A Bridge to the Brew

Local coffee experts share their knowledge


Photography and Illustrations by Erin Kim

As an ex-barista who has worked in both corporate and specialty coffee shops, I have long wanted to see if there was a way to bridge the worlds of knowledge and creativity to make coffee more accessible to a wider audience.

To do my small part in building that bridge, I sat down with a half dozen coffee experts from across the city.

We had honest conversations about their experiences with coffee in Memphis, how they like to brew at home, their “magic moments” in coffee drinking and more.

Maurice Henderson II
Cxffeeblack 

About: Maurice Henderson II (aka Bartholomew Jones) is an educator at Aster College Preparatory Charter School, a hip hop artist and one of the founders of Cxffeeblack. For a minute, he was working the coffee bar at Society Memphis skatepark when the venue first opened. He started geeking out on coffee years earlier while he was at Wheaton College after a Bible study leader, who worked at Starbucks, introduced him to an Americano. He asked questions, invested in equipment and began a trial-and-error process of at-home brewing. I started talking more to Maurice because we both were minorities in specialty coffee. He understood the plight that a lot of us face in realms where we do not feel comfortable and are expected to advocate in predominantly white environments for a product grown by people of origin. Maurice unites the technicalities of specialty coffee brewing and the beauty of its origins to make it more accessible to communities of color.

At home: Maurice uses the AeroPress to brew Guji Mane, his own roast by Ethnos Coffee. It’s a natural Ethiopian with caramel and raspberry notes and a full body. He uses The Stubby recipe by Brian Beyke from Abandon Coffee. Its fast brew time and affordability make it an attractive method for the novice, but it has remained a staple for most professionals as well. “The con is that it’s harder to repeat perfectly because you have a lot more physical labor; the varying physicality of each person affects the final product,” he says.

Moment: The bloom. “The aromatics and seeing the carbon dioxide being released are the sweet spots,” he says.

Advice: He urges homebrewers not to be afraid to get curious.

“Don’t let the knowledge you gain by being curious stop someone else from being curious,” he says.

“Don’t conflate knowledge with worth. The knowledge … people gain about coffee should cause them to be better people and should cause them to help other people be better. We should be lifting people up. It should make us excited to show things to other people, not excited to snark on people because they don’t know things.”

Brian Williams II
French Truck

About: Brian Williams II is a barista I met through the Cxffeeblack movement, which has made him feel ownership and pride in his role as a barista in the city and outward. “There’s this stereotype that baristas are over-caffeinated socialists, Vans-wearing coffee snobs with tattoos,” he says. “But we are normal people, and I want to connect with human beings by breaking bread.” When Brian enters a coffee shop, he takes note of the demographics of the baristas and clientele. If he’s going to return to a shop, he wants to feel like he belongs and like he can bring his whole social-justice-warrior, Guatemala-pour-over-drinking self into a space.

“Nashville sold their soul to get those great coffee shops, but Memphis hasn’t,” he explains.

I don’t want to knock down Nashville’s scene, but I agree with Brian on this. When it comes to preserving grit, the Grind City stands out.

At home: Brian is brewing Guji Mane by Cxffeeblack and Ethnos or the Guatemala by French Truck in a French press. The French press receives heavy criticism from many, but Brian loves the oils swirling on top with a heavy, full-bodiedness leaving a bit of sludge in the cup.

Moment: “When you plunge down the grounds and elevate the coffee—what’s extracted from the grounds. I’m awestruck by the science but also from what was created from elements that were separated from each other,” says Brian.

Advice: “Slow down from time to time,” he says. “Get Curious. Ask questions. Come back to the shop. There’s a reason why people are spending money and taking time on it [food, art, music, etc.]. When you’re doing coffee tastings, there is room for subjectivity when everyone else is tasting the same thing.”

Caleb Knight
Formerly with French Truck and Vice & Virtue

About: After doing stints with Vice & Virtue and French Truck, Caleb Knight has some thoughts about coffee. We talked about becoming over-caffeinated while flavor profiling as baristas with anxiety and how to better the reputation of decaf coffee. “Why does it always taste like hot dogs?” Caleb jokes. While he was with Vice & Virtue, the baristas all agreed not to get a decaf until they found a good one. “We got a Colombia, sugarcane-processed decaf,” he says. “It’s super fruity, super crazy and awesome. I can explore that, and have fun with it, and not feel like I have to limit myself. I can push the boundary of making six brews and trying the nuances of it.” As baristas, you are always tasting coffees and checking espresso throughout the shift. Having a lot of anxiety without the caffeine can make for a difficult shift, but maybe there’s hope for those of us more prone to become shaky after dialing in.

At home: Caleb uses a V60 or AeroPress and is most likely brewing the tasty decaf —Desvelado from Huila, Colombia—from the shop. “You have the freedom of investing as much as you want in brewing equipment at the beginning, but if you’re gonna dish out for something, it should be the grinder,” he says. (This answer was the same across the board with baristas. The size of the grounds determines how long the flow lasts after each pour.) Caleb uses the Baratza Encore burr grinder. It’s great for entry-level usage but still has a plethora of customizable settings. He also notes: “When you’re at home, waste doesn’t have to happen as much as it does. Compost your grounds if you have the option. Chill your ‘mess ups’ and use them for fun cocktail stuff or cooking.”

Moment: “When you’re in a space long enough, the smells become neutral to you. When I’m grinding the coffee, that’s when I smell it and am like, ‘That’s it.’ It’s me introducing something into my space that serves a function,” he says.

Advice: “I think the whole fun of coffee, because I try not to see the world too seriously, is playing with variables, making mistakes and learning what the palette likes,” he says. “And not being too quick to toss your ‘bad coffee’ out. Drink it. You might find you notice something about the coffee you may not have noticed previously. Add creamer. We’ve gotten so pretentious about adding things to coffee. Sometimes I love to add a super sweet cream my [former] boss makes. And I don’t feel guilty about it.”

