When I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, one busy downtown intersection had Starbucks shops on three corners and a Canadian coffee chain on the fourth.
That five-year stint in the Pacific Northwest taught me to love coffee. When it’s cold and rainy almost every day, coffee shops turn into indoor parks — public gathering places offering social and culinary respite from the constant cloud cover. It’s no wonder that Starbucks, Tully’s and Seattle’s Best — which isn’t — call the Northwest home.
Richmond may not have the climate to drive such an obsession, but the last decade has seen a remarkable elevation of our coffee culture. Local roasters such as veteran Rostov’s Coffee & Tea Co. and Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Co. have improved local options while educating consumers and supplying local shops and bigger chains.
For a recent check on the local coffee scene, I order a latte and a plain old cup of coffee at a few shops across town. Lattes are deceptively simple — two ingredients, espresso and milk. But in the hands of a skilled barista they turn into a velvety smooth and beguilingly complex beverage. Good brewed coffee demonstrates fidelity to the basics — beans that are well roasted, properly ground and brewed. Anyone who’s made a bad cup of coffee knows just how easy coffee is to ruin.
Without question, two spots in town are raising the bar for excellent coffee: Lamplighter Roasting Co. and Alchemy Coffee.
Lamplighter, at 26 N. Morris St., obtains and roasts its own beans, and the result is outstanding. The Tall Bike house blend ($2.25 for a small) is bright and acidic, with a clean and light taste. If you’re feeling fancy, you can choose from a couple of bean varieties for a pour-over.
The lattes at Lamplighter’s Morris Street shop ($3.50 for a small) are perfectly poured, with an impossibly creamy texture, a mildly sweet nuttiness and only the slightest hint of bitterness on the finish. You should take the opportunity to watch the baristas create classic latte as they pour the steamed milk into the foamy espresso. It’s more difficult than they make it look.
Alchemy Coffee, at 814 W. Broad St., is dedicated to education. It features a different roasting company every six weeks, and its baristas can answer any question you throw at them. A tasting guide sits on the counter, helping you find the vocabulary to describe your coffee. If this all seems pretentious, it isn’t. The level of dedication is real.
And while you can order batch coffee that’s pre-brewed, go ahead and splurge on a pour-over of a single-origin bean ($4 for a small). You’ll have a choice of not only which coffee to try, but also three pour-over methods — essentially making your own cup of coffee on demand. The house latte ($3.37 for a small) rivals Lamplighter for the best in town — with latte art to match. The coffee flavor is the most interesting of the ones I try, with a Blanchard’s roasted espresso that tastes of chocolate.
Several neighborhood coffee shops lack the level of sophistication offered by Lamplighter and Alchemy, but provide a decent coffee experience. Lift Coffee Shop and Café, a downtown Broad Street pioneer since 2005 at 218 W. Broad St., offers a solid latte ($3.25 for a small) and drip coffee. And if you live or work nearby, its food and drink selection fills a distinct need.
Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream, at 3600 Forest Hill Ave., the south-of-the-river staple, offers well-brewed versions of both Blanchard’s and Rostov’s drip coffee. The latte ($3.15 for a small) is bitter with a flat texture, but the staff is having such a good time interacting with the regulars that I want to hang out anyway to be part of the crowd. Maybe next time I’ll try the beer and Bev’s ice cream instead. North Side’s Stir Crazy, at 4015 MacArthur Ave., similarly offers reasonable, if not outstanding quality in both its drip coffee ($1.35 for a small) and latte ($3.20 for a small).
The Museum District’s Black Hand Coffee Co., at 3101 Patterson Ave., is a step up from other neighborhood joints. There’s an active roaster parked prominently in the middle of the store. Its Costa Rican house coffee ($1.57 for a small) is clean and mildly acidic, with an intriguingly spicy finish. The latte ($3.59 for a small) has a nice, full texture with a pleasantly mild coffee flavor that melds perfectly with the steamed milk, even if it isn’t particularly distinctive.
My final coffee-shop stop is at Church Hill’s Urban Farmhouse Market & Café, in the basement of the new Lava Lofts at 310 N. 33rd St. With an expansive patio and a shop full of beer, wine, snacks and vegetables for sale, I consider moving back to Church Hill just to be a regular. Its latte ($3.35 for a small) has just the right full mouth feel, but the coffee flavor is so mellow that it’s almost unnoticeable. The barista’s skill is evident, but the choice of beans isn’t quite right. The house coffee tastes slightly burned, disappointing for a space and urban-market concept that shows such promise.
From high-quality neighborhood haunts to coffee shops worthy of destination status, getting a good cup of coffee in Richmond has never been easier. So grab a book or a friend and enjoy a latte on the patio, before Richmond’s heat reduces us all to that most unnatural of drinks — iced coffee. S