Sarasota is known for many things: its natural beauty, its culture, its restaurants—but its coffee scene? Until recently, not so much.
These days, however, a small, dedicated group of local shops and roasters are serving coffees of a quality that rivals those found in any big city. Take, for example, Perq Coffee Bar, which opened in Southside Village in 2013 and serves single-origin beans from artisan roasters on a bespoke espresso machine. Or Black Gold Coffee Roasters in Venice, where owner Gary Lauters roasts the beans he buys directly from sustainable growers.
But who’s got the best beans in town? To find out, we canvassed our Facebook fans and foodie sources for a short list of contenders to compete in a blind tasting—or “cupping,” as it’s called in the industry—led by Bryan Martin, a coffee expert who moved to Sarasota last year from Atlanta and who works for coffee distributor Batdorf & Bronson. Then we assembled a panel of coffee-loving chefs and food enthusiasts and convened at downtown Sarasota’s Artisan Cheese Company.
Black Gold Coffee Roasters’ Café Granja La Esperanza Geisha Las Margaritas Valle Del Cauca Colombia
Lelu Coffee’s Nicaragua Selva Negra
Kuma Coffee’s Ethiopia Misty Valley Natural (served at Perq Coffee Bar)
Java Dawg French Roast (served at Pastry Art)
Starbucks Italian Roast
Fresh Cup of Hope’s Bold Roast
Chef Steve Phelps of Indigenous
Chef Christian Hershman of CJH Cellars and Cuisine
Stephanie Roberts, ABC7 morning news anchor and co-host of Suncoast View
Megan Greenberg, food blogger and atLarge Inc. marketing chief
Amy Hoffarth, Sarasota Magazine graphic designer and former barista
Bryan got us started by reviewing the steps the judges would take to come to their conclusions.
Step 1 Examine the whole beans to get familiar with the size, texture, scent and oiliness of each coffee bean.
Step 2 Dry sniff ground beans. Martin coarsely ground the coffee beans and then encouraged the judges to sniff them again and note any changes in scent. “You can tell a lot about a coffee from its smell—what kind of roast; how it’s processed; if there are defects, like mold; and where it’s grown. You can also pick out individual notes like vanilla, fruit and chocolate, just like in a wine tasting,” he explained.
Step 3 Wet sniff. Martin heated water in an electric kettle to a temperature just below 200°F, then poured the water over the ground coffee and asked the judges to sniff again, noting any changes in scent and color.
Step 4 Break the foam. Push back the foam that gathers at the top of the coffee glass and take a whiff of the steam as the foam breaks. “Go in at an angle and push back and down to get the strongest sniff,” Martin advised.
Step 6 “Skim the scum.” Basically, this is removing the foam from the top of the cup so it’s not present for the actual tasting part of the cupping. “It’s like rendering the fat, Christian!” Phelps said to Hershman with a laugh.
Step 7 Let the coffee cool. This is an important step in rendering an overall verdict, because “a really good coffee [still] tastes good cold,” Martin says.
Step 8 Slurp! Finally, the tasting part of the cupping. This is done with a spoon, and Martin encouraged the judges to make loud slurping sounds by sucking the coffee off spoons. It turns out a perfect slurp takes some time and talent. “How are you getting that loud a slurp?” an impressed Greenberg asked Martin.
The Judges’ Tasting Notes
Coffee No. 1 Black Gold Coffee Roasters’ Café Granja La Esperanza Geisha Las Margaritas Valle Del Cauca Colombia. The judges applauded this coffee’s “perfect chocolate color,” smoky, almost campfire-like scent and “earthy” taste.
Coffee No. 2 Lelu Coffee’s Nicaragua Selva Negra. “Very drinkable!” enthused Roberts. “It’s not harsh and it would get me going on dark mornings.”
Coffee No. 3 Kuma Coffee’s Misty Valley Natural (Currently available at Perq Coffee Bar). The judges all praised this coffee’s light roast and strong blueberry, black tea and candied ginger notes.
Coffee No.4 Java Dawg French Roast (available at Pastry Art). A dark bean with a strong finish that Phelps described as having a “licorice” flavor.
Coffee No. 5 Starbucks Italian Roast. By far the oiliest of all the beans, with a flavor that the judges agreed was strong and slightly bitter.
Coffee No. 6 Fresh Cup of Hope’s Bold Roast. “A sweet smell, with mild chocolate notes,” Hershman said, and both he and Greenberg took note of this bean’s “soft finish.”
After rating the beans based on aroma, acidity, body and flavor, as well as overall preference, the judges agreed Kuma Coffee’s Ethiopia Misty Valley was the most unique and flavorful coffee of the bunch. “This is the coffee I would serve if I were having people over and wanted to give them something different,” Phelps said. “It’s a social blend—you want to drink it with people.”
“My Jolt of Java”
Local coffeeholics confess.
“I get up at 3:45 a.m. but don’t have coffee until I have finished my swim workout around 7:30. Having it after I work out is a nice treat. It comes from a Keurig machine we have in the office at the Shark Tank.” —Rick Walker, U.S. Master’s Swimming coach
“I’ve been drinking coffee since I was three years old; I asked my Hungarian grandmother for some and she handed it right over. I drink several cups a day. I don’t really drink it for the caffeine kick, but for the taste and aroma. It’s [my] one little vice.” —Aaron Jaco, owner of Uppercut Boxing & Fitness
“I wake up at 4 a.m. every morning so I can sit down and enjoy my two cups of coffee. I drink Batdorf & Bronson’s Dancing Goats dark roast; I enjoy the flavor and aroma and the taste and shot of caffeine I get.” —Kim Clayback, public works infrastructure engineer at the City of Bradenton
“Before I go to bed [I set] the machine to automatic, so I wake up to the rich aroma of freshly made coffee. I sip one cup—black—as I’m reading the newspaper and making my way through my news feeds. Then I have a refill. [Sometimes I] take a break and walk to Starbucks for a tall latte, or stop by Perq Coffee Bar for a flat white.” —Jan Thornburg, City of Sarasota senior communications manager
“When I worked two jobs in Orlando, from 1999 to 2003, I drank eight to 12 20-oz. cups [every day]. Now I drink it more for the taste [than the buzz]. I start my day at 4 a.m. with a Hawaiian coffee blend—it’s 5 percent Kona and tastes like an expensive brand without the huge price tag.” —James Plocharsky, owner, Jim’s Small Batch Bakery
Best Home Coffeemakers
“Pour-over [Kalita] gives the cleanest cup of coffee.” —Erin Zolner of Perq Coffee Bar
“Pour-over [Kalita] makes the freshest cup of coffee; a close second choice is the French press.” —Jamie Zimmerman of Pastry Art
“My favorite home brew method is the classic, stovetop espresso pot. Coffee is meant to be extracted and the stovetop pot allows for the perfect extraction strength in my opinion. It's easy, it's simple, it’s classic.” —Jennifer Smith, Lelu Coffee
“Our favorite way of brewing coffee is by French press. This process helps showcase our coffees without compromise.”
—Gary Lauters of Black Gold Coffee Roasters
“The best way to make a cup of coffee is using the French press method. The real flavor and aromas are so much more highlighted.” —Erik Ningard, Fresh Cup of Hope