Sniff, sniff. Stir. Sniff.
Inside Zephyr Green Coffee Importers on Julia Street, I'm hovering over a small army of tiny porcelain cups filled with chocolate-colored coffee grounds, wafting my hand in the air, chemistry class-style, in an attempt to beckon forth their aroma. The person to my left — a swishy-haired employee in Sperry Top-Siders — laughs and shakes his head: "No, you have to get your nose closer to the cup. Try not to inhale too deeply, though, or it'll go up your nose."
Crouching like a swimmer poised on the high dive, I position my nostrils over the edge of the miniature cup, close my eyes and take a firm whiff.
It doesn't work quite right. I proceed to inhale a small latte's worth of grounds and fall back into a sniffling, sneezing mess. Clearly, I am a first-timer.
"That's happened to all of us, don't worry," consoled a fellow coffee sniffer, grinning.
While I usually prefer passing coffee between my lips to getting it lodged in my sinuses, today my duty is to do just that as part of my inaugural "coffee cupping" experience. Coffee cupping is the process of evaluating a coffee's aroma and flavor profile through smell and taste, determining its unique olfactory qualities and mouth feel. The highly patient team at Zephyr — which imports high-quality raw (green) coffee beans from sustainability-focused farms the world over — is a youthful group but possesses enviable coffee expertise.
The next "cupping" step is to taste the wares. We quickly aspirate and spit out the coffee into personal, handheld spittoons, moving like a game of caffeinated musical chairs and emitting the kind of guttural noises that would make farm animals blush. Sniff. Spit. Sniff. Spit. Someone nods approvingly about a Vietnamese bean with a floral, honeysuckle-like bouquet, and we all marvel at a Brazilian coffee that tastes uncannily like Lipton iced tea. (Even I could taste that one.)
The team at Zephyr undertakes this sensory-intensive practice each morning at 10 a.m., examining the flavor profile of beans with surgical precision. The attention to detail is meticulous, as six members of the small staff cycle through swishing and snuffling roughly 50 cups — five different cuppings of 10 beans.
Zephyr's foray into the specialty green coffee trade marks the latest wave in a long stream of coffee importers who have made their homes in New Orleans, which has had the premier coffee port in the U.S. for almost two centuries. The Port of New Orleans and coffee are inextricably linked, with 15 warehouses devoted solely to java, and the world's largest coffee silo — Silocaf — located inside Orleans Parish lines.
Nationally, the reach of New Orleans-style coffee is more prominent than ever before, thanks in large part to California-based Blue Bottle Coffee. The company's 18-hour cold-brewed, chicory-tinged iced coffee has become a darling on both coasts and is served in San Francisco and New York coffee shops in charmingly twee milk cartons.
The recent influx of newcomers to the city has diversified the coffee scene and created a strong demand for the specialty stylings that once were all but absent. The movement has been swift and strong, even wending its way into older coffee houses that never would have explored unfamiliar techniques like pour-over a few years ago and causing restaurants to rethink the quality and execution of their coffee programs.
For decades, the conversation in New Orleans largely has been about quantity — how many metric tons of beans can be shipped in, how many iterations of local chains can open across the region and how New Orleans can better export its unique chicory coffee tradition to a national audience.
In today's New Orleans, though, coffee makers are starting to think small. A new generation of coffee revolutionaries is changing the conversation from quantity to quality, making the case for coffee in New Orleans to become an imaginative craft on par with cocktails and meticulously executed fine dining. Over the past four years, this specialty coffee scene (sometimes called "third-wave coffee") has bloomed, with practitioners setting up shops in pocket-sized nooks and crannies, intensely focusing on the artistry of coffee from bean to cup.
New Orleans' next generation of baristas has a few key tenets that set it apart. First, each of these places — from Spitfire in the French Quarter to HiVolt in the Lower Garden District — is intensely concerned with sourcing the highest-quality products from microroasters across the country. These microroasters primarily use single-origin beans grown within a specific geographical area, or "microlot" beans, which can be traced to a single field, farm or day of harvest. The connections between farm, roaster and coffee shop are strong.
With so much care given to bean selection, it follows that the unique flavor of the drink itself — not a bunch of gussied up add-ons — is the focus of specialty coffee. In a complete inversion of the pumpkin-spiced, "skim-hold-the-whip" chain coffee shops that continue to sling milk-and-sugar concoctions passed off as coffee, New Orleans' new espresso experts are spotlighting how delicious coffee can be when it is stripped down to essentials.
"The specialty coffee scene is coming in, and we're showing people what coffee can be without a bunch of milk and sugar," says Lauren Morlock of Solo Espresso. "It can be this really great drink all on its own."
Morlock and fellow coffee experts are serving pour-overs, cortados and Japanese Oji drip cold brew to a new wave of coffee enthusiasts thirsting for these handcrafted, high-quality drinks.
One of these aficionados is Lauren Fink, who launched Cherry Coffee inside Stein's Market and Deli in 2013. "I moved here and there was nowhere that I could find the kind of good, specialty coffee I was used to," Fink says. "I had pour-over setups all over my house. It was so nerdy. I think a lot of people are moving here from places where they were used to having that kind of coffee, and it's really changed the landscape."
