Uncovering An Underground Coffeehouse

When I was 18, I had an argument with my father that it shouldn’t matter who you know, but rather what you know. I’m still an optimist and a wee bit naive, but I wouldn’t argue that today. I’d say both matter.

The Best Coffee in Town.
I can’t tell you where it is. I can’t tell you the name of the joint or how to get the information. You’ve got to know someone. Or get invited. Perhaps, you ask the right question of the right person who knows that Someone. It’s not about money or power. It’s about coffee-ease. Code words and earnest seeking about the truths the bean holds. I’m not exactly sure what I said the other day in Nashville, but I said it to the right person in the right place and I found hidden treasure.

What, you are thinking, is this an elite coffee club or something? Yes, and on paper, it does seem odd, seductively exclusive even, especially in a town where I could lose the a fore-mentioned argument over and over.

However, after having visited, tasted, and been enlightened, I believe I found a man who, quite possibly, knows enough about coffee (judging by sheer verbal volume) to talk a bank robber out of robbing. I see his coffee house as a speakeasy or a salon like those early 20th Century Parisian apartments that harbored the genius of Hemingway, Stein and Pound. For these artists, it was the love and careful, diligent study of what makes a story real that gathered them together. For this coffee salon, it is love of the drink for sure, but more, it is the serious intellectual pursuit of all that goes into the making of a great espresso and coffee.

You might be thinking, so what have you got to write about, Karen? Well, this is my blog and pony show (no stealing this 🙂 but why do I bother to write about the best cup of coffee if you, the reader, can’t trek to Nashville to find it? I have no compelling answer other than this is the most unique coffee shop and masterblender I’ve ever stumbled on.

And yes, the drink is superior.

So, I’m walking down a Nashville street on the bohemian side of Music Row and I wander into a little shop filled with *&@* (this is not a euphemism for a cuss word, I’m just sworn to secrecy, that’s all), which happens to be the right shop, if you know what I mean. It is unassuming, cluttered, and smelling of coffee and cardboard, but I find this cute little take-home gift that I can squeeze into my suitcase. I buy four.

“Do you have a business card? I write this little travel blog, you see, and I’d like to give your shop a shout-out.”

The man behind the counter, who up until this point has been mute, brightens and half-hops over to a tousled stack of cards and hands one to me. For the next ten minutes–this my favorite part of the travel writing gig–he unveils the store’s multi-generational history. His voice is youthful, and he is verbose. I stand listening, happy to be an ear, pulling out the thread that I will use to sew the blog, filing away the rest. It is quite possible that my role as a travel and food writer will be similar to a bartender or a hairdresser or a bank teller: I fill a trusted role and handle a person’s valuables, so I am invited to cross the invisible fence and permitted to move about the pasture, privy to details otherwise withheld from the average acquaintance. I think, “this will be a nice informative Nashville piece about grabbing a great cup of coffee and wandering up and down a pretty street.”

Then the man hands me another card and says, “You should call my brother. He is who you really want to talk to.” He follows with another ten minute synopsis of a coffee shop they own but don’t want to advertise. It doesn’t have a name and the location must be given to you by this man’s brother. I stare at the card. Weird, right? But they want this place to be found.

“Call him now,” he says, and nods to my phone. “It’s his cell number.”

I’m oddly uncomfortable with this idea, so I deflect with another question. Ten minutes later I walk out of the shop, thanking the man who now grins like a Cheshire cat. He’s tipped off the mole.

I walk for a few blocks fingering the card. Should I call the brother? Is this too strange? Or am I panning for gold in a winking stream?

A Dunkin’ Donut sign flags me from behind a few tree branches, and half-way through an iced latte, after I’ve tamped down the splintered wood of a picnic table, I dial.

“Hi, uh, my name is Karen, and I write a travel blog. I love coffee. Uh (laugh), I got your number from your brother–”

“Ah, yes. Well, we’re not really looking for advertisement (he has the same youthful voice), but why don’t you come over. I’ll make you a cup of coffee.”

Southern hospitality. I’m warmed to the idea.

The brother, I’ll call him “M,” gave me a seven point verbal map to follow: a few turns, a gravel road, an unmarked warehouse, glass doors. I find it and walk inside; the room is leather couches and church pews, a fully stocked musician’s stage, and artifacts from coffee growing countries. M moves out from behind a Italian espresso machine, its great copper head presiding over the room. M’s chin is two-day’s growth, but the bill of his baseball cap is a perfect 180 degree curve and his grin an ocean wide.

