Summer vacation can create more free time than some college students know what to do with. But last summer, Alex Perry and Mary Scarborough, 19-year-old sophomores at Berry College in Georgia, turned their downtime into an opportunity. The pair decided to visit and rank 30 coffee shops in the Asheville area and created a website with their results — ashevillecoffeecrawl.com.
“I wanted a better way to see Asheville, but for me that’s hard to do without a goal in mind,” says Perry, who moved to Black Mountain a year ago. “So we tied our love of coffee into exploring Asheville in a new way.” Scarborough, an Asheville native, adds, “Coffee is such a big part of college culture. When my friends visit Asheville, they always ask what the best shop is, and I wanted to have a good answer.”
Perry and Scarborough met up after work throughout the summer and usually went to two to three coffee shops per week. At each shop, they’d ask the barista for the best drink, which they found was usually the house drip. “We would finish our cups, then count to three and say our scores at the same time. We took the averages, and those became our drip scores,” Perry says. The two acknowledge that their rating system was completely subjective, but they say they strove to rate the shops as fairly as possible.
Finally, Perry made sure to take a picture of himself and Scarborough in every shop — and as the self-proclaimed “self-timer king,” this often meant setting his phone up in random corners of cafés and holding poses while other customers looked on. “It was funny and humiliating at the same time,” Scarborough says.
So what were they looking for? Ratings were based on coffee quality, freshness and aroma, as well as on the atmosphere of the cafés. The duo also favored shops that appealed to a wide audience and had great customer service and high standards of cleanliness. “The top shops had that funky atmosphere, but the spaces were also welcoming and inviting,” Scarborough says. “And they had superfriendly people who were passionate about brewing coffee.”
Their top-rated shop was Liberty House Coffee and Café, which earned a rating of 9 out of 10 for its “great outdoor and indoor seating, wonderful customer service and house drip.” Liberty House opened four months ago in an old 1920s cottage in downtown Asheville. “We wanted to create a space for the neighborhood to come together, and I used a lot of local craftsmen to build the space,” says owner Dylan Glasgow. The shop sources sustainably harvested coffee from 1000 Faces in Athens, Ga., and Asheville’s PennyCup Coffee Co., which has café locations in the YMI Cultural Center and River Arts District. PennyCup’s RAD location on Depot Street features a small-batch roastery, and on Saturdays, customers are encouraged to come ask questions and learn about the roasting process.
Perry and Scarborough rated PennyCup second on their list with an 8.9, and the shop’s co-owner and manager, Matthew Burd, recalls meeting the two during the crawl. “I was very grateful for their enthusiasm about our space and the coffee,” he says. “They told me they rated Liberty House No. 1, which I was happy to hear. We’re thrilled that Dylan [Glasgow] does such a great job with our coffee there.”
The pair learned just how central local roasts are in Asheville’s coffee scene. “Every shop we went to brewed their own coffee or used a local brewer. That was pretty amazing,” Perry says. He noticed that many shops on the list brewed certified organic, fair-trade coffee from Black Mountain’s Dynamite Roasting Co., which sells to about 150 coffee shops, restaurants and grocery stores in the Asheville area. According to Dynamite brewer Andy Gibbon, the company travels frequently to ensure transparent relationships with their coffee farmers around the world. Last year, Dynamite raised funds to provide cows for Rwandan farmers, and staff members just returned from a trip to Peru, where they were planning and networking with farmers.
Beyond being a fun summer project, Perry and Scarborough hope their website might be used as a guide for navigating Asheville. “It can be overwhelming to take on an entire place to visit,” Perry says. “I think our list is a great way for people to have something to follow and connect to what Asheville really is.”