A Better Brew

A new wave of specialty roasters is redefining the state’s favorite beverage for a new generation of coffee enthusiasts.

By Will Bleakley
Photographed by Ted Axelrod

Bob Garver talks nonstop about coffee. At first you attribute it to the enormous intake of caffeine the man must absorb as the proprietor of wholesale coffee roaster Wicked Joe, the co-owner of Portland’s Bard Coffee, and a certified head judge at the World Barista Championships. But no, he just loves the stuff that much.

“I live in the goofiest far-out end of coffee, and friends of mine find it ridiculous. But it’s what I do, man,” Garver says after sniffing a new roast from Bali at the Wicked Joe headquarters located on the banks of the Androscoggin River in Brunswick. “I noticed the sophistication of Maine’s food scene, and wanted coffee to become a culinary experience.”

Garver treats Bard, which he founded with business partner Jeremy Pelkey in 2010 and was named by CNN as one of the country’s seventeen best coffee makers, like an open-kitchen restaurant where customers observe baristas at work brewing the perfect cup. He waxes poetic about the finer points of a $2.50 cup of a Kenyan roast like a California vineyard owner describing a $250 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

That level of connoisseurship may seem ridiculous to Mainers who remember that not so long ago their choices ranged only from fast food brew to canned Maxwell House. But Garver isn’t alone in his enthusiasm or sense of mission. The “Third Wave of Coffee” (as it’s been coined) has invaded Maine, and artisan roasters in sleek city coffee shops and small town general stores, are insisting that the humble cup of Joe be taken seriously.

Inside Speckled Ax, on Portland’s Congress Street, three electric scales resembling iPads sit next to three gold plated siphon brewers and a four-foot- tall glass cold brew tower. At 44 North in Deer Isle, Megan Wood refers to her business as “part coffee laboratory.” Several roasting and brewing contraptions reside behind a drip-bar of ceramic cone filters in this former Victorian schoolhouse. At Bard in Portland’s Old Port, baristas need six months of training before being allowed to serve an espresso.

Ron Greenberg is pleased to see specialty coffee culture in the state being embraced. But he’s not surprised by it. Until he started Benbows in Bar Harbor in 1985, he says, there wasn’t a single commercial coffee roaster in Maine. “When we began there was only generic coffee, but we knew it could be better,” he says. After his first summer, so many customers requested their local stores carry Benbows that Greenberg has never again had to seek additional retailers.

By contrast, Mary Allen Lindemann and Alan Spear did want to extend further into this untapped market. They opened Coffee By Design in 1994 in what Spear refers to as “the then-pornography section of Portland.” Coffee By Design, along with that Congress Street neighborhood, has changed dramatically. Now the iconic Maine coffee roaster with four retail locations and more than five hundred wholesale accounts across the country, Coffee by Design opened the door for today’s high-end stores marketing their coffee as “experiential.”

“Coffee is going to become increasingly niche,” says Greenberg, who just sold his business to Wicked Joe as he heads toward retirement. “The smaller roaster can show the passion for coffee, develop personal relationships with the customer and farmer, and educate the public on their coffee.”

Still, the drink is a means to a greater end for most coffee drinkers. Customers claim they prefer full-bodied dark roasts, but as Malcolm Gladwell famously pointed out in a 2004 TED Talk, studies routinely show they prefer weaker blends heavy on the cream.

Coffee is an excuse to catch up with a friend, have a moment to yourself on your porch, take a break from work, or simply wake up in the morning. But for niche groups in Maine, the drink is becoming the main event.

Consider the strikingly sparse Tandem Coffee Roasters, which opened in Portland this past September. There are no tables, zero laptops, and not a single newspaper to leaf through. There are no distractions from the one true goal: to roast, brew, serve, and enjoy the perfect cup. “We purposefully didn’t even put in WiFi,” says Will Pratt, who co-owns the business with his wife and friend. “We wanted this to be a space where people have a daytime cocktail party focused on coffee.” Meanwhile, baristas from around Portland participate in Bard’s monthly latte-art competitions, Tandem holds public coffee tastings, and Coffee By Design has its eye on opening a “coffee educational facility” in Bayside.

