“This is my morning, every day,” Noelle Archibald says after a cup of espresso the size of a golf ball and a butter croissant is placed before her. “This is why I do this.”
This, for Archibald and her two business partners (one of whom also plays the role of husband), is the operation of Lamplighter, the hip coffee spot in the converted automotive station located in what is colloquially known as SoFa, or South of the Fan.
Archibald is one of the leaders in the mounting Richmond specialty coffee scene. It’s a trade with an intense focus on creating a truly great cup of coffee- from its sourcing from a farm thousands of miles away, to its careful roasting procedures, to its slow and deliberate preparation. If you would like to know more information about the coffee business, you can look up such articles as – Coffee Blog and Outsourcing Writers to see what it entails.
Of course, coffee houses and consumption of black gold are nothing new. But what’s new is this: a movement the industry calls the “Third Wave,” which emphasizes treating coffee as a luxury and understanding the artistry, care, and time that goes into making each cup. (The first two waves being the rise of Folgers and the coffee culture, followed by the popularity of national chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.) If you’re guilty of Instagramming your latte art, for example, you too are part of the Third Wave. This explains why so many of us now are wondering How Barista Style Coffee is made, so we can learn and become a part of this Third Wave of coffee artistry.
“I don’t think people really realize the amount of effort and care that goes into what we do,” Archibald says.
FROM FARM TO CUP
Stephen Robertson is Blanchard’s Coffee Co.’s marketing and sales director and, on the day I walked into the small white-bricked Manchester roastery, was also filling bags with beans. Blanchard’s roasts and sells bags wholesale. You can find the company’s coffee at Martin’s grocery stores, Whole Foods, and a host of other area retailers and businesses. He wants Richmond’s java drinkers to learn more about everything that goes into making a cup of coffee. “The industry in general benefits from education so that there are more people respecting why they are paying $3 for a cup of coffee.”
Indeed, that milky flower on top of your cappuccino is the final step in a long line of hands from farm to cup. Coffee is sourced from farms in-among other places-Central America, the Caribbean, or Africa. Roasters buy it through a broker, or increasingly, directly from the farmer to give the roaster more quality control and to ensure the producers are paid well.
“We usually know what field our beans came from, and what farmers produced it,” Archibald says.
The bags are shipped, delivered, and then roasted, which is a skill that requires lots of training, science, and the word “thermodynamics.” Then the coffee is prepared for a customer who likely isn’t thinking of how their coffee was sourced, and is perhaps instead considering which Instagram filter to put on their latte art picture.
“It’s this whole chain of hands throughout the world that have touched [your coffee] on its way to your cup,” Archibald says. “If any one little thing goes wrong, you can taste that.” Americans are the top consumers of coffee, downing about 400 million cups a day. The specialty coffee market represents about 37 percent of all cups poured in a U.S. industry worth about $30 billion a year. Richmond’s share of the specialty coffee market is small but proud. While there are no official figures, Robertson and I took an educated guess and ballparked the independent roasters and shops contributing to about $3 million of the U.S. market. The care and time taken to curate the perfect cup of coffee is one of the arguments for espresso when it comes to deciding between espresso and nespresso; it is worth that little extra time taken to steam and grind the beans when you consider all that is put into growing the beans.
RVA COFFEE SCENE
To trace the origins of specialty Richmond coffee, go back to 1979, when Tammy Rostov’s father, Jay, opened a roastery in Carytown. Unlike Lamplighter and other roasters, Rostov’s isn’t focused on cupping a good drink in the store, but rather making sure customers have a good cup at home or in locations such as Crossroads, Joe’s Inn, or about 30 other local haunts where you can find a cup of Rostov’s creations.
“We’ve been in the business so long that when we opened we were a ‘roaster,’ or ‘a small batch roaster,’ then it got this name of being a ‘microroast,'” she recalls. Rostov and other java vets note that the rise of specialty coffee is in line with the craft movement in beer and wine. “The industries overlap, and that’s where a lot of the trends in coffee come from,” Rostov says.
Among roasters in the 804 area code, the relationship appears friendly. Roasters point out that each distinct Richmond neighborhood has its own independent coffee shop along with a chain such as Starbucks. It’s a fact that also leaves the market open to more competition, which is expected in coming years.
For now, though, “because we all have our own niche, we don’t really think that we compete with one another,” says Rostov, who recalled a story of running out of coffee cups and buying some from Lamplighter, which gladly obliged. Archibald, at Lamplighter, agrees with that sentiment.
“We do talk some, but we’re all busy doing our own thing,” she says. “There’s not a lot of overlap.”
BEHIND THE BEANS
Hawking coffee ain’t easy.
