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Riding the Third Wave with the Bean-Sniffing, Java Obsessed Folks Behind Cleveland's Coffee Renaissance

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Walk into Pour Cleveland for the first time and you might bump into a group of people standing around a large communal table, each slurping coffee from a deep spoon with alarming gusto. Across town, in a hulking brick warehouse on Cleveland's near-west side, a mop-topped man stands in front of a gleaming steel roaster, its tumbling drum filled with still-green coffee beans.

In Tremont, an obsessive barista spends the first 30 minutes of his day dialing in an espresso machine, tweaking the variables in a quest for the ever-elusive "god shot," that pitch-perfect cup.

While it might not be obvious to the casual observer, Cleveland is on the cusp of becoming a Great Coffee Town, a place where finding a top-quality cup of java is as easy as reaching for a world-class IPA. Some insiders say that we're already there, while others believe we still have a way to go. But pretty much everybody who follows the local coffee scene agrees that we're heading in the right direction and bound for glory.

It wasn't that a guy couldn't wrap his mittens around a decent cup of joe before today. Cleveland has been blessed with homegrown shops devoted to sourcing and serving the best coffee available at the time. In fact, local outfits like Arabica, Phoenix, City Roast and Loop actually were ahead of the curve, setting up their own small-batch roasting operations to maximize freshness and flavor.

But like any revolution — and coffee, indeed, is in the midst of a revolution — the past and its players often get left in the dust as the new guard steps in, takes over, and charts a new course. That course took its sharpest turn in 2012, when Kim Jenkins opened Rising Star Coffee Roasters in the Ohio City firehouse building. The movement picked up steam a little more than a year later when Charlie Eisenstat opened Pour downtown. More and more, they're being joined by a supporting cast of new cafes and small-batch roasters as Cleveland's coffee counter culture continues to pick up steam.

Eisenstat already had a finance degree and two law degrees when he decided to go back to school. In 2011, the Northeast Ohio native took a weeklong sabbatical from his job at a Cleveland law firm to attend the American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, where he immersed himself in topics like Grinding, Tamping and Extracting Espresso, Steaming and Foaming Milk for Lattes and Cappuccinos, and the Principles of Latte Art. Two years later, at the tail end of 2013, he opened Pour Cleveland, downtown's premier coffee shop.

"Experiencing Portland's coffee culture is what really mailed it home for me," says Eisenstat, seated at the coffee bar within arm's reach of his pricey espresso machine. "Cleveland, especially now, is such a similar city to Portland in terms of food, beer, cocktails ... I saw the potential for what it could be."

Cities with great food and drink cultures don't always become great coffee cities, but almost every great coffee city began with a robust food and drink scene. For a city like Cleveland, with its thriving independent restaurant community, emerging craft cocktail culture, and flourishing beer brewing trade, the emergence of a budding coffee culture seemed as inevitable as a Sunday hangover.

"That's what pushed me to go all in and leave my regular job and do this fulltime," notes Eisenstat. "Cleveland already had an amazing culinary scene with world-class chefs opening some amazing restaurants. We've got a great beer and microbrewery scene for the size city we are. I just thought we were a little behind as far as a culinary approach to coffee. I wish I did this five years ago to get people accustomed to it earlier."

You can't talk about the trajectory of coffee in this country without discussing waves. Americans have been riding coffee waves for 150 years, ever since caffeine-delivery vehicles like Folgers and Maxwell House made waking up a whole lot more bearable for countless moms and dads. A mounting aversion to those poor quality, mass produced commodities gave rise to the "second wave" in American coffee, when break-out brands like Peet's and Starbucks convinced coffee drinkers to trade in their Mr. Coffee machines for a tall, half-caff soy latte with a caramel drizzle. While those brands did more to advance the coffee culture in this country than anything, the focus at those mega-chains long ago shifted away from quality and toward cost, efficiency and profit.

Which brings us to the Third Wave, when ground-breaking shops like Intelligentsia in Chicago, Counter Culture in North Carolina, and Stumptown in Portland began shaping business plans around the noble quest to preserve, highlight and present the innate flavors of the globe's highest quality coffee beans. In cities like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and New York, true coffee nerds began cultivating relationships with small farmers in places like South America, Central America, Africa and Indonesia to seek out unique flavor profiles previously unavailable.

Third Wave coffee shops often can be characterized more by what they don't serve than what they do. In place of batch-brewed, heavily roasted blends kept warm until they're sold, artisanal shops grind and brew meticulously sourced and freshly roasted beans by the cup to order. Gone are sprawling multi-panel menus littered with countless concoctions and sizes, replaced by fewer options and smaller serving sizes.

"The easiest way to understand what Third Wave roasters and coffee shops are trying to do is to highlight the terroir so that all the unique choices the farmer made and the choices the producer made and the choices the roaster made that have left their imprint on that roasted seed you're drinking are actually reflected in the cup," explains John Johnson, partner and quality control manager at Rising Star, which recently moved and expanded its roasting operations into the Hildebrandt Building on the near-west side.

Customers who order a cup of java at Pour in the 5th Street Arcades will observe a barista carefully weigh and grind a precise measure of freshly roasted coffee beans. After pre-wetting the filter, the grounds will be placed in a simple funnel-shaped device that sits atop a receiving vessel. Over the course of three minutes, the barista will anoint the grounds with a slow, steady stream of 200-degree water until the resulting yield of coffee reaches around 350 grams, at which point it's poured into a pre-warmed ceramic mug.

While the typical iced coffee is simply chilled hot-brewed coffee, Pour invested in beautiful and functional cold-brew systems that are prominently displayed along its back wall. The 4-foot-tall glass contraptions, which look like elaborate bongs, use ice water and time (about eight hours) to produce cold-brewed coffee with all of the body and none of the bite of its conventionally brewed sibling.

All the above machinations might seem obsessive ­— even affected — but they're science-based maneuvers designed to extract the bean's good qualities and exclude the bad, all while maintaining an exacting level of consistency. Ideally, if everything goes as planned, what's left in the cup is the true essence of the bean — all the aromas, flavors and acidity set free from an overbearing roast and bitterness. Sip an expertly brewed cup of Paseban from Ciluengsi, West Java, for example, and you'll discern hints of chocolate, red currant and raspberry. Like a fine wine, the end product is the result of a long chain of decisions that include where the bean is grown, how and when it's harvested, how it's processed, how and when it was roasted and, lastly, how it is brewed.

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