Washington, DC is America’s federal district, flooded with monuments, memorials, and corporations on every other corner. But its residents know it to be an incredibly vibrant and lively area that celebrates creative expression in many forms. The duality of the District is that there is consistently expressed individuality embedded into the city that is simultaneously cross layered with a rather straight-laced, politically fueled atmosphere. The DC coffee scene is one of the most interesting creative expressions this city has to offer, highlighted through many talented local roasters, several USBC competitors, an engaged barista community that regularly participates in monthly barista throwdowns. And I can think of no more exciting example of what DC’s coffee culture has to offer the the city’s inspiring coffee pop-up scene.
Coffee pop-ups existed long before the pandemic, often showcased in food halls like Union Market, but COVID-19 disrupted so many business plans. The District’s coffee community showed incredible resiliency and saw an impressive surge in pop-up coffee concepts during the pandemic despite many restaurant and cafe closings. Industry professionals were forced to rethink long-held ideas centered around the traditional coffee business model, and the city witnessed a wave in pop-up coffee concepts that emphasized building a community around experiencing a memorable cup.
Coffee pop-ups can be nimble, and by nature this model of cafe has far less financial risk than signing on a 10-year lease for a brick and mortar. But there are challenges when it comes to establishing brand recognition without a proper cafe, and the format puts a magnified emphasis on the quality of the cup.
A great introduction to the pop-up scene is woman- and deaf-owned Steam Valve Espresso. Cajal Rutti runs this pop-up shop within Bryant Street’s Market where she enjoys the flexibility to focus on the quality and education of coffee. Steam Valve focuses on building a community around specialty coffee and bridging the gap between the hearing and deaf realms. Rutti aims to break the stereotype of a deaf person by hiring a wide spectrum of deaf people in terms of hearing loss and communication systems, such as ASL and Cued Speech through hospitality. (Washington DC is also home to Gallaudet University, one of the world’s most important deaf educational institutions.) Steam Valve Espresso recently hosted a throwdown, bringing together a gathering of baristas and spectators immersed in coffee culture.
Rutti envisions a future in which Steam Valve Espresso has established itself as a permanent location in DC, continuing its mission of serving and including marginalized groups, the cafe housing a roastery, a zero-booze afternoon bar, event space and an educational center for coffee.
A pop-up concept that consistently transcends beverage innovation is Black Crown Collective, led by Drago Tomianovic and Sam Deur. The pair bonded over their shared affinity for artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and aims to focus on intentionality and quality. Most of their pop-ups function as event-style, highlighting different spaces and partnerships. Paying a visit to one of Black Crown Collective’s pop-ups clearly showcases the curation behind the beverages, emulating the precision of mixology, and sourcing of high-quality ingredients. While presentation can often go overlooked in a high-volume cafe setting, Black Crown Collective’s dedication to presentation is an integral part of the experience. It allows for an acknowledgement of the time and effort spent in preparation, as well as the stunning result, and fosters meaningful conversation in a more intimate setting.
For the pair, the pop-up model was compatible with their lifestyles, a way to connect to the local community, and a natural extension of Tomianovic’s expertise of nearly 10 years’ experience in the specialty coffee industry. Their shared dream for Black Crown Collective is to grow into a brick-and-mortar space that serves as a collective for shared passions in art and culture. Imagine a space that functions for specialty coffee, community events, and hosts a rotating residential tattoo artist. They note that something special about the DC coffee community is the sincerity behind the pop-up businesses; it seems there is a genuine passion for the industry and the pop-up expression, far beyond just making a profit.
One of the most unique explorations of coffee and connection is hosted by Roots&Rivers. Helmed by artist Rhema Jordan Labbe, R&R is a curated studio space that was once initially Labbe’s personal creative studio. Now, Labbe explains that their pop-up functions as an experiential studio that hosts monthly gatherings and curated experiences in specialty coffee, design and collective expression. R&R serves as a third space that feels like walking into the home of a friend, and encourages the ritual of enjoying coffee with those around you. There is a sense of comfort in the stillness that R&R encompasses through mostly pour-over coffee, highlighting local and global roasters that inspire Labbe.
With a pop-up that fully challenges the traditional scope of a coffee shop, and instead approaches coffee through a community-centric lens, there is a lingering feeling of inspiration leaving one of Roots&Rivers’ pop-ups that can only be experienced rather than explained. R&R has fully broken the mold of a traditional coffee space, and opens the door for those seeking connection and coffee in a no-frills atmosphere. They note their vision for Roots&Rivers is to continue to invite people into a creative and cultural space, and for those to “find resonance with one another, and to engage in the exchange of things like coffee, art, and memory.”
A bird’s eye view of the District may only showcase a city littered in government entities and political prattle, but a deeper look will illuminate a multilayered culture that is fueled by creative connection and of course, a delicious cup.
Antonia Petaccio is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. This is Antonia Petaccio’s first feature for Sprudge.