The mastermind of this unnamed, discreet coffee house is verbose too–to my great advantage. I stand at the counter listening, nodding as he yawns, exposing the coffee file to the light. Then he leads me to a massive wooden table. I sit as he pulls from a cupboard a tray strewn with coffee bean-filled bags. The professor asks more questions, quizzing me, coaxing me to the answers. Nodding in approval when I’m right, looking regretful when I’m not. I’m a B minus student, but teachable. It is unending, this knowledge of his and I lovehate it.

To this point, I’ve been satisfied with my globetrotting coffee sipping experiences: riding in the back of a songtow halfway up a mountain outside of Chiangmai, Thailand, to imbibe under a rickety canopy, seeds roasting over embers on a hand-hammered platter; standing in a dirt yard beside a grower in the Dominican Republic, leaping tall language barriers to sip quietly beside him, our drink strong and sugarcane-sweetened from his own harvest–this after a week of wooing him with a smile; accompanying an Austrian goulash in a 16th Century Viennese cafe; and in Buenos Aires, a daily double dose–or should I say douse?–of Italian roast espresso with inch high crema in the largest independent bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere.

But, now I find, I have lacked the intricate knowledge to know what goes into the best cups of coffee–the best in the world. One could argue, though, what is best? The experiences I’ve had or the knowledge I am gaining in one salon afternoon? I’m thinking, both.

I’m worried, though. It’s like hearing the best bass player, the best voice, the best melody or lyrical phrase–will I never enjoy another regular cup of coffee again? I don’t get to Nashville often enough to join this club. How long until I sniff out the next place on this underground coffee trail–if it even exists?

Here’s what I can tell you:
*The “fresh” coffee at your favorite shop is at least 18 months old.
*Crema is the “foam” on top of an espresso, and it can be faked.
*What we know as the coffee bean is actually the seed: this is a fruit drink we are enthralled with: it should not be bitter.
*If a pound of coffee costs less than $25, then it’s only packaging and advertising that distinguishes between brands. So don’t bother to pay more than you have to unless its the good stuff.
*Coffee is the second largest commodity in the world (according to M), and therefore, the second most corruptible behind oil (though he might concede to jewelry too).
*Apparently some guy named George from “Cup of Excellence” is the expert–he taught M everything he knows, which is a lot.
*A combination of 32 hands, implements, truck beds, bicycles, and/or donkey bums touches the coffee bean, and therefore, flavors it, from mountain to freighter.

M leads me back to the hammered copper machine, runs his finger over the holes of his espresso sieve. His eyes pop with each nugget he is dropping in front of me, tireless, but I am waning. Padawan must rest, must be renewed.

Grind. Bang. Whirrrr. Is it a high E sharp?

The half-moon cup nestles in my palm, the crema a stratus cloud. I don’t remember the rest. It involves a slap, then another slap, and my head snapping back. I think I’ve groaned. I come to and the clouds have spread paper thin clinging to the lower curve of the cup, but I don’t have the guts to drain it.

“Come back tomorrow and I’ll make you a cup of coffee from that.”

“What’s that?” I point to a contraption that looks like one glass carafe rigged on top of another, with a mesh cylinder inside.

“A siphon. You’ve never had a cup of coffee like that.”
“Oh,” I say, weak, and then thrilled, sensing the caffeine flooding my veins. “OK.”

It might be said that, outside of a place such as this, outside of the care of a masterblender like M, it is impossible to experience coffee as God intended it. At least one should be armed with the knowledge needed to recognize the best espresso and coffee in the world, and then, atmosphere is icing. I still say, one is integral to the other.

M shares a few secrets to get me by when I’m not in town–the ones I’ve shared with you. It may be possible to make “a cup of excellence” if we are informed seekers, but I wish he hadn’t told me about his $3000 grinder. It shatters the unsullied seed into three different shapes and this, he says, makes all the difference in the speed of the water pushing through the machine. This, in part, is what creates authentic crema. Darn, and I thought my Nespresso machine was a little over the top, but I’m only just beginning this journey.

“I love the romance of it,” M says, closing the file with a sigh. He is contented. A man who has found his place in life.

And I am spy. I have a mission. Where is the next coffee house like this? Ask the right questions in the right place and the map unfurls a little further.

I need a Panama hat.

Originally published on The WordShop Blog, 2012. Currently linked from “underground” coffee shop website as highlighted review, 2012.