The state’s coffee culture has come a long way since Greenberg had to hire a cornflakes manufacturer in Massachusetts to custom build a roaster. Many will think it’s now gone a step too far — that it’s taking the everyman’s drink to an elitist level. But, to again paraphrase Gladwell, one of the greatest revelations about coffee is that the most satisfied coffee drinkers are those with a range of choices.

“I get that not everyone wants to have a lengthy talk about where the coffee came from or how to brew it,” Garver says. “They just want their cup to go. But if they want to know about the lunatic fringe of coffee, game on. We’re willing to take you there if you are willing to join.”

Roast State

Commercial coffee roasters, whether they’re one person selling a few pounds a day to the local general store or multi-million dollar organizations that extend beyond the Northeast, have sprung up across Maine, mostly within the past decade. Below are a few of the best roasters in the state.
Photographed by Jennifer Anderson

Carpe Diem Coffee Roasting Co. 
150 Wells St., North Berwick, 207-676-2124, carpediemcoffee.com
Roasting since: 1994 when it was started by self-proclaimed “coffee goddesses” Jane McLaughlin and Gussie von Wellsheim.
Recommended: Thunder Bolt Blend. The owners describe it as “those sneakers that sped you as a kid; run faster, jump higher.”
Can be found at: Bread and Roses Bakery in Ogunquit, Bintliff’s American Cafe in Portland.

Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic Coffee
Pownal, 207-660-3333, mattscoffee.com
Roasting since: 2007 as the only company to roast by using wood in the Northeast.
Recommended: Bird Dog. An Italian espresso blend that’s easy drinking.
Can be found at: Bresca Restaurant in Portland, Frontier Café in Brunswick, and Whole Foods Market in Portland.

Coffee By Design
43 Washington Ave., Portland, 207-879-2233, coffeebydesign.com
Roasting since: 1994 when it opened on Congress Street.
Recommended: The new Indonesia Sumatra heritage series.
Can be found at: Over five hundred places across the United States, including Fore Street in Portland, L.L.Bean, Café Crème in Bath, and its three Portland locations.

Maine Morning Micro Roasters
North Bridgton, 207-956-8257, mainemorning.org
Roasting since: 2008 out of a former dining room turned roasting room.
Recommended: Bolivian coffee from the Cima del Jaguar estate. Full bodied, very sweet, fruity. A light to medium roast.
Can be found at: Morning Dew Natural Food in Bridgton, Webbs Mills Variety in Casco, and Center Lovell Market.

2 Free St., Portland, 207-899-1833
Roasting since: 1995 and has been a mainstay of the ever-evolving Portland coffee scene.
Recommended: Tanzanian Peaberry, Arabica’s most popular and best coffee.
Can be found at: Its coffee shop on Free Street and at Crema, its newest location at the north end of Commercial Street.

Freeport Coffee Roasting
Freeport, 207-869-9199, freeportcoffee.com
Roasting since: 2008 while delivering locally for free and giving discounts to mountain bikers and people who work at a school.
Recommended: Guatemalan Fair Trade organic coffee.
Can be found at: the Royal Bean coffee shop in Yarmouth.

Wicked Joe
78 Water St., Brunswick, 207-725-1025, wickedjoe.com
Roasting since: 2004 right next to the Androscoggin River.
Recommended: Bali Natural Kintamani. Heavy body with notes of flowers.
Can be found at: The Gelato Fiasco, A1 Diner in Gardiner, El Camino in Brunswick, Frosty’s Donuts.

Carrabassett Coffee Company
2 Mountain View Rd., Kingfield, 888-292-bean, carrabassettcoffee.com
Roasting since: New Year’s Eve 1996, fourteen miles from Sugarloaf Mountain.
Recommended: Back Draft Roast. Really dark roast, deep and alluring.
Can be found at: Market Basket in Rockport, Java Joe’s in Kingfield, Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor, and via 150 other wholesale accounts.

Big Barn Coffee Co. 

104 Churchill St., Wiscasset, 207-882-6374, bigbarncoffee.com
Roasting since: 2009 out of the former milking parlor of a barn.
Recommended: Sumatran Deep Roast. Dark and smooth.
Can be found at: Trattoria Athena in Brunswick as well as local farmers’ markets.

