The local coffeehouse scene rides the third wave
The coffeehouse landscape of Chattanooga is on the brink of a major explosion. The third wave of coffee culture is surging in—and the levees don't stand a chance. "Chattanooga has been stuck in this wave of coffee culture in which people are spending four to five dollars on a cup of coffee," says Andrew Bettis, part owner of Copacetic Coffee. "What we are trying to do in the third wave is make that value a bit more defined." Five coffeehouses in town are on the forefront of the revolution, with two more, Make Coffee and Brash Coffee coming to Walnut Street and Warehouse Row, respectively, this year.
One of the earliest arrivals on the Chattanooga coffee scene, Greyfriar’s looks and feels today much as it did back in 1996. Laptops grace coffee tables strewn with books. Wooden tables, whimsical art, exposed brick—the standard outfit. Greyfriar’s is one of few places in town to roast their beans in-house. Ten feet away from the cash register in a back room looms a giant red roaster, and at the helm, Kevin Ricks. Ricks has been at Greyfriar’s for four years, and is the master roaster and manager. “Over the past two years there has really been a boom in shops opening up around town,” he says. “People are asking more pointed questions, [like] where do I get the beans from, or how they can re-create their coffee experience at home. There is a growing respect for what we are doing in the coffee industry.”
Greyfriar's has offered French-pressed coffee since the early days, and has been offering pour-overs for the past year and a half. Smack-dab in the middle of the tourist area, even with the new boom of progressive coffee shops it holds fast with its regulars alongside the tourist traffic. In the summer, it is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world turn before hitting any of the downtown destinations, like the Tennessee Aquarium. Greyfriar’s is also open until 8 p.m. on the weekends, making it easy to stop by and fuel up for the nightlife.
In the tiny town center of St. Elmo is Pasha Coffee & Tea, which is under new ownership. “I worked here for two years and then I moved away for awhile, and came back in August when I bought the shop,” says Pasha’s current owner Matt Skudlarek. “Pasha is kind of like a living room for the whole neighborhood—with high-end coffee gear. I love this neighborhood.” It is this love of neighborhood that gives Pasha its charm. That, and the delicious Bongo Java coffee. Says Julia Hunter, Skudlarek’s girlfriend and a regular customer, “The whole staff works really hard to care about every single customer and give them the best experience they can.” A group of seven 20-somethings sits near the door, talking loudly while studious businessmen type away in the back corner. “The clientele is always changing,” says Skudlarek. “I just want to provide a friendly atmosphere with great products. We’re here for the people who want to stay and hang out.”
Pasha also keeps up with trends in coffee culture. “We’ve changed a lot of our gear around in the past two months to follow more of the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) standards for espresso and coffee preparation, introducing people to the third wave,” Matt explains. “There are basically three waves of coffee culture. The first is when coffee initially came on the scene, historically, and then there’s the ’90s-era of coffee, which was focused on super-strong, really dark coffee, and that kind of morphed into a quick-in, quick-out model of coffee, like the Starbucks model, which was a ‘get the customer out the door’ mindset. The third wave, which is what we’re based on, is focused on the science and the basic elements of the coffee.” By this, he means the very basics: the beans and the water. “We don’t serve any blends at all. It’s all single origin. We have three different Ethiopian coffees, depending on what’s in season, instead of just ‘here’s a dark coffee, hope you like it.’” Skudlarek feels the coffee landscape of Chattanooga is climbing to new peaks, and he strives to keep up. “If you want to open a restaurant or coffee shop in Chattanooga,” he says, “you have to have something really really good.”
The Camp House is another local favorite, tucked away betwixt two warehouses on the Southside. “We were the first ‘third wave’ shop in Chattanooga,” says Camp House director Matt Busby. “From the beginning, we were highly focused on latte art, and true six-ounce cappuccinos, pour-overs and that kind of thing.” The Camp House is packed. It’s a Monday afternoon, and there is a line out the door. The Camp House brews Counter Culture coffee, which is based in the Southeast but boasts international acclaim. “They’re by far the most transparent coffee company out there,” says Busby. “Through Counter Culture, we have been able to access some really unique coffees that we wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise. Counter Culture has consistently been rated one of the best roasters in the world.” Busby feels this is a really exciting time to be in Chattanooga. “Coffee scenes are exploding in the cities around us, like Nashville,” he says. “We’re next.”
