Near I-81 in rural Virginia there’s a small coffee shop. It’s a 15-minute drive to the nearest town, historic Lexington, which is so cute its streets have been used as movie sets. But there’s nothing cute about the surroundings of Lexington Coffee Roasters. There’s little here except for Hull’s Drive-In next door and a storage facility across the road.
Normally, highway coffee is meant to keep drivers awake, not something to be savored. Yet, I’m here at Lexington Coffee Roasters for a tasting flight.
This is a destination coffee shop that brags about its ability to attract “big city folks” to get off the highway to stock up on their exquisite coffees. The shop’s goal is to inform the palates of people like me whose coffee experiences might have, until now, been limited.
I must admit to drinking my coffee with a lot of milk. I think I actually prefer coffee-flavored milk to coffee. A couple times, desperate and with no milk available, I’ve had a shot of espresso with sugar. A lot of sugar. It was unpleasant enough that I’m having trouble imagining getting down the tasting flights here, which only come one way: black.
“We’re trying to educate consumers to the complexity of coffee, which is 1,000 times more complex than wine,” explains Josh Keith, the enthusiastic Operations Manager. “We’re in the middle of nowhere and people aren’t used to higher end coffee. We’re trying to educate, but not in a snooty way like big city coffee shops. We want to be inviting, that’s why we have tasting flights.”
Tasting flights of wine, beer and alcohol have been popular for years, and now coffee shops, chocolatiers, and artisanal food and drink producers of all sorts are starting to use tasting flights to educate their customers and help them figure out what they like and what they don’t.
Keith prepares my flight and begins to explain just how complicated it is to create good coffee, and even before I’ve brought a cup to my lips, my appreciation for coffee has grown.
As with wine, different coffee varietals and terroir – altitude, rain, sunlight, and temperature – all affect the taste of what ends up in your cup. The fruit of the coffee plant is called a cherry, and the timing of harvesting cherries also significantly affects flavor. Underripe cherries are astringent and grassy, while those picked past their prime take on a musty fermented taste, Keith explains. Machine-picked coffees usually have a mix of under and overripe cherries, and the brew ends up tasting muddled.
Lexington Coffee Roasters only buys beans from farms that have skilled pickers who choose nothing but perfectly ripe, sweet red coffee cherries. Harvesting machines aren’t good enough for their customers. Once picked, separating the coffee bean from the cherry and then drying it also involves skill. Shortcuts and mistakes can destroy an otherwise high quality crop. The unroasted green beans are then shipped to roasters like Lexington.
But even the perfect unroasted bean can be ruined by how it’s treated. “We only carry coffees six to nine months in green bean form” before roasting them, says Keith. “We don’t automate anything; it’s all about touch, feel, sound and smell.”
Terry Scholl, who owns the shop along with his wife and acts as its head roaster, has a specific sweet spot for every coffee he roasts. To make sure he hits it, he watches a computer carefully to gauge not only the temperature peaks and how long it stays there, but also how quickly or slowly the temperature rises. Keith laments that coffee “can come out as too baked even if [it roasts] 30 seconds too long.”
Once roasted, coffee beans can be graded on a 100 point system. As Keith describes, “normal coffee is 80 points, but we deal with 85 points and higher.” Lexington Coffee Roasters has several roasts in the low 90s range, and some are even 95 or more points.
Roasted beans have a short shelf life. In bean form, coffee is best within two weeks of roasting. Forget about grinding it until you’re ready to drink. Ground coffee, says Keith, stales 100 times faster than beans do. The average consumer drinks stale coffee so often that most of us don’t even know what fresh coffee tastes like.
The commitment to freshness is why Lexington Coffee Roasters’ products aren’t found in stores. Instead, they roast it on demand and then ship directly to the customer that day or the next. No more than three days later, the beans arrive in the customer’s mailbox, leaving another ten days of peak freshness for drinking.
With this much precision, it’s hardly surprising that Lexington Coffee Roasters has won so many awards. Its beans have been included in Coffee Review’s Top 30 Coffees of the Year so many times it doesn’t even bother listing the details on its website. In both 2016 and 2017 Lexington won Golden Bean silver medals. Drinking a coffee flight at the shop, you can taste some of them.
Through the coffee flights, Lexington Coffee Roasters aims to help customers learn about their personal preferences in coffee. The baristas steer the customers to taste and smell the different notes in the coffees they’re sampling. It’s become so popular that Lexington residents often bring out-of-town guests for tastings to show off the merits of their small town.
The first cup I taste is from Colombia, called Cauca. It’s bright and light, and reminds me a bit of high-end tea. I taste the sweet orange and the brown sugar finish, but my palate isn’t refined enough to find the cherry Keith tells me is there.
Next is a 93-point coffee that won a silver medal in the North American Bean Roasters Competition. It’s from coffee’s mother country, Ethiopia, and called Kayon Mountain. The coffee farm is owned jointly by several families. They recently installed a dry mill to further control the quality of their beans. I’m shocked to taste blueberry, which Keith explains is brought out by the way the beans have been dried. Kayon Mountain also has a rich chocolate finish.
Last in the flight is an organic blend called Blue Ridge Blend. This coffee feels thicker and richer, with a distinct taste of bittersweet chocolate and perfectly ripe dark cherry. Keith, grinning with pleasure, says there’s bright apricot and a little nutmeg in it too.
Now I realize my penchant for coffee-flavored milk has nothing to do with my lack of java sophistication. I’ve just had poor quality coffee most of my life and needed milk or sugar to make it more palatable. Next time I have the opportunity to drink great coffee, I’m looking forward to keeping it black.