For Archibald, who spent time in Portland, Ore. as a barista and learned the ins and outs of the business, the greatest challenge for her and her partners has been learning about how to actually run a business. “We were foodies and coffee people, but actively trying to run a business is new to all of us. We’ve definitely learned a lot along the way.” Such as how the stock market works. Roasters are beholden to the commodities market, and coffee is one of the most traded products in the world. Even if an investor were to buy tesco shares, as tesco sells copious amounts of coffee, they would need to see how the industry could affect those share prices. Per-pound prices fluctuate daily, and roasters keep a close eye on those figures, buying low whenever possible.
Yet despite such instability, the roasters must all keep their prices in check, understanding that customers can and will go elsewhere if their prices rise. Coffee shops often will eat the per-pound cost increase in order to keep retail prices constant.
“We have to live in these little margins that are constantly fluctuating,” Robertson says. Price changes are, “The biggest pitfall. The customer expects to have a really fixed price and it needs to be basically the same as the other guys, and if you have a spike in costs it really sucks and you have to eat that margin.”
Clay Gilbert, owner of Black Hand Coffee Co. on Sheppard Street, says having a unique offering helps him compete against the likes of national chains. Black Hand’s roasts kept the set of Lincoln caffeinated during filming last year in Richmond.
“We try to hit a certain price point and also have a nice, independent environment,” Gilbert says of the shop, which brings in local artists each month, well-loved sofas, and an in-store roaster that blasts smoke out of the storefront. “We don’t want to be the corporate guy. I haven’t been out to any Seattle coffee shops, but people come in here and say, ‘If I wasn’t in Richmond, I would think I’m in the Pacific Northwest. So I guess that’s cool.”
IT’S AN ART
“Crazy. Insane. Amazing.” That’s how Archibald describes the first three years of Lamplighter, which opened in winter 2009 within earshot of the Downtown Expressway. Like many steadfast entrepreneurs hear from peers, they were told they were crazy opening in such a distressed location.
At the very beginning, customers were mostly friends and people stumbling in, but Lamplighter quickly boomed and gained its current fame as a Richmond hipster haven. “For the first two years it was just keeping the beast fed,” Archibald says. “We really didn’t have time to pull our heads up and think about what we were doing next, which is a great problem to have.”
These days, real estate is bouncing in the SoFa area, and phrases such as “a block from Lamplighter” frequently pop up on sale and rental descriptions, which Archibald says is pretty cool.
Still, Lamplighter was never designed to serve the lines that almost constantly stretch out the door or to experience the roasting and espresso prep process. So the partners recently built a roastery at 1719 Summit Ave., which is expected to open in the next few weeks. It’ll also host an espresso and pour-over coffee bar, along with grab-and-go foods and pastries. The Summit roaster will be “for the real coffee enthusiast who wants to come and have a conversation about coffee or wants to delve into it a bit deeper.”
That expansion is just one example of the growth to come in Richmond coffee. Robertson, at Blanchard’s, says the Richmond coffee FEATUREindustry has yet to see its growth spurt.
Until now, Blanchard’s has been largely confined to Central Virginia, but is riding on the coattails of local market Ellwood Thompsons’ expansion into Rockville, Md. There, Blanchard’s will serve its roasts at the caf?, and exclusively.
“We want to become a strong regional competitor,” Robertson says, but notes that the rise of independent coffee houses and roasters is found in most cities, making it difficult to introduce a local brand elsewhere even if it’s popular. “It’s a tough jump.”
Gilbert, at Black Hand, wants to see a local roasters guild formed and more marketing dollars put toward promoting the entire Richmond coffee market. At Black Hand, he’s moving to increase the wholesale business and get his product into more grocers and retailers. The shop is also relocating around the corner, converting the old laundromat at Belmont and Patterson avenues to a slightly larger space that has the potential for a patio in the future.
Rostov’s is evolving, too. It recently began opening earlier, at 7:45 a.m., to catch the work-going crowd. It’s started a bicycle delivery service to anywhere within 3.5 miles of its 1618 W. Main St. location. It has also started offering Rostov’s Selects, roasts that are in line with the specialty coffee movement of buying fair- or direct trade. Selects are a bit more expensive than Rostov’s traditional offerings. “That was something we wrestled with, wondering whether someone will pay $16 or $17 for a pound,” explains Rostov. But, she notes, people pay similar amounts for a good wine or beer, so she’s hoping customers will be cool with the price.
To help the coffee scene flourish even more in Richmond, Robertson also has a final request for consumers:
“You should know your barista. Even more so than a bartender, you should know your barista’s name, and when you tip that barista, that should be a form of ‘Congratulations for doing a great job’ kind of thing. That’s something that still needs a lot of work in this town. If you go to New York or big cities, people are going to specific baristas who are badasses and saying, ‘I will pay you $5 to make my drink.’ That’s where the industry should be. It’s an art.”