about it! (see title above.)
CORRECTION - FEBRUARY 27, 2008:
I got the following update from Jay Caragay yesterday about his barista and about the coffee they serve at Woodberry Kitchen (owned by Spike, referenced below)...
"The barista that you met in the picture is Arianna Travaglini. She's a great barista who's been with me pretty much from the start of Spro. Like me, she likes to get up and travel the world from time to time.
Oh, and just a correction before Spike's roasters get their feathers ruffled. It's only when they run out of coffee that I give them a bag (or two) of Hines to tide them over until their next shipment. Their main roaster is Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, NC."