Seacoast Coffee Company
Newcastle, 877-221-0012, seacoastcoffee.com
Roasting since: 2007 with 100 percent Arabica beans.
Recommended: the Italian Roast. The company’s most popular. It’s dark and elegant.
Can be found at: Southport General Store, Village Food Market in Ogunquit, Belfast Co-op.

Green Tree Coffee & Tea

2456 Atlantic Highway, Lincolnville, 877-338-0040, greentreecoffee.com
Roasting since: 2002 in Louisiana, but in 2009 it opened up a second store on the side of Route 1.
Recommended: the Dark Harbor blend of two French roasted coffees.
Can be found at: Camden Bagel Cafe, Francine Bistro in Camden, the Good Kettle in Stockton Springs, and Three Tides in Belfast.

Rock City Coffee

252 Main St., Rockland, 207-594-5688, rockcitycoffee.com
Roasting since: 1999 when Second Read Books & Coffee added its own roasting operation.
Recommended: Dark Star blend. Dark, really smooth.
Can be found at: Belfast Co-op, the Schooner J.& E. Riggin, Primo Restaurant.

Bar Harbor, 207-288-2552, benbows.com
Roasting since: 1985, making it the first and oldest commercial coffee roaster in Maine.
Recommended: Nutty Fisherman blend from Costa Rica. Brewed specifically for lobstermen before they went out on the water in the morning.
Can be found at: Good Food Store in Bethel, Dastardly Dick’s Wicked Good Coffee in Eastport, Forage Market in Lewiston.

Bucklyn Coffee
Brooklin, 207-359-2820, bucklyncoffee.com
Roasting since: April 2012 initially with only a modified popcorn popper.
Recommended: Gunslinger espresso blend of Brazilian, Ethiopian, Colombian, and Tanzanian coffee beans. Velvety with tastes of dried fruit and cocoa.
Can be found at: Brooklin General Store, the Cave in Brooklin, and the Blue Hill Wineshop.

Rooster Brother
29 Main St., Ellsworth, 207-667-8675, roosterbrother.com
Roasting since: 1987 out of a large Victorian building on the banks of the Union River.
Recommended: the La Minita Estate coffee from Costa Rica.
Can be found at: Burning Tree Restaurant in Otter Creek, Islesford Dock Restaurant on Little Cranberry Island, and its retail location in Ellsworth.

High-Tech Taste Test

Maine’s newer upper-echelon coffee shops have moved the art of brewing beyond Mr. Coffee and into the laboratory. Each made-to-order cup is thought out and measured to the smallest detail (no more heaping tablespoon estimations), from pre-heating the cup itself to moistening the grounds (get used to the phrase “Your coffee will be a couple of minutes”). Meanwhile, Speckled Ax has introduced such high-tech brewing methods as siphons (pictured right), which uses two glass chambers to create vapor pressure and a partial vacuum. However, before a roast is ready to brew, it must undergo a proper “cupping” — essentially the wine tasting of coffee. You take in its aroma, fragrance, and taste in four steps from its dry grounds to when it’s a hot, steeped cup of coffee, evaluating the roast (in judging silence) at every turn. It involves a lot of ungraceful slurping, spitting, and sniffing. But as anyone that’s been to a wine tasting knows, the experience is about sensory examination, not style.

Tandem Coffee Roasters holds public cuppings every Friday in Portland. We brought along four bags of coffee beans from examples of this new wave of Maine roasters focusing on the artistry and science of coffee. With us to provide tasting notes were the creator of Portland Food Map and coffee aficionado Anestes Fotiades as well as the 2010 Northeast Regional Cupping Competition champion and owner of Speckled Ax Matt Bolinder. Their notes, along with our own, are included below.

Speckled Ax

567 Congress St., Portland, 207-660-3333
Coffee roast: El Salvador Tres Limites from the Santa Ana region. It’s a naturally processed coffee, bourbon varietal, and comes from an altitude of 4,265 feet.
Price: $14 for a 12 oz. bag.
Tasting notes: “Strawberries,” “notes of chocolate,” “clearly very fruity,” with a “full body.” “A gateway roast to understanding good coffee,” “balanced acidity.”
Place profile: Matt Bolinder, owner of Matt’s Wood Roasted Coffee, opened Speckled Ax in Portland this past summer, in order to, as he says, “finally interact with the customers and be able to explain the processing methods.” His small shop has gained a reputation for its laboratory-like bar with a combination of high-tech brewing methods and expensive machinery (his espresso machine cost $18,000).