Erik Rocha
Starbucks and Memphis Coffee Community

About: Erik Rocha is the store manager of one of the busiest Starbucks in Memphis. Just like anyone who oversees a business, he has to balance quantity and quality. He hosts coffee tastings, and, if a customer’s favorite roast is no longer on bulk brew for the day, he’ll suggest and explain a pour-over. As important as it is for the customer to feel educated, it’s even more important for baristas to own the customer’s experience and aim for quality. When you’re excited about something, you’ll become an advocate for it. “Service first, but also don’t forget that this thing that we’re serving is special,” says Erik.

Ethiopia Yirgacheffe by Starbucks was the first coffee in which Erik tasted intense blueberry flavor notes. After the first few sips, he couldn’t believe there wasn’t a sugar sweetener or flavoring. This coffee was featured at Starbucks Reserve stores equipped with the Clover, an automated inverse French press machine. It was a lot of people’s first touch with the concept of single-brewing methods. Erik then started venturing out to shops like Barista Parlor in Nashville to try this wave of coffee that hadn’t hit Memphis yet. “It was a $10 cup of green-tip Panama Gesha from Verve,” he said. Surprisingly, he was less than impressed by the exclusive roast; the experience served as a reminder that specialty coffee is subject to the individual’s taste buds.

At home: In the mornings, Eric brews some natural Ethiopia Yirgacheffe by Tandem using the V60 or AeroPress. Erik sips on some Ethiopian espresso by Ruby Coffee Roasters as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes for his Breville Dual Boiler to heat up the water, and dialing in takes time. He’s grinding on an impressive Olympus 75E shop grinder. It’s heavy-duty and larger than what you find in most homes.

Advice: “Specialty coffee at home is a rabbit hole,” he says. “You can spend thousands of dollars. It’s not that hard to get started.

Get a decent burr grinder, a scale and a way to heat water—you can make great coffee.

Numbers are just numbers. Numbers don’t tell you how something tastes. It’s OK to chase that perfect 44-second extraction, but, if it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing.”

Tiffany Day
Home Roaster and Dr. Bean’s Coffee and Tea Emporium

About: Tiffany Day has recently started barista training at Dr. Bean’s, is a third of LuLu’s, and roasts her own beans at home. She started in 2017, experimenting with an air popper she found at Goodwill. “The least committal way to start is using an old air popcorn popper. It’s a low investment and allows you to just try it out,” she says. She invested in a Gene Café in January 2018. “It all felt a bit more official,” she says. “I could adjust the temp during the roast. I could track things and streamline the process. I was also able to stay inside.”

Tiffany got her first set of green (raw) beans from a friend who had just quit drinking coffee and had a lot to offer. Once she began roasting more frequently, she turned to Sweet Maria’s, based in Oakland, California. It’s a good, ethically sourced option for home roasters due to the advantageous batch sizes ranging from one to 25 pounds. Sweet Maria’s has a very reputable and open relationship with their farmers, to the point that they include the cupping notes from them. Coffees are seasonal, so one roast isn’t guaranteed all year long. It encourages roasters and baristas to be more flexible in trying new batches.

At home: Tiffany is using the Hario V60 for most of her morning brew but sometimes goes to the AeroPress or Moka pot for espresso. For a bigger batch, she will use the Chemex. She has her own natural Ethiopian and washed Kenyan and the Sumatra Survivor’s Roast by Dr. Bean’s.

Advice:

“Do it if you’re having fun with it.”

“If it gets to a point where it’s frustrating to you, don’t do it. Find another brewing method that you enjoy,” she says. “In some ways, I feel like not such a great coffee ambassador. Drink it or don’t. Coffee’s not for everyone. Caffeine’s not for everyone. If someone is wanting to get into pour-overs at home, I would say to just pick a system. Look up YouTube videos.”

Katie Wells
City & State

About: Katie Wells was one of the first people I met when I frequented City & State on Broad, and she helped train me when I was working there as a barista. Their staff has always created a welcoming and intentional environment when it comes to learning about “fancy coffee.” Katie, who serves as director of operations, has been with City & State since the beginning and has learned how to innovate both coffee and retail. Katie marries the importance of quality in both customer service and product.

She highlights that a person’s introduction to something new is how they will continue to grow in it.

It will affect what kind of respect and attention small-lot coffee farmers receive from the masses.

At home: Katie is currently brewing Koke Ethiopia from Edison Roasters on her Kalita. “The Kalita—its flat bottom is more consistent and produces a product with a fuller body. Brewing at home is definitely affordable,” she says. Katie’s first setup was a $10 AmazonBasics scale, a V60 under $20, an Amazon gooseneck under $20, and a Mr. Coffee grinder from Goodwill. Her current setup is worth about $400. “It was a choice that has changed over time,” she says.

Moment: “The pour after the bloom is most satisfying visually,” she says. “It looks like a crema on an espresso.”

Advice: For those beginning to venture into pour-overs at the shop or home, Katie recommends beginning with an easy Colombian with their traditional chocolate and subtle light citrus notes. “It starts getting you into that territory, but it’s not going to be super fruity like an Ethiopian or super tangy like a Kenyan,” she says. “It’s an approachable origin.”

Erin Kim is a new neighbor in Memphis and its creative community. When she’s not barista-ing at Vice & Virtue, she is teaching all things ESL at Connect Language Center to adult refugees and asylum seekers. She writes about her experience as a Korean American adoptee on her blog, One of Kim, at melloyelloyeoja.com. If she could do anything right now, it would be to road-trip across the country sharing stories and meals with new and old friends while jamming to some Anderson .Paak. @oneofakim7