Seattle is well known for being a coffee connoisseur’s dream. Along with that big coffee company that everyone knows about we are home to any number of small specialty coffee shops. On a recent, chilly morning I visited one such café on Capitol Hill – Caffe Vita. As soon as I walked in, all of my senses told me that this one is different. The first thing that hit me was the wonderful aroma of roasted coffee beans. Located in the heart of Capitol Hill at 1005 East Pike St, the folks at Caffe Vita have been roasting coffee since 1995. Starting with their original shop in the Queen Anne neighborhood, they have since grown to include eleven cafes in the Pacific Northwest, the lower East Side of New York City and Los Angeles.
For coffee lovers, there really is nothing better than coffee brewed with fresh onsite roasted coffee beans. For one thing the aroma is amazing and sets the stage for a wonderful experience. Caffe Vita roasts their beans in two huge vintage roasters. The larger roaster is a Probat, which was manufactured in 1959, and roasts up to 60 kilos at a time. The smaller Probat dates from 1940 and is used to roast small, limited batch coffee. As you might expect, there is nothing computerized in this process. The head coffee roaster Wade, who has been with Caffe Vita for almost 15 years, has full manual control to monitor and make adjustments as needed during the roasting process.
Caffe Vita’s green coffee buyer, Daniel Shewmaker, travels the world over to bring home the best beans. They are mostly grown in cooperatives of small farms, most are fair trade and organic. Although some of the farms are not officially certified because of the cost involved they all use organic methods. Coffee grows in high altitudes found in a tropical climate along the Equatorial zone. So Daniel gets to travel to some amazing places. The largest producing locations can be found in Central and Southern America, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Asia. When Daniel makes a buying trip he meets with the farmers, developing relationships that ensure the quality of the beans and that each coffee purchased has a direct farm to roaster path and also meets the high standards of sustainability, environmental, economic and social conditions that are required by Caffe Vita.
Once the beans have arrived in Seattle, he again goes through a complex process to make sure that what ends up in your cup is the best coffee you’ve had the pleasure to drink. As part of our tour we were treated to a part of that process called “cupping.” As we entered the test kitchen the first thing we noticed was a round table set with small trays full of coffee beans with three small glasses (one glass for each of us) in front of the trays. The beans are placed in the trays to ensure that there are no bad beans in the bunch. Typically, a cupping session will involve tastings with multiple samples from the same crop. Each tray was marked with the region of the world where the coffee originated. The beans in the tray had been roasted that morning in tiny sample sized roasters. The glasses held coffee that had just been ground from the recently roasted beans. We slowly made our way around the table, smelling the beans and the ground coffee in the small glasses, noticing the difference in the aromas. While we were doing that, Daniel had set some water to boil for the next step in the process. When the water was at just the right temperature, Daniel filled the glasses. As the grounds sit in the hot water for at least 3 minutes, a crust forms on top. After Daniel told us of some of his adventures in pursuit of the best beans, we turned our attention back to the glasses. But, no drinking yet. First, we “broke the crust” by stirring it with a spoon – keeping our noses close to the surface so we could smell, and judge the aroma that is emitted. We again worked our way around the table, noting the differences and picking our favorites (at least according to smell). Finally, we were ready to taste! The tasting is done with a loud slurp. Yes, your mother probably told you that this is unacceptable in polite company – but it is essential here. The slurp allows the coffee to spread over your entire tongue to make sure it hits all of your different taste buds. Each sample is also judged according to body, sweetness and aftertaste. If we were actually looking for beans to buy, we would be keeping an intricate score on all of these aspects. As it was, we were simply enjoying the process! We found that the beans we favored by fragrance also produced our favorite when slurped. Mine was an Ethiopian bean while my husband preferred a South American bean. We were both very excited to get down to the café to enjoy a full beverage of the aromatic and wonderful coffee.
The café is warm and cozy, the perfect place to spend a drippy Seattle afternoon. People chat in small groups or sit alone taking advantage of the free wi-fi to get some work done. The café also sells brewing equipment, specialty teas and Theo Chocolate (Seattle chocolatiers who also roast their own (cocoa) beans – a perfect pairing!) And for those you know who don’t have the great fortune to live in Seattle, Caffe Vita offers a number of mail order gifts including Coffee of the Month packages or Coffee & Chocolate of the Month.
Locally owned, great coffee, cozy cafe and social responsibility – what could be more Seattle than that?
About our guest contributor:
Elizabeth Fagin has been a travel writer, covering the food and wine scene in Canada and the Pacific Northwest for over 10 years. For her 'day job' she works as a Jewish Educator in the Seattle area.