Markets: DC Coffee Scene

In 2006 I returned to the DC/VA area from Colombia with a newfound passion for specialty coffee and a serious cafe-dweller pattern of living  only to be extremely disappointed with what the DC/MD/VA area had to offer.  I said to myself, it is a no brainer that this region of the country has a tremendous of per capita spending power and that people here would pounce on the opportunity to have something unique in the food and beverage industry.  I thought the region was especially well suited for specialty coffee.

Although such an observation was so clear to me at the time, I had no knowledge of the specialty coffee industry beyond what I had discovered in Colombia over the course of a couple of weeks visiting farms and talking with producers.  I was in no way suited to open a coffee shop nor interested in doing so.

So – when this post began as a draft in August 2009 –  reminiscing as I drove through DC I could see my observation was not lost on others in the coffee retail industry.  Caribou Coffee shops are located in new places throughout the city, Peregrine Espresso launched in 2008, Chinatown Coffee Co. opened in July 2009, Mid-City Caffe, Big Bear Cafe and more all claim DC as their home now.

The growth in coffee shop improvement has not been lacking.  Names such as Murky, Peregrine, Big Bear, Tryst and others have made sure of that.  Caribou’s growth has been impressive too. Even a fellow in Manassas Virginia started his own line of retail coffee called Hondo Coffee.  The coffee is sourced only from one community in Honduras and is sold pre-ground in flimsy packaging that is its only protection from the heat and humidity of DC/VA summers – as he pushes the majority of his sales at local farmer’s markets.

August 2010 – So what is lacking from the DC market?

As far as I can tell it appears to have a serious shortage of local high quality roasters. The best coffee in the DC/VA/MD area is roasted elsewhere.

I would understand if one couldn’t find a good roaster in DC proper given the high rents for real estate and the potential difficulties getting a permit for the exhaust that comes from an industrial roaster but, this does not explain why the artisan roasters I have come across thus far in Maryland and Virginia have failed to meet the mark of quality, consistency and marketability that is required to survive and prosper in the specialty coffee industry.

Counter Culture cleans up in the Mid-Atlantic region (in terms of selling to high-end specialty coffee shops) and Intelligentsia has successfully convinced the high-end restaurant industry (i.e. Farmers & Fishers) to offer patrons a quality cup of java at a place where everything else on the menu is exquisite.  For now, Counter Culture has a relative stronghold on the region because people seem to believe that North Carolina is local enough AND they have a strong network of local-ish cuppings and trainings to attract local coffee shops/geeks into their network and identify them with their brand.

This business strategy is quite interesting and it will be exciting to watch the DC/VA/MD roaster market adapt to this pent up demand over the course of the next months. Until then, I’m open to any suggestions of DC/MD/VA roasters willing to part with samples for review by Cafe Hound.


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