A third-wave coffee revolution is brewing in Hampton Roads. Here’s the new crop
From THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT By MATTHEW KORFHAGE
Sean Kopack makes a cup of coffee at the Kobros Cofee Shop on Friday March 26, 2021, in Norfolk, Virginia. (Mike Caudill)
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
Roaster and co-owner Amy Ewing at Three Ships Coffee (Courtesy Three Ships Coffee)
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
Sean Kopack makes a cup of coffee at the Kobros Cofee Shop on Friday March 26, 2021, in Norfolk, Virginia. (Mike Caudill)
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.
Customers line up outside of the Kobros coffee shop on Friday March 26, 2021, in Norfolk, Virginia. (Mike Caudill/For The Virginian-Pilot)
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
Blake Osborn, owner of Prescription coffee shop, makes a cup of coffee for a customer on Friday March 26, 2021, in Norfolk, Virginia. (Mike Caudill)
Hidden in a warehouse stretch of Colley Avenue behind an underpass guardrail, Prescription Coffee Lab is a mornings-only home to takeaway coffee, custom bikes, and often a preponderance of over-friendly dogs.
Near a few seats for sippers, a bicycle hangs on the wall beside a coffee bar that Prescription owner Blake Osborn built himself last fall. On the other side of the room, the owners of Local Bike Shop NFK might consult on a custom bicycle frame.
Osborn began roasting around four years ago, selling his beans to cafes and churches. But last year, he met the bike shop’s owners while selling his beans at a farmers market — and decided their businesses might be compatible.
Prescription serves prettily packaged cold-brew bottles, light single-origin roasts he sources directly from farms — with quirky tasting notes on each bag like “fruit snacks” or “spiced grape juice” — and a singular take on espresso designed to accentuate the sweetness of a “bean” that’s actually the seed of a cherry-like fruit.
“People are surprised to learn that coffee is actually a fruit — you know, it grows on a tree,” Osborn said. “A lot of people associate espresso with a very intense chocolate or roast, or bitter flavor. And I don’t think that my espresso is that way at all: I feel like mine leans a lot brighter, more fruity.”
The pandemic pivot: Canvas Coffee House
2170 William Styron Square, Newport News, canvascoffee.net. Open Monday to Saturday.
Daniel Haskett, left, and Alex Hoyes inside their Canvas Coffee House in Newport News’ Port Warwick Shoppes. (Tiffany Sigmon Photography)
When the pandemic hit, said Canvas co-owner Daniel Haskett, it was like a neutron bomb had gone off in their year-old Port Warwick coffee shop: The customers disappeared.
The drop in business gave the owners time to think. And what they arrived at was roasting their own beans, something they’d already planned — both to bring customers into their cafe and to find new revenue streams by selling their beans wholesale.
By the end of 2020, with business partner Alex Hoyes at the roaster, they were doing more business than ever. They’ve invested in a bigger roaster, and their beans will also arrive in downtown Norfolk at the new Bonaire coffee shop at 259 Granby St.
But in a Peninsula zone not used to light-roast specialty coffee, they met their customers halfway with “gateway drinks” like a hazelnut-mocha Hedgehog, and a “first flight” blend made for people more accustomed to chocolate flavors in coffee.
Haskett said they can then ease customers into roasts like a single-origin coffee from a farm in Burundi, a coffee that tastes like blueberry and black currants.
“People try the First Flight and say, ‘Oh, that was really good, I wonder what the other stuff is like.’ And then they’re surprised.”
The Nitro Cold Brew Scientists: Column 15
701 Merrimac Trail, Williamsburg, 757-800-1575, column15.com Open daily. Permanent space opening a few doors down this year.
Most makers of coffee will talk about the roast. At Column 15, co-owner and roaster James Kroll also wants to talk to you about the brew.
Kroll has designed specific brewing profiles for each type of bean they use: temperature curves designed to bring out the most flavor and the least sour acidity in their nitro-frothed cold brews.
“If you brew a coffee hot and you just put it on ice, you have almost like this sour harshness to it, that’s the acidity in the coffee,” Kroll said. “Acidity becomes very harsh and pointed in a cold beverage.”
And Kroll tailors bean-specific techniques to make cold brew that’s robust in flavor without being biting. For three years, he and partner Victoria Goldsby have also been selling their single-origin beans and blends to home roasters and cafes, at farmers markets, and at their Williamsburg pop-up.