“Our coffee scene is really getting there,” says Camp House regular Flynn Glover, an entrepreneur who typically uses coffeehouses as his office. “It’s really strong for the size of our population.” The Camp House is also one of the only shops in town to host live music. “We book a lot of different genres but it tends to be singer-songwriter, bluegrass, folk, Americana,” says Busby. “We also have a live storytelling event called Another Story, which has a spot on WUTC as well. Our vision is to offer good culture, whether that’s coffee or music or different cultural events like storytelling. We want to be here to help create culture in Chattanooga.”
Across the street is Mean Mug, the new kid on the block. Mean Mug has been a flyaway success from the minute it opened its doors, and it is easy to see why. Nestled in what used to be Hiroshi’s Sushi, Monica Smith and her team are working away. “I grew up in a family that owned a couple of restaurants,” Smith says. “That’s where I started getting a passion for this food industry. My business partner Matt Lewis also has a long history in restaurants. We also both have a passion for coffee, so we wanted to dive into that.”
Smith says she sees the the coffee culture in Chattanooga progressing rapidly. “Over the last three or four years, it has really begun to get onboard with the larger cities as far as roasting and brewing techniques,” she observes. Smith and Lewis teamed up with Andrew Gage of Velo Coffee Roasters, which is what they serve their customers. “Before we opened, Matt and I did lots of training with Velo, like cuppings and just understanding of the culture,” says Smith. “So when we hire people, we do lots of training of what we learned and we do shadowing for awhile. We also send them to Velo to brush up on knowledge when they have classes or cuppings.” They also strive to be top contenders in the growing latte art scene. “It definitely takes a lot of work but we want to be in the top,” she says. The menu is down to earth, but classy. The coffee couldn’t get any better and is some of the most caffeinated in town. As far as third wave coffee prep, Mean Mug offers cold brews, cold press, pour-overs. “Our pour-over is really popular,” says Smith. “We are looking into possible siphon capabilities,” with which they would be the first in town. “It’s an industry where you have to be consistent but evolve with things that pop up and what’s changing.” Mean Mug plans to extend its hours in the near future, starting on the weekends, and gradually opening later through the week.
“’Coffee bean' is actually a misnomer," begins Andrew Gage, Chattanooga's master of coffee education. "They are actually seeds. You can talk to someone about all these aspects of coffee, how it’s brewed, roasted, and then it comes down to the fact that it’s two seeds from a fruit that grew on a plant and it just blows people’s minds." It's fair to say that when Gage opened Velo Coffee Roasters in April of 2010, the coffee scene in Chattanooga was in a different place. He paved the way for local third wave coffee with his small-batch roasting, community outreach, and fresh approach to brewing.
Gage is as humble and nice as they come, and many will tell you his coffee is the best around. But what’s most important to him is sharing the knowledge he is continually gathering. “A lot of what we do as a roastery is educational because there is a need for it,” says Gage. “People want to feel good about their purchase but maybe not spend a lot of time researching it. We try to put as much information as we can on the bag, and try to be as transparent as possible.” Gage wants Velo to be an educational outlet for people as much as he wants to be a place to buy coffee. He says one of the harder things has been trying to find the right opportunities for education, and encourages customers to ask questions. “Our big thrust has been weekly cuppings which would give anyone the opportunity to juxtapose coffees next to each other, and hear a brief explanation,” he says. “It’s an open forum—but you get free coffee.”
Finally, across the river in Riverview is the newly opened Copacetic Coffee. A joint venture between Andrew Gage, Andrew Bettis, and Scott Porbansky, the coffee aspect of restaurant The Farmer’s Daughter has taken the coffee culture of Chattanooga to new heights.
“Copacetic wants to focus on the details but do it in a very simple facade, so we stay approachable,” says Andrew Bettis. “Our menu has a few items offered without substitution so that it maintains its flavor profile and history. The cortado is a Spanish drink that has equal parts milk and espresso that we serve in a gibraltar glass in the traditional manner.” Copacetic recently hosted a latte art competition and plans to do more workshops and educational outreach. “I think things are changing and there’s going to be a lot of really nice spots here in town in the next year,” says Bettis. Copacetic also offers a choice between two regionally sourced milks. Their espresso is “dine-in only,” a mandated “relax and enjoy.” Drip coffee comes to you in a personal French press, along with a cream pitcher and an adorable empty coffee mug. They are what the third wave is all about, simple, well-crafted beverages to be savored mindfully.
Whichever may be your coffeehouse of choice, the consensus is that craft coffee is in. It must be noted that the community of coffee aficionados in this town couldn’t be any friendlier or more supportive. They strive only for progress, quality, and integrity. Not to be forgotten as well are Chattz, Stroud’s, Rembrandt’s, and Stone Cup—and with more on the way you should never get bored, or tired.