From THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT By MATTHEW KORFHAGE
Walk the fields of Suffolk on a windy day, and the fields blossom with the aroma of cracking beans from the massive Massimo Zanetti roasting facility on the shores of Cedar Lake — bound for tins of Hills Bros. and Chock full o’Nuts sold all over the country.
Warehouses near the Port of Virginia might stock tens of millions of pounds of green coffee, in canvas bags earmarked for shipment up and down the coast. Norfolk Coffee and Tea Co., a century-old roaster, sends its beans to Eastern Virginia Medical School and small restaurants around the region.
But while the port has long made us a commercial waystation for caffeine, a recent surge of specialty roasters and cafes marks a sea change in local coffee culture. This is most apparent at the southern edge of Norfolk’s Park Place neighborhood, where cafes and roasters have arrived in dizzying density.
“It’s definitely crazy,” said Sean Kopack, co-owner of a weekend pop-up cafe called Kobros Coffee, soon to get a permanent home on 21st Street. “Now it feels like it’s always 100 yards to the next coffee shop.”
But it’s not just Norfolk. So-called “third-wave” coffee spots have sprung up from Virginia Beach to Williamsburg, with light roasts meant to showcase the fruit-forward flavors of the beans, and single-origin coffee sourced to individual farms in Indonesia or Burundi.
Here are some of the most exciting and interesting developments in Hampton Roads coffee in the past couple years — from a coffee roaster with its own cigar brand to bustling brewery pop-ups.
The O.G. third-wavers: Three Ships Coffee
607 19th St., Virginia Beach, threeshipscoffee.com
Three Ships started in a garage.
In 2013, after being blown away by the fruity or delicate flavors coaxed from coffee at Scandinavian-inspired roasters around the country — in Boston, San Francisco and Portland — roaster Amy Ewing put her sommelier’s palate to use by experimenting with beans at home. She and husband Brad carted their beans to Virginia Beach farmers markets in a retooled ’70s camper, peddling a novel substance called “cold brew,” not yet ubiquitous in grocery stores.
Three Ships has since evolved into a tiny powerhouse of coffee. Their ultra-light roasts are some of the most accomplished and balanced not only in Hampton Roads but anywhere on the East Coast. Their roasts pull vibrant strawberry flavors from Ethiopian Guji beans they might tap only in the spring — the rare roaster to think about the precise season each region’s beans come into full flavor.
This year, Three Ships will make steps toward becoming a local craft juggernaut. Three Ships has secured an antique German Probat roaster from 1954 that will more than double their capacity. By spring or summer, they hope to open a new roastery cafe in Virginia Beach’s Hilltop section. And before the year is through, they’ll be in Norfolk, at the Assembly building downtown.
Brad Ewing said the new wave of roasters has paradoxically brought them even more customers.
“When Amy and I started, there really wasn’t anyone talking about specialty coffee at all. So we were kind of the first voice, you know,” Ewing said. “It’s exciting to me to see people who will come in after having experiences at all these new places, and they’re excited to find that there’s a coffee roaster that’s been roasting at the level we are for eight years.”
The pop-up scene: Kobros Coffee
430 W. 24th St., Norfolk, kobroscoffee.com. Mornings Friday to Monday. Opening a permanent space this year at 419 W. 21st St., Norfolk.
On weekend mornings from a plumbing-free former art gallery in Norfolk, identical twins Sean and Eric Kopack serve citrus lattes from a space that looks like a combination science lab and millennial-apartment topiary.
The brothers — one previously in the Air Force, the other from the Navy — started their pop-up coffee spot at the beginnings of the pandemic. The outdoor-only shop has become a lively broken-sidewalk social scene with a soundtrack of Pete Rock hip-hop remixes, where the Kopacks serve a rotating array of roasters from all over the country — a bit like a beer bar for coffee geeks.
Kobros plays host to art and movie nights on “Decaf Fridays,” a practice that will continue when they move into a new space this spring on 21st Street — inspired by what Sean Kopack says is a very “punky grungy 24-hour coffee scene” in their hometown of Orlando.
“But we also love squeezing oranges,” he said, “so maybe there will be mimosas down the road.”
Also a long-term “pop-up”: Vessel Craft Coffee has been serving its house-roasted coffee out of an incubator space at Selden Market for more than two years now, in addition to a newer City Hall cafe that’s been closed during the pandemic.
The bike shop coffee shop: Prescription Coffee Lab
2406 Colley Ave., Norfolk, prescriptioncoffee.com. Mornings only, Friday to Sunday.