It doesn't take much to get me excited about a trip to New Orleans. As a Tulane alum, I spent four wonderful years in the Crescent City and - as anyone who has lived there can tell you - that place gets under your skin for life. Add the famously high expectations for food to the mix and a must-attend business conference becomes anything but a burden.
Like, single-source, expertly-roasted, the stuff I'm a fiend for?
You mean I don't have to pack my aeropress, my Clever, my scale?
Lawd, this is going to be a wonderful trip!
Like any practical human, I tweeted Camila Ramos (@milamos) to get the insider info. Camila is resident coffee superstar at Miami's Panther Coffee and frequently referred to in coffee circles all over the US as a "badass".
Using the Gambit article as well as info from Camila, I came up with a list of "must-tries". It would take some agile cabbies and good planning to hit them all but it looked doable. There were a few others I wanted to visit, but time and work, (that pesky "real reason" I was in New Orleans) wouldn't allow it. In particular, I heard a lot about Church Alley and would have liked to stop in there as well, but didn't make it... this time.
The Playlist - Here’s where I went and what I enjoyed:
I took an early morning drive out to the 9th Ward to Solo Espresso and had a Panther East Coast espresso and a Clever of Panther's Kitchwa Tembo (Kenya) .
I walked to Spitfire for another one of those excellent Crema Yirgas right when they opened. In the afternoon I took a cab out to Stein's Grocery & Cherry Coffee where the delightful Lauren has set up shop in the front corner of the store. I tried both an espresso and a Chemex of Tomastepec (Guatemala) roasted by Greenway Coffee Company in Houston.
Now, you may be asking why a guy from Miami, who is a huge fan of Panther, would be drinking East Coast espressos in New Orleans? The answer is simple: our hometown roasters are a big friggin’ deal. The verdict was unanimous. No matter which thirdwave shop I went to in New Orleans, the respect and excitement about Panther's beans was unforced. I drank Panther coffee because that's what they chose to serve, proudly.
Fellow Miamians, we have a jewel in our midst.
Although the New Orleans coffee scene is young, there was nothing sloppy about either the preparation or the precision of the baristas who were slinging their wares. Spitfire was a well-oiled machine, meeting the needs of both coffee aficionados who have ventured into the Quarter and the folks who have been letting the good times roll and were in need of a great cup of coffee for equilibrium. It was standing room only on my first visit and they were getting it done. At HiVolt - the largest of all the spots I visited - the food was stellar as well. People rave about it and they serve a ton alongside their predominantly Counter Culture bean selection.
This local food culture dovetails perfectly into why I have great hope for the serious coffee scene in New Orleans. They're already obsessed with food, and have been forever. I know of no other city in America where every strata of society is talking about what they're having for dinner before the lunch plates have been cleared. I shared food with two groups of complete strangers on this trip - once at a very upscale place and once at a neighborhood joint. They liked what I was eating and before we knew it we were passing plates around like family. In that context, exceptional coffee only makes sense. You can't care THAT much about what's in season, or who cooks it the best and then finish your meal with "just coffee".
The Spirit of Community
The New Orleans specialty coffee scene has great and unique spots, but with a total camaraderie and appreciation for each other. On my first visit to Spitfire, the barista gushed about how much I was going to love Solo. At Solo, I was told I would love the "other Lauren" at Cherry. And at every place I went, the moment I mentioned Miami, Panther and Camila Ramos it evoked consistent praise and the fairly frequent use of that word "badass".
Although everyone is on the same page and doing a stellar job, I feel the need to give Solo Espresso an extra dose of praise for what they are doing to revitalize a neighborhood that was nuked by Katrina. Hey, the cabbie was scared to take me there at 8am on a weekday. Maybe he's got issues, but Solo's got guts and heart to hold fast to their vision and it's utterly commendable.
More than Ambassadors
One last note: all of the baristas I met really "get" their responsibility to convert the masses. I was frequently asked, "What do you like? What flavors are you looking for?" They acted as wonderfully enthusiastic sommeliers who felt that it was their job to share this treat with others. That was very refreshing and something you don't see as much in cities where the coffee culture is more established. They're making fans of both their shops and the specialty coffee concept - and it shows.