Bard Coffee
158 Middle St., Portland, 207-899-4788, bardcoffee.com
Coffee roast: Honey processed and sun-dried from the micro-lot “guapinal” in Naranjo, Costa Rica, by the farmer Eduardo Calvo. From rich, volcanic soil at 3,600 feet. Price: $16.50 for a 12 oz. bag.
Tasting notes: “Orangey,” “bergamot,” “subtle, and “becomes even sweeter as it cools.” “It’s a perfect morning coffee,” “nutty and pleasant,” and “very well balanced.”
Place profile: At Bard, co-owners Jeremy Pelkey and Bob Garver have visited every single farm that’s featured on the menu, and they provide the coffee’s backstory to any customer that asks. “With Bard we can use smaller farms, and can be more experimental,” Garver says. “Bard allows us to brew coffee exactly as we think it should be done.”

44 North Coffee
11 Church St., Deer Isle, 207-348-5208, 44northcoffee.com
Coffee roast: Sumatra single-origin coffee. It comes from Bener Meriah of the Aceh Province in Indonesia and is grown at an altitude between 3,280 and 4,920 feet. It’s the darkest roast 44 North offers.
Price: $11 for a 12 oz. bag.
Tasting notes: “Bitter dark chocolate undertones,” “earthy,” “syrupy,” “more acidic than the rest,” and “very full bodied.” “This is the most approachable, and the one that most people would say is their favorite.”
Place profile: 44 North is a bit of a hidden oasis — even for those in Deer Isle. It has no identifiable sign, but the aroma of coffee wafting from the second floor of the former Deer Isle High School is all one needs to know they’ve arrived. “It’s just the two of us here,” says Megan Wood, who owns the place with Melissa Rafferty. “And we’re focused on making sure customers get a real sense of where the coffee is coming from.”

Tandem Coffee Roasters
122 Anderson St., Portland, 207-899-0235, tandemcoffee.com
Coffee roast: La Providencia sourced from near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala at an altitude of between 5,000 and 5,500 feet. It’s a mix of the varietals bourbon, typica, and caturra. Price: $9.50 for an 8 oz. bag.
Tasting notes: “A bit of graham cracker,” “notes of red berry,” and a “sweet caramel after taste.” “Creamy,” “bits of chocolate,” and “even some pink yogurt.”
Place profile: The owners of Tandem Coffee honed their craft in New York and San Francisco at the roaster Blue Bottle — considered one of the best in the United States — and their coffee has started to be offered at restaurants Pai Men Miyake in Portland and Fog Bar & Café in Rockland. “We wanted to show the whole story of the coffee in one space, from bean to cup,” says owner Will Pratt.

Brewing at Home
As a certified head judge at the World Barista Championship, Bob Garver is about as qualified as they come in terms of brewing coffee. He shares his best practices for brewing at home:
“Although there will be other techniques depending on your brewing method (French press, pour over, espresso, aero press), the following principles apply to make better tasting coffee regardless of the method.

Begin with freshly roasted high-quality coffee and purchase it in bean form. Store it in an airtight container.

Grind your coffee immediately before brewing. The best investment you can make towards great coffee at home is to purchase a good Burr grinder to insure uniform particle size. Your grind should generally be fine when brewing more quickly, such as espresso; medium when using a pour-over method; and more coarse when brewing more slowly,  such as with a French press.

A good coffee to water ratio is essential. I recommend 2 grams of coffee for every ounce of water. A good digital kitchen scale will help not only to achieve this but also consistently brew the optimum cup.

Water makes up over 98 percent of your cup of coffee, so use high-quality filtered water. The temperature of 
the water must be between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit when brewing in order to liberate the most desirable flavors. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can achieve this by letting the water cool slightly for about thirty seconds after the boil.
Drink and enjoy your coffee when it is fresh brewed!”