America's major East Coast cities are flooded with progressive coffee bars, from Washington DC to New York City to Boston & Atlanta. But in Baltimore, you’ll find a burgeoning group of coffee projects and a tight-knit cafe culture with plenty of room to grow. The city welcomed Los Angeles transplants Lamill with open arms in 2011, as part of chef Michael Mina’s project at the Baltimore Four Seasons; it unexpectedly shuttered last summer. But a growing group of coffee-centric businesses in Baltimore proper continue to emerge, with locals anticipating the arrival of Annapolis-based Ceremony Coffee’s new cafe opening in central Baltimore in the coming months. Now more than ever following the police brutality protests earlier this year, Baltimore's coffee scene has been buoyed by a strong sense of community and quality. Here's where to drink the best coffee in Charm City.
Baltimore chef Spike Gjerde opened Artifact Coffee and sister restaurant Woodberry Kitchen in the city’s Union Mill, a defunct network of stone textile mills dating back to the mid-1800s. Artifact’s dining room is in what used to be the complex’s boiler room.
Gjerde snagged Baltimore’s first James Beard Award in 2015 for his cooking at Woodberry, situated across tracks from Artifact. The cafe’s union of quality food and its straightforward coffee program make it well worth a visit. Coffee director David Anderson, a young, enthusiastic French horn music performance major turned coffee guy, came to Artifact after a six month stint at the now shuttered Lamill. “We really focus as a company on empathetic service,” Anderson says, “I think that rubs off on the way we interact with each other.”
Artifact wrapped up a year-long prix fixe dinner series and now offers community-driven events in the evenings, including “taco libre” and “bowl and a beer” nights, plus proper sit-in brunch on the weekends. It’d be a shame just to order a Counter Culture pour-over and skip a light meal at Artifact, where there’s creamed chipped ham sandwiches on buttered bread (what the frozen Stouffer’s version would taste like in a perfect world), deviled eggs, fresh strawberries with cream, and house-made pastries from Woodberry. Also, this summer: coffee slushies. Anderson admits that the first batch was more coffee foam than slush, but they’re working on it.
Ceremony Coffee Roasters
A 35-minute drive (traffic pending) from Baltimore to Annapolis leads to Ceremony Coffee Roasters, but soon residents will be able to get the brand's popular nitro cold brew in Baltimore proper. If well-played, Ceremony’s new cafe in Mt. Vernon will be a significant addition to the city’s coffee scene.
Back in Annapolis, Ceremony’s flagship roastery and cafe fills the corner of nondescript buildings a few miles from the waterfront naval town’s Central Business District. Five Senses alum Caleb Podhaczky roasts on site; he moved from Australia to Annapolis sight unseen to helm the program. “We’re pretty stringent with the coffees we select,” Podhaczky says. “Choosing fresh and super delicious coffees with traceable background are the things we focus on.”
Industry vet Jay Caragay is manning the bar at Spro Coffee in Hampden. Netflix's House of Cards was shooting down the block from the shop on a recent Thursday; Spro is located on a retail strip that includes a juice bar, neighborhood restaurants, and yoga studio. Caragay is an international barista competition judge who spent a full 170 days away from the shop last year going to origin, judging, and consulting, but has trained a small staff to manage Spro well while he travels. The shop's unfussy interior includes a few tables in a narrow front and back room and a tucked away back patio.
Staff roast for the shop—in what Caragay calls “very much a Wire kind of neighborhood”—three miles away. A longtime small business owner, Caragay is candid about challenges facing cafes looking to thrive in Baltimore. “There are lots of opportunities, but I always wonder how much volume [cafes] can really push,” he says. “We’ve spent many years working on making nice quality coffee but we’re not making tremendous amounts of money at it. You go to some shops, like some of the ones in California, they’re doing $4,000–6,000 a day. That’s a volume where you can start paying true living wages where baristas can start to plan for the future. But when you’re in a lower range, it’s much more difficult.” Go for the coffee, and if you’re lucky Caragay will be in the shop and up for a chat.
Almack’s Coffee took over from the well-liked Tribeca Coffee Roasters in Midtown this past June, and while the verdict is still out on the new ownership, the space is promising. New owner John Kernan has expanded Almack’s food program (which formerly ended at muffins) and appointed Tribeca barista Timothy Anderson as manager; coffee comes from Lancaster, PA-based Passenger Coffee Roasters.
There’s bubble tea and Thai iced tea on the drink list, but the coffee menu stays close to the straight and narrow. Almack’s serves a few rotating pour-overs, recently featuring a washed Ethiopian and Colombian. Espresso arrives with a shot of milk or fizzy water, plus grab-and-go French press coffee for the morning rush.
Dooby’s proprietor Phil Han says that one way to thrive as a small business in Baltimore is to open a space that centers around a couple of concepts. At Dooby’s, that means coffee in the morning and good food for lunch and dinner. At his Korean-inspired cafe, there’s espresso from Passenger, counter service for lunch (best bets: Korean BBQ cheesesteak and kimchi potato salad) and full-service dinner.
If you’re into sweet drinks, try Dooby’s Korean iced coffee made with sweet red bean and condensed milk. Around the corner, Han just opened the charcuterie, wine, and cocktail bar Sugarvale.
Dooby’s officially unlocked its doors a year and a half ago, when Han says several other new restaurants and cafes were opening shop. “A lot of people looking from the outside like to compare us to DC or New York, but we’re cool about doing our own thing,” Han says. “It’s very open here and we’re very supportive. If you participate in Baltimore and love this city, it starts to love you back.”