But a permanent home has been a long time coming. This spring, they say, they’ll unveil their new 3,000-square-foot space on Merrimac Trail — a spacious cafe with patio seating, espresso, coffee tours and tastings when the pandemic allows, and a glass-windowed view into the roastery.
“Think of it like a really friendly science lab,” Goldsby said.
Like Bill Nye?, we wondered.
“If I had to describe James as any celebrity, I’d probably describe him as Bill Nye,” she said. “He likes to get in-depth about things, and he levels people up. He’ll say ‘What’s your coffee knowledge so far? OK, cool. I’m going to take you on this adventure.’”
The brewery roaster: Taxus Street Coffee
Taxus Street Coffee bags sit in Big Ugly Brewing in Chesapeake. Taxus Street runs a coffee shop from the brewery five mornings a week. (David Macaulay/Freelance / The Virginian-Pilot)
845 S. Battlefield Blvd., Chesapeake, 757-324-3564, taxusstreetcoffee.com. Mornings and early afternoons Tuesday to Saturday.
Wander to Chesapeake’s Big Ugly Brewing on a Friday morning, hours before the brewery is open, and it looks like the state fair came to town. In the parking lot, customers line up for the addictive buttermilk pastries of the Klassic Doughnuts truck. At the brewery, you might find them waiting for coffee.
Taxus Street Coffee takes over the brewery each morning from Tuesday to Saturday — selling cold brew on tap, gently acidic single-origin pour-overs and a smooth and strong espresso shot.
Big Ugly had already used Taxus’ beans in their coffee beers. And so two years ago, Taxus owners J.B. and Julianne Anderson proposed moving in.
“We were like, ‘Hey, you know, you guys aren’t using your building in the morning,” Julianne Anderson said. From there, they’ve evolved into a neighborhood standby for single-origin pour-overs, and cold brews from the taps. For doughnut day, they just need to plan ahead.
“We have an extra staff member come in,” said Anderson. “And make sure we have extra beans and cold brew.”
More specialty roasts at breweries: In Norfolk, COVA Brewing serves coffee from North Carolina roaster Counter Culture, with their own house-made syrups. And in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Reaver Beach sells barrel-aged beans with a cold-brew nitro tap from sister coffee company Monstro.
The church-associated nonprofit: Coalescence Coffee
226 W. 24th St., Norfolk, 757-937-6411, coalescencecoffee.com. Open Monday to Saturday.
An orange and juniper signature drink, and espresso shot with sparkling water side, at Coalescence Coffee. As seen March 2021. (Matthew Korfhage/Virginian-Pilot)
Coalescence Coffee looks a bit like Instagram went 3-D — a white-walled and minimalist coffee palace with copious plant life and wall-sized branding.
The coffee is equally aesthetic, from maybe the smoothest espresso pull in town (from acclaimed Michigan roaster Madcap) to a series of “signature drinks” that can range from blueberry-intense to an impressively balanced blend of orange and juniper.
The model at the 6-month-old cafe is a bit unique: a nonprofit cafe owned by a tiny 16-member church called The Grace Collective, founded by Coalescence’s four owners. The cafe, say co-owners Chris and Jenny Brooks, is separate from the church — an exercise in community-building they say is meant to welcome people of all religions, sexual orientations and beliefs. Funding has flowed from the church to the cafe, not vice versa. Though early fundraising efforts referred to the cafe as a “ministry,” Chris Brooks said he now shies from that language.
Instead, they said, when the cafe is financially stable, they hope to devote nonprofit funds to “noncontroversial” charity projects, whether food insecurity or children’s health or a project they’ve already looked into: distinctive bike racks for the neighborhood.
The spacious cafe has been wildly busy so far; on their opening day, they ran out of coffee. Prescription Coffee’s Blake Osborn came to the rescue with some beans — the proverbial cup of sugar from the new neighbors, who might also be their competition.
“One of the questions we got a lot when we opened was, ‘Who’s your competition?’” Jenny Brooks said. “It’s really not about competition. It’s about the community that’s created around coffee.”
