Walking into Rising Star Coffee feels nothing like popping into Starbucks— or any coffee shop, really. The space looks more like the lab of a mad scientist than your friendly, neighborhood cafe. For starters, the equipment is all wrong: Instead of normal-looking coffee machines there are Erlenmeyer flasks, glass beakers and an apparatus that's a dead ringer for a bong. A countertop halogen-beam heater—you heard right: halogen-beam heater—is straight out of Star Trek.
And then there's the menu. Terms such as pour-over, aeropress and vacuum pot replace phrases like, uh, cup of coffee. In addition to the familiar espressos, cappuccinos and lattes, there are drinks called toddies, cortados and macchiatos. And—and!—we haven't even gotten to the beans.
"I understand that this can be an intimidating place to walk into for somebody who just drinks coffee at home," explains GM Erika Durham. "We're trying really hard to welcome people in, be patient, and not be snobby. We are doing this because we love coffee and want to share it with people."
Slow-Food Approach to Coffee
Since setting up shop last year in the Ohio City Firehouse building, Rising Star Coffee has quickly become the bean of choice at numerous coffee shops, restaurants and bakeries. Owner Kim Jenkins puts quality above all else, buying only the top one percent of beans, roasting them on-site, and brewing coffee one cup at a time using the proper equipment and technique.
The upshot: Rising Star is serving the best cup of java in the region, hands down.
It might seem like this hyper-obsessive dedication to coffee percolated out of nowhere, but it's been brewing beneath the surface for years.
"There's a long history to this trend," notes Durham. "It's hard to pinpoint exactly where and when it started, but at some point people got interested in drinking coffee that actually tastes good. For a very long time, coffee was looked at just as a stimulant."
Origin vs. Roast
Specialty coffee beans—almost always of the Arabica variety—come largely from Africa, Indonesia, Central and South America. The innate flavor of a bean is dictated by its origin, or terroir, in the same way wine grapes are. Thus, it's not just the region the beans are from that determines flavor, but rather the specific country, state, district, neighborhood...right down to the farm, field and sun- or shade-dappled patch. The bean's origin flavor is then boosted by proper roasting. Or, conversely, destroyed.
"When roasting, you want to find a balance between the origin and the roast," says Durham. "If you roast too light, there's not enough body to prop up and push forward the origin flavors. But if you go too far, then the roast completely takes over and wipes out any subtle flavors."
In addition to flavor, coffees are evaluated based on their body, acidity and aroma. Taste a Sumatran Mandheling and you might describe it as malty and smoky with a hint of spice, whereas an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe leans more toward sweet, fruity and citrusy.
Brew Bar vs. Espresso Bar
Drinks begin with coffee that is either brewed or pulled from the espresso machine. All coffees, both brewed and pulled, are weighed, ground and brewed to order. When it comes to brewed coffee, there are three main methods, each of which affects the qualities of the cup.
"This is closest to a traditional drip," Durham says of the method, which involves slowly pouring hot water through the grounds and into a waiting cup. "We recommend it as a place to start. It's a great way to taste pretty much everything in the coffee." The process takes three to four minutes and results in a light-bodied, pleasantly sweet cup of coffee.
"This method makes a heavier-bodied coffee because the coffee and water are together for the entire brewing time," says Durham. The device works like a French press, where hot water is poured onto grounds, allowed to sit, and then the coffee is separated from the grounds. It results in a four-ounce concentrate that is diluted with hot water to make a full cup. The process takes three to four minutes and results in a bold but smooth cup of coffee.
Picture an hourglass and you'll have a good idea how this dual-chamber contraption looks. Water is placed in the lower orb, while grounds are placed in the top one. When heated over a halogen burner, the water is forced from the lower chamber to the upper chamber, where it mixes with the grounds. After the appropriate time, the heat is shut off and the brewed coffee travels through a filter and back down. "This is the most expensive cup because it's really labor intensive; there's a lot of stirring involved," explains Durham. "But it makes the best cup of coffee that we possibly can."
It might look like the machine is doing all the work, but that's not the case—and there still is plenty of room for human error. Unlike most places, the beans are weighed and ground to order. Then there's the tamping, brew pressure and brewing time. The result is two ounces of intensely flavored coffee.
A macchiato is an espresso with a very small amount of steamed, textured milk (all milk is from Hartzler Dairy in Wooster). It is served in a small espresso cup.
The cortado is like a mini-cappuccino, with almost equal amounts of espresso and steamed milk. It is about four ounces in total.
A cappuccino is approximately one-third espresso to two-thirds milk. Here, the milk is steamed and frothed into soft peaks before it is added to the espresso, giving the drink its characteristic buoyancy.
"The main difference between a cappuccino and a latte is the latte will have less texture," says Durham. "The milk will be thinner and the coffee won't have that thick layer of textured milk on top."
A mocha is the same as a latte but with chocolate milk instead.
A toddy is a fancy version of iced coffee. A very long—12 to 24 hours—cold-brewing process results in an intensely flavored coffee that is cut with water and served over ice.
Rising Star's Tips for Better Coffee at Home
• Buy fresh whole-bean coffee, ideally roasted within the week
• Store beans in an airtight contained out of the sun
• Weigh (or measure) and grind the beans immediately before brewing
• Start with nice clean equip- ment, preferably a pour-over or aeropress
• Use water (not distilled) between 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit (just off the boil)