Specialty Coffee Shops are on the Rise in W.Va.
Coffee has always been a popular drink. It’s been a big trade item for hundreds of years and continues to be one of the leading beverages in the world. Coffee is so popular that many people don’t even care if it’s cheap or low quality; as long as they have that caffeine fix. But more and more people are searching for that higher quality coffee only found in the specialty shops.
Brian Bircher roasts imported, green coffee beans using a massive roaster built in 1931 called, Plutonius. This seven-and-a-half-foot tall roaster was manufactured by a coffee company called Jabez Burns & Sons in New York City. According to the company’s records, this model was the last one made, and Bircher says, it’s one of four he’s been able to find still in use today.
“I first met Plutonius, we have a long history together, I lived in Leesburg back in 1986 in a little apartment overtop of a store, and in 1986 a business moved in there called the Coffee Bean," remembered Bircher, "and they owned Plutonius at the time, and they moved it into that building, so I used to go down and watch them roast coffee. I always joked this is probably where I caught the bug, because I used to watch people work on this machine.”
Bircher opened his own coffee roasting shop in 2006 in West Virginia, first out of his garage, and then at a bigger, permanent location in 2011.
But in 2010 the Leesburg Coffee Bean closed and the massive roaster, Plutonius was headed to the Smithsonian. After learning this, Bircher went after the roaster and bought it. In 2012, he began using Plutonius full-time to roast all of the coffee beans in his shop.
Bircher’s specialty coffee shop, the Black Dog Coffee Company, is located in Jefferson County. It’s a popular stop on route 9 between Charles Town and Martinsburg, and its mascot is, you guessed it, a big black dog.
Bircher says what makes his product special is its freshness.
“I thought that I was sort of a coffee snob," Bircher said, "I was buying higher quality coffee and brewing with spring water through a gold filter, grinding right before brewing, doing all the right things. But what I didn’t realize was so important with coffee is freshness. Coffee, it’s at its peak of flavor within the first 10 to 14 days after you roast it. When I tasted that, it really knocked my socks off."
Bircher claims most of the coffee beans and pre-ground coffee people buy from grocery stores may have gone stale months before even hitting the shelves. So if freshness is the key to a truly good cup of coffee, why do so many people still buy the inexpensive or low-quality brands we see in stores?
“Just because a lot of people like very high quality doesn’t mean that everybody understands or subscribes to that,” said Brian Floyd, the Executive Director of the Pierpont Culinary Academy at Pierpont Community and Technical College in Fairmont, "I would liken coffee shops to also the proliferation of local farmers markets and local food production. People have a little more of a connection to not only the product but to the proprietor, or to the people who are frequenting that. And you know, coffee, being roasted locally means that somebody’s taking a specific interest in that, and you might get to know that particular somebody versus it just coming from a warehouse somewhere.”
Ellen Allen is the executive director of the Covenant House in Charleston, but she also identifies as a coffee connoisseur.
“I just love the richness, the boldness, and Liz, I started drinking coffee when I was like four or five years old," Allen said, "it’s not an acquired taste, it’s something I loved immediately.”
Allen says she always chooses specialty and local coffee shops similar to the Black Dog Coffee Company, even if she has to go out of her way to get it.
“Just sipping it and enjoying it," Allen noted, "understanding even where it comes from. It’s more of an experience than just quenching a thirst. It’s a wonderful experience to enjoy a fresh roasted cup of coffee from freshly roasted beans, and the tastes are so different from growing up as a kid who had Folgers to drinking a cup of coffee that you know came from a family farm perhaps in South America, beans grown from 4,000 feet. It’s different as night and day.”
The Black Dog Coffee Company as well as other specialty shops across the state, continue to see a growing number in the amount of people they serve. While there may always be a coffee section in grocery stores, the trend in specialty shops is on the rise.