The father-son Navy vets: Fathom Coffee
1682 Baltic Ave., Virginia Beach, 757-689-7411, fathomcoffee.com. Mornings, Thursday to Sunday.
A jar of Fathom Coffee, at the beach. (Courtesy Alyssa Strackbein/Fathom Coffee)
Fathom wasn’t supposed to be a business, says co-founder Jeff Werby, also a founder of the 1701 co-working space. It was at first a hobby for his father, Bob, who’d retired from a career in the Navy. Jeff, too, had been in the Navy: The father was a submarine spotter, the son a patroller on gunboats.
Bob had discovered high-end coffee while visiting Seattle, and began caffeinating his family with his own light, expressive, single-origin roasts from all over the world.
By 2016, those roasts had turned from hobby into cottage business, sold in Mason jars — and then, in 2019, finally a full-service cafe serving pour-overs from as many as 15 different single origin roasts at a time, not to mention cold-brew nitro kegs.
For Jeff, the vast variety of beans is a little like the traveling he can’t do — as with a low-acidity roast from Flores.
“I like to think of it like this,” he said. “I’ve never going to travel to most of these places. So coffee is how I’m able to travel there. … I just got beans from Flores. That’s where the Komodo dragons are from, a tiny island in Indonesia. I will likely never visit Flores, but I’m able to drink the coffee.”
The coffee roaster and cigar maker: Pale Horse Coffee
296 S. Battlefield Blvd., Chesapeake, 757-410-5399, palehorsecoffee.com. Mornings to evenings daily.
Pale Horse Coffee owners and veterans, from left, Michael Vecchione, Gray Livingston and Don Wingard. As seen Tuesday, May 26, 2020. (Stephen M. Katz)
Though open less than two years, Pale Horse Coffee does almost too many things to count. Founded by four military vets from four branches of service, the Chesapeake shop offers a series of signature roasts with funds devoted to local nonprofits. It’s a cigar manufacturer, through a factory in Nicaragua.
The menu is home to coffees from as many as 16 farms and regions, a multitude of blends, flavored coffees, and heart-pounding eye-openers that may include four shots of espresso mixed with cayenne pepper.
That variety, said co-owner Michael Scott, is made possible by how they roast. Pale Horse is one of the few air-roasted commercial roasters in the country, a process they say removes volatile compounds from the coffee and brings out its natural sweetness.
The process also means fast roasting, and smaller batches, on shifts that roll through the night. Scott estimates that he personally roasted as many as 4,000 small batches of coffee during their first year.
The next project is to import rarely found beans from the Congo, which they’re calling “Peace Trade” coffee because the hope is the income will help rebuild the historically war-torn country. The beans are also unique, Scott said.
“We actually test our beans for Brix — the amount of sugar,” Scott said, “and these are some of the sweetest beans you’ve ever seen. They don’t taste like anything else.”
The community cafe: Equinox Coffee
4416 Monarch Way, Norfolk, open weekdays; 2800 Colley Ave., Norfolk, open daily. equinoxcoffeeco.com
Ty Harrell in front of his café on Colley Ave. Pastries and bagels and even some gluten-free items are available as well. (Warren Warsaw/For The Virginian-Pilot)
Though Equinox is just 2 years old in Norfolk, co-owner Ty Harrell is a little bit like the human equivalent of glue for the Norfolk coffee zone — a soft-spoken advocate who likes to talk about why the coffee scene here is “bubbling.”
It didn’t always, he said. Harrell moved away from Norfolk, his hometown, in 2004, he said, and “didn’t look back,” eventually joining the team at Colorado roaster OZO. But when he and his wife did finally come home, he saw Cafe Stella roasting its own beans. He saw Cure Coffeehouse, serving craft coffee from North Carolina.
He came around to the idea that the third-wave coffee he learned in Colorado might have a place here. His shop, which he built himself, serves both horchata coffees and well-pulled light roast espresso from the OZO brand he once roasted.
At his Monarch Way location, he and his wife Christine worked to get ODU to inaugurate a farmers and craft market on their block, which will run every Saturday morning from April to November. He says he’s excited to see new energy around coffee in his hometown — and helped foster it by tipping off Kobros Coffee to the space they’re moving into on 21st Street.
“I love what’s happening,” he said. “I love that there’s still this curiosity about coffee here — this idealism about the coffee shop that people are still hungry for and thirsty for. Even with the diversity of shops that have now popped up, people still want more. They want other shops to go to and experience, because each one is so unique.”
Matthew Korfhage, 757-446-2318, firstname.lastname@example.org
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