For years, the culture of food and drink in Charlotte, North Carolina, existed in what James Yoder, owner of Not Just Coffee, describes as “a bubble.” You readers around the world, make no mistake—Charlotte ain't Atlanta. This is a relatively new metropolis, and it doesn’t have the history of other Southern cities like Asheville or Charleston, or the global influx of people and ideas found in the Research Triangle or Nashville. Those cities' food and drink cultures have been carefully covered for years by the likes of major publications such as Saveur, Bon Appetit, and the New York Times. Not so for Charlotte.
But tides are changing, especially for coffee. And it could very well be because of craft beer.
“A lot of what’s kind of been going on in the past couple of years in Charlotte has kind of hinged on the growing beer community,” said John Michael Cord, a co-owner of the Hex Coffee pop-up. “I think a lot of people are being exposed to something that is a little bit different from your typical Budweiser or Miller, in such a way that people are starting learn nuance.”
Nuance, and the appreciation for quality that comes with craft beer, has produced a sea change in a city that didn’t even have a pour-over shop until Yoder opened Not Just Coffee in 2011. Now, the city has coffee crawls and regional latte art competitions. The Specialty Coffee Association of America hosts classes in collaboration with local Third Wave coffee shops. And the appreciation for craft coffee is quickly accelerating.
“We’re going to attract more baristas that are professionals to our area which inevitably means more shops,” said Lindsey Pitman, owner of the Daily Press. She also said that, when it comes to the old “just a cup of coffee” shops that existed in the city, “their quality is going to go up because it’ll have to for them to survive.”
Charlotte’s massive amount of recent transplants have also aided in the change, as they bring in influences and ideas about coffee that already existed in places like Portland, San Francisco, and New York. This city is young and inexpensive; you can feel the seeds being planted here for a major coffee scene, one with a massive potential to grow.
“I think it’s finally heading in the right direction,” said Yoder. Here's four shops around town that prove him right.
Central Coffee Company
Jimmy Kleto’s Central Coffee Company is one of the progenitors of Charlotte’s coffee scene, having operated from the corner of Central Avenue and Louise Avenue in the hip neighborhood of Plaza-Midwood since 2009.
Each day, Central produces fresh scones, zucchini breads, paximathia (Greek biscotti), and quiches on site from Kleto’s mother’s recipes, and churns out its signature espresso drink, “The Central Shorty”—a six-ounce latte made with half-and-half and the cafe’s own vanilla syrup—using a Mazzer Major electronic grinder and a fully manual Synesso Cyncra espresso machine. Joe Van Gogh, from nearby Hillsborough, North Carolina, supplies the beans.
“We wanted to serve something that wasn’t around here. At the time, everyone was jumping to Counter Culture, and Joe Van Gogh struck a chord with me as a small, family-run business,” Kleto said.
Kleto's wife, Louisa Kleto, bakes the cafe’s fare, and is the force behind Central’s house-made drink flavorings, which range from simple vanilla to more complex and seasonal ones. They include spiced mocha, lavender vanilla, and pumpkin, which is made from the real stuff. “It’s a pain in the ass to make,” she tells me, “but it's so delicious.”
Central also does nitrogenated cold brews, BUNN batch coffee and partners with nearby Birdsong Brewery for the coffee-infused Mexicali Stout and No Quarter Porter beers. Beer, coffee, food, and local charm: this place is Charlotte's scene in a nutshell.
Not Just Coffee
When James Yoder first opened Not Just Coffee in Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood in 2011, early customers didn’t think it stood a chance.
“People told me, ‘Charlotte’s not going to respond to that,’” Yoder says. People, as they often are, were wrong.
Yoder and his wife, Miracle, learned their early coffee chops on Youtube, and are longstanding wholesale partners with Durham, North Carolina's Counter Culture Coffee. The shop was loosely modeled off the cafe culture the couple found while living in Italy—a shop of class, quality, and elegance, albeit probably with less grappa. The Yoders believed that if they offered a quality product in an environment similar to the coffee scenes of big cities like Atlanta and New York, people would come. After the Yoders opened Not Just Coffee in Seventh Street Public Market, customers did.
