From basement blends to Baltimore staples, a look at coffee micro-roasters in Baltimore

City Paper

It was a cold day and Clifford Murphy was thirsty and hungry from fishing in the river. His stepfather put down his reel and handed him a ham-on-pumpernickel sandwich with mustard. Instead of water, he opened a large thermos and offered him the only liquid available.

“That’s how it started,” says Murphy, now the director of Maryland Traditions for the Maryland State Arts Council and the author of the book “Yankee Twang.” “It’s what every 9-year-old kid wants instead of water, right? Coffee. By the time I was 19, I was drinking coffee in large quantities.”

People’s tastes in coffee are getting more discerning: Nearly one in three respondents in a survey said they had recently drank a gourmet coffee, meaning an espresso drink or a gourmet blend of coffee. Consumption of “traditional” coffee went down by 7 percent. Your dad’s mass-produced Folgers blend isn’t cutting it anymore.

Murphy’s love for the black brew led him to home-roasting coffee about four years ago and it’s changed his view of his favorite drink.

“[Coffee roasting] wasn’t even a subculture I knew about,” Murphy says. “I guess it was about five years ago and I was out visiting a friend in Milwaukee who was into it. I thought it was cool, I tried a couple of different of coffees that he roasted, and was hooked.”

He’s not the only one—more people in Baltimore are beginning to roast their own beans, according to Michael Shank, a copywriter and City Paper contributor who played in the Barnyard Sharks with Murphy and CP editor Baynard Woods.

Shank began home-roasting about two years ago after reading a few articles and consulting friends in the city who roasted their own beans. “People turn to roasting for the same reasons they brew their own beer,” Shank says in a phone interview. “For the challenge. To see the beans and then the whole process is neat. My friends helped me out a lot at first. It’s not a huge learning curve, but it’s great to get feedback, and there’s only a few of us right now.”

Shank was impressed with the amount of money he saved as a home roaster. His machine, a Behmor, cost around $200 and the raw ingredients are pretty cheap compared to the roasted coffee at the store.

“I pay $3 a pound for the green beans,” says Shank. “It’s cheaper and, in the end, better and fresher. I know when my beans were roasted.”

For Murphy, home-roasting hasn’t always been pleasant. A previous roaster caught fire in his Rodgers Forge home.

“It was my first roaster,” Murphy says. “It’s weird. If you burn something in the kitchen, the neighbors generally won’t know. If you burn something in the basement, like a coffee roaster, they somehow know. They called the fire department. Something broke in the machine and caused a smoky fire.”

Undeterred, Murphy bought a second roaster, a Behmor which set him back $300, and where his old one, a Nesco, had a smoke eliminator, this one only has a filter.

“You can definitely smell it when I’m roasting coffee,” he says. “We have to open the basement windows.”

Though Murphy has toyed with the idea of bagging and selling his coffee, he has no plans at the moment of making this an economic endeavor—something he may want to reconsider, since both of Baltimore’s powerhouse roasters began humbly with a single roaster like Murphy.

“My grandfather started roasting his own beans in [the 1900s],” says Nick Constantinides, whose deceptively tiny storefront on Hillen Street in Old Town hides an operation that now supplies coffee to 1,500 grocery stores along the East Coast. “He finally opened Eagle Coffee in 1921.” Constantinides now runs Eagle with his two sons, officially making the wholesale business a fourth-generation enterprise, and remembers when his grandfather and father hawked their wares to waves of Greek immigrants coming to Baltimore in search of work.

“They supplied the coffee to all the cafes in Greektown as well as the restaurants,” Constantinides says while showing off a sample roaster from his grandfather’s time, which is still in use today. “We still do. And now we’re getting into K cups. It’s the future. All this started from a love of coffee.”

Another staple in the Baltimore coffee scene has homegrown roots: Thomas Rhodes, the founder of the massively popular Zeke’s Coffee, started, like Murphy, in his home.

“Yeah, the neighbors were pissed about the smell,” Rhodes says while working on a single-pound roaster at Zeke’s Lauraville roasting house. “But I loved doing it. I started work at Key [Coffee] because I was in theater and needed the money.”

When David Key sold Canton-based Key Coffee in 2005, Rhodes took his home-roasted goods to a farmers market to sell to sleepy shoppers.

“We officially opened Zeke’s in 2006,” Rhodes says. “I no longer roast at home but have a big-ass coffee closet.” Almost a decade later, Zeke’s has become a Baltimore icon—its stands at farmers markets around the city usually have long lines and its signature logo appears on the shelves of nearly every small grocery store in the city. 

Zeke’s mixes its blends before and after roasting, Rhodes says, and take notes on the characteristics of each blend and individual coffee. Zeke’s popular Armistead blend is made from beans from Papua New Guinea, Peru, and Sumatra and roasted using a “fluid bed,” which uses hot air and to the beans.

In 2009, Zeke’s opened a cafe in Lauraville not far from the roastery, where customers can now sample a good swath of its coffees. Zeke’s also has family-run outposts in Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. 

Rhodes put the roasting first, but at Cafe Latte’da in Fells Point, John and Kelly Blottenberger opened the cafe first and then began roasting. After working in the coffee service industry for almost 20 years, the Blottenbergers decided about six months ago to get into the micro-roasting game themselves. And they knew exactly who to ask: Constantinides.

“He’s a coffee master,” says John. “We knew him from the industry and he was glad to help teach. We wanted to learn and [micro-roasting] was our final connection to the coffee industry.”

John, according to Kelly, is the cafe’s main roaster, while she runs day-to-day operations. John Blottenberger uses a German small-batch roaster and, like Zeke’s, has a tent at the Sunday farmers market under the I-83 overpass.

“We roast upwards of 200 to 300 pounds of coffee a week during market season,” John Blottenberger says. “In the offseason, that drops to about 50.”

Blottenberger also makes his own blends instead of roasting solely “single origin” beans. “I use a third, third, third method for blending,” he says. “I hate pushing two origin coffees to the limit, it tastes awful.”

Back in the basement, Murphy says that he gets his beans through Sweet Maria’s, a company for home roasters that tracks where the beans are harvested and helps roasters with any coffee-related questions. Bean prices range based on region. A bag from an arid, desert country such as Yemen is going to be more expensive than, say, a Central American or South American bean.

“It really depends on not only region, but the technique used in getting the beans,” Murphy says. “It’s going to be cheaper from, say, Brazil, where they have huge harvests.”

He has learned which beans need more time and which ones can be lightly roasted.

“You need to French roast [roasting dark enough for the sugars in the bean to caramelize] a bean like Indonesian or it’s going to taste nasty,” Murphy says. “But the North African beans are better when they’re lightly roasted . . . What surprised me that mere mortals can do this and the coffee will still taste awesome.” 

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