Main Line Coffee Drinkers Enjoy Specialty Brews

From Kimberton to Merion, local specialty purveyors take a ride on coffee’s third wave.

Recommended Coffee Shops & Brands

burlap and bean: 204 S. Newtown Street Road, Newtown Square; (484) 427-4547,
golden valley farms: 208 Carter Drive, Suite 13B, West Chester; (800) 528-0933,
gryphon café: 105 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne; (610) 688-1988,
kimberton coffee: (610) 933-6300,
milkboy coffee: 2 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, (610) 645-5269; 824 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr, (610) 527-0690;
town hall coffee co.: 358 E. Montgomery Ave., Merion Station; (610) 212-1637,

It’s all about the pour at Gryphon Café. (Photo by Steve Legato)

It’s a great time to be a coffee drinker on the Main Line. During the past few years, a movement has begun to take hold in the area—one led by local roasters and brewers who are intensely focused on quality and freshness. Nationally, it’s been dubbed coffee’s third wave.

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It all started with the industry making freeze-dried coffee accessible to everyone. The second wave was led by the likes of Starbucks and their efforts to bring great-tasting coffee to the masses. Now, it’s all about specialty niches within the industry, illustrating coffee’s more recent transition from a mass commodity to one with the potential to be more of an artisanal product.

As with many food-and-drink trends, this one has its origins out West, in traditional coffee hot spots like Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area. Starting in the early 2000s, it moved east, eventually finding its way to the Philadelphia area.

Though it’s been slow to catch on around the Main Line, the prolonged transition actually benefits consumers. For now, there are no pretenders. Everyone has an infectious passion that translates directly to the finished product. The true baristas around here love coffee, and they love talking about it, educating customers on the brewing process.

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It’s all about the beans

Just in case you’re unsure of where its priorities lie, Burlap and Bean keeps its roasting machine by the counter. “We encourage people to ask questions and learn about it,” says Christine Endicott, co-owner of the Newtown Square coffee shop, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary. “It’s like being in the kitchen at a restaurant.”

Using the freshest beans available brings out flavors and nuances not found in coffee that’s been sitting on supermarket shelves for six months or more. (If you do buy there, look for bags with a “roasted on” date, rather than an expiration date.)

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Coffee starts losing its flavor rather quickly after roasting. Drink a cup at Burlap and Bean, and you know it’s been roasted no more than two days earlier. “People say they love Stumptown Coffee Roasters or other great West Coast brewers, but they’re really missing out by not getting the freshest, most local beans they can,” says Endicott.

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Espresso yourself

The myths are many about espresso. It’s widely consumed in other cultures, yet often dismissed in the United States as bitter and far too strong. And Starbucks’ penchant for using beans roasted to the point of what you might consider burnt doesn’t help. “People have a bad perception of what espresso is,” says Esther Lee of the recently closed Rosewood Coffee Co. in Berwyn. “They think it’s something different, and maybe don’t realize that it’s really just coffee brewed a different way.”

Espresso is not, by nature, bitter. Though many coffee roasters have an espresso blend, it actually refers to a method of brewing—specifically, using pressure to force water through finely ground coffee. As such, any sort of beans can be used.

Espresso is a concentrated beverage. In typical “third wave” style, 20-21 grams of coffee is used for a shot that contains an ounce or so of water. So espresso does  contain more caffeine per ounce than regular coffee. Still, a 12-ounce cup of brewed coffee has as much as double the caffeine of an espresso shot.

“We sell a lot of espresso,” says Tim Noble of Merion Station’s Town Hall Coffee, “because ours is so good.”

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It’s hard to disagree with him. Incredibly rich and impossibly smooth, a Town Hall shot could easily be considered world class. I’ve visited some of the best espresso counters in Rome, and it’s better than anything I had there—offering dark-chocolate, toffee and warm, spicy notes, and nary a hint of bitterness.

Espresso is also the base for cappuccinos and lattes. Starbucks has been a leader in introducing the public to both—in huge sizes. Traditionally, a cappuccino might only be six ounces. Baristas who make traditional cappuccinos and lattes often have to explain why they don’t have a 24-ounce version. But with fresh coffee, quality milk and perfect steaming, smaller is definitely better.

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Pour-Over Bars, French Presses, Dedicated Service

Another appealing aspect of coffee’s third wave is the idea of grinding and brewing every cup to order. Hence, pour-over bars are making a comeback. The technique is based on low-tech contraptions that brew a cup at a time, along with personal French-press pots. It does take an extra few minutes to get your cup, but the fresh, robust taste is worth the wait.

At Town Hall Coffee, baristas preside over their pour-over bars ready to show customers how it’s done. “Every one of my employees is extremely passionate about quality coffee,” says Noble. “But each one also knows that our main product is customer service.”

Lee is actively scouting a new spot for her Rosewood Coffee Co. She takes a slightly different approach to educating customers, writing down all the details about her coffee and brewing methods, displaying them prominently, and waiting for customers to ask questions. “I can’t really rattle this information off to consumers—they won’t absorb it, and may even be standoffish about it,” she says. “If they’re interested, they’ll ask.”

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