New Orleans' specialty coffee boom is led almost entirely by a crew of savvy young women, who are bringing the coffee culture they loved elsewhere to this city. Along with Morlock and Fink, Renee Blanchard of Church Alley Coffee and Jane Srisarakorn of Arrow Cafe are a powerhouse foursome, pioneering the current coffee movement.
"I remember the first time that Lauren from Solo came by, and I had never met her, and I was super-excited to make her espresso because she's so good at what she does and so passionate," Srisarakorn says. "It's nice, because we all have a different point of view slightly and we all talk about it and respect each other. I think it's going to be us little shops that help steer the conversation."
The entrepreneurial quartet and other specialty shops across the city also are marked by the diminutive spaces in which they operate, taking the intimate coffee experience to a different level. Cherry Coffee operates from a small table in the corner of Stein's in the Garden District. Arrow Cafe shares a North Rampart Street space with a female-focused bicycle shop and a store filled with vintage cocktail shakers and cooking accoutrements. Solo Espresso is located in the basement of a 9th Ward house; visiting there feels like entering a whimsical, vine-covered elf cottage.
While coffee shops have always been one of the city's premier environments where locals go to relax and socialize, New Orleans' next generation of baristas also are attempting to make their shops — no matter how small — nexuses of the community.
"I wanted to create a space [in Central City] where you can get really high-quality coffee, but run into these people and neighbors who are making a difference," Church Alley Coffee's Blanchard says. " We're all so connected here that I wanted to create a place where all those themes came together."
Morlock agrees. "I didn't just create this for myself, I created it for my [Lower 9th Ward] neighbors. All of the artwork is painted by neighbors and friends, and a couple of our customers built us the beautiful wooden furniture in trade for coffee. It's as community-oriented as possible."
This sentiment extends citywide, as specialty coffee has built out a network of support.
"I started accounts [on social media] called 'Coffee Curious NOLA' to track what was new and popping up across the city," says Aleece Langford, a barista at HiVolt who was trained by Spitfire proprietor Nick Christian. Since 2011, Coffee Curious NOLA has observed and recorded the burgeoning specialty coffee culture.
"I made a short list last week of specialty coffee shops ... and there's about a dozen right now. Then, I was thinking about the ones that are going to be opening in the next six to 12 months, and we're probably going to double the number we have now," Langford says, adding, "I don't feel like it's competitive, though, as much as [it is] a way we can all bolster each other. There's room."
Langford has helped to organize a monthly meetup for baristas as a way to get practitioners out from behind the bar and connecting with each other over drinks or in small educational classes. In November, Hey! Cafe hosted a coffee-themed bike ride called "Caffeine Cruize," which had participants pedaling together from one coffee shop to another across the city.
Church Alley's Blanchard has taken the coffee movement to print with her recently launched quarterly zine Tasting Coffee in NOLA, which aims to chronicle specialty coffee's burgeoning role in the city's well-caffeinated history. The first issue covered many of the basics of specialty coffee — such as the difference between a macchiato and cortado — and the second will focus on the sanctity and design of coffee shop spaces.
"I just wanted to record our place in the story of coffee in New Orleans," Blanchard says. "The specialty coffee community here is so strong now. Instead of competing, all of our shops are just raising the bar over and over again."
With the ever-expanding number of shops and the presence of high-quality green bean importers, the growth of small-batch "microroasting" in New Orleans is the next step toward crafting an even more finely tuned specialty coffee experience. The next five years likely will see today's wave of espresso bars attempting even deeper personalization of their product, following the in-house roasting path set by French Truck Coffee and Hey! Cafe. Instead of sourcing from microroasters across the nation, baristas who roast in house would have complete control over the product they serve from bean to cup.
"I knew roasting our own beans would help us be able to explore what kind of coffees we wanted to carry based on our whims rather than what anyone else was carrying," says Tommy LeBlanc of Hey! Cafe, who also has explored "barbaric methods" of coffee roasting in popcorn poppers, ovens and skillets.
Roasting the week's supply at Hey! Cafe takes the staff approximately six hours using their current machine — a sleek, tangerine-colored Ambex-brand beauty set up for prime mobility on a wooden cart. Roasting there is still in its early stages; the staff celebrated the official unveiling of their roasting operation in December with a space-themed "coffee invasion" party, complete with alien masks and a tiny illustrated coffee comic book from local artist Caesar Meadows. Today, all the coffee served in-house (with the exception of decaf) is roasted on the spot, making the coffee shop an almost completely autonomous operation.
Down the street, Fink has been tinkering with roasting in her current space, but plans to explore it in earnest this summer, when she moves into her permanent home — a spacious former firehouse on Annunciation Street.
"I've been trying to learn the art of roasting, but it's a slow-moving process," Fink says. "It's nothing I want to rush, but I'm definitely moving in that direction."
Across the board, there's no haste when it comes to specialty coffee — the beauty is in the process. A truly great espresso or latte can't be whipped up or hurried. Much like a craft cocktail, the physical effort and emotional energy behind each coffee creation is a thoughtful, delicate balance of flavor and texture. The coffee itself — from importing, to roasting, to brewing — is an invitation to slow down and pay attention to detail. New Orleans' next generation of coffee revolutionaries is bringing this ritual, relationship and community to a caffeine-fueled city, one cup at a time.