Today, Not Just Coffee has a second location at Atherton Mills and will soon open a third location near Romare Bearden Park in Uptown Charlotte. The Yoders’ shops use La Marzocco espresso machines; Hario V60, Kalita, and Chemex pour-overs; and Mazzer espresso grinders. Not Just Coffee also does batch coffees out of a FETCO machine. The shop's popular mochas are made from delicious house-made Zuma chocolate sauce and local Homeland Creamery milk.
These days, people aren’t telling Yoder he’s set to fail. Instead, he sees promise in a younger generation of kids that are interested in learning the science of coffee and want to be baristas.
“It definitely feels like a cool, cohesive community here, and it’s growing tremendously,” Yoder says, without a whiff of ego or pretension, despite the fact that in large part he's the reason why.
The Daily Press
After splitting from Central Coffee, Lindsey Pitman (the artist behind Central’s stunning hand-drawn menu) opened the Daily Press pop-up in The Evening Muse in late 2014.
Pitman’s shop focuses on brewing Counter Culture coffees with optimal precision, and uses V60, Kalita, and Bon Mac pour-overs; a Victoria Arduino Athena espresso machine; and a Mahlkönig K30 Twin espresso grinder. But that's just gear; education, says Pitman, is another key instrument in her tool box.
“We do a lot of palate development here,” Pitman tells me. That way, she continued, her staff can pinpoint and address any off-notes in the flavor profile of a coffee, and brew it in its most ideal form.
On top of pour-overs and standard espresso drinks, the Daily Press also offers a rotating roster of seasonal specials Pitman constructs from house-made syrups. “I wanted to make these drinks special, aesthetically pleasing, and delicious enough for people to understand coffee as a base ingredient that is really valuable, in the same way they understand whiskies and vodkas to be valuable,” she said.
Drinks have included a blueberry-matcha cappuccino, a candied yam cortado, and the Morning Woodford, an iced Chemexed Ethiopia Idido shaken with lavender-oak-hibiscus bitters and Woodford Reserve bourbon honey. In this way, The Daily Press feels like a fusion of Charlotte's exciting coffee and culinary trends, staffed by passionate professionals and serving some of the city's best coffee.
A pop-up that began “as a means to an end to a cafe,” Hex is the brainchild of friends John Michael Cord (a veteran of Central Coffee, The Daily Press, and the Smelly Cat), Tanner Morita (a Portland, Oregon, transplant who works at Not Just Coffee), and Chandler Wrenn, the one Charlotte native of the bunch who “annoyed these guys into starting a business with me.”
Hex specializes in cold brew, using a uniquely short six-hour extraction to produce “extremely juicy” cold coffee from beans roasted by Passenger Coffee in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Morita sings their praises: “David [Stallings, Passenger’s head roaster] does a fantastic job of being on the cutting edge of where I think a roast should be in coffee: more coffee nuances—hay, grass, orange—without getting too roasty.” Not to beat a dead horse, but this would be an unfathomable conversation to have in Charlotte five years ago.
Hex doesn’t do espresso, but keeps to a bare-bones setup of Kalita pour-overs, kegged cold brew (one nitro, one not) and a Baratza grinder at its pop-up events for mobility. Its signature drinks, inspired by cocktails, include the “Freckled Cold Brew,” a riff on a freckled strawberry lemonade that begins with a muddled strawberry, cold brew coffee, and vanilla simple syrup, then is topped with heavy cream and lemon zest.
Hex also does waffles at its pop-ups using batters made from nearby craft brews, and those, the owners said, sell out quickly (sometimes within 15 minutes). But that's modern Charlotte for you—we've come a long way over the last few years, and sometimes that means your favorite coffee bar slash artisanal craft beer batter waffle pop-up is sold out of treats. Such is the price we pay for sweet, delicious progress.
This is Bo McMillan's first feature for Sprudge.