A buzz without borders

It begins before the very first sip — before your mouth opens and the warm, dark liquid washes over your tongue, creeping into the nooks and crannies of your taste buds.

It starts before the steaming hiss of the espresso machine fills the air, and before the apron-clad barista ever hears the words of your order leave your throat.

It begins, in fact, before you ever step foot in the cafe door, before you remember the words that articulate what it is you’re after — clumsy, foreign words to our English-inclined minds: venti, mocha, cappuccino. You could order from the handwritten menu of drink names all day long and still never express the syllables that explain the experience.

Community.

From Seattle steadily eastward, the local coffee house has begun to replace the neighborhood bar as the hub of American social life. Reflecting that trend — and its own enormous growth — Western North Carolina is booming with new cafes; this fall, three new coffee houses sprouted up in downtown Asheville alone. And each, ever mindful of the competition, boasts its own specialty drink.

But in this installment of Xpress’ continuing series on the region’s best coffees, we’ll investigate what’s brewing at four of the area’s furthest outposts of cafe culture, and report what drinks and atmospheres were consumed along the way.

Zuma (Marshall) — Milky Way (with beans from Dillanos Roasters)

There’s not much happening in the one-stoplight business hub of Madison County. Marshall’s the kind of town that tourists call “quaint” before hitting the gas and heading for livelier locales.

But just before Main Street ends, you’ll find an inconspicuous cafe under an easy-to-miss sign reading, simply, “Zuma.” Inside this small coffee shop, a pair of tables and a handful of wooden stools keep company with books of photography. Surprisingly, the tiny room is rumored to support an entire cafe community.

Owner Joel Friedman, brewing up the house specialty — a version of the drink known as the Milky Way — smiles as he works.

Zuma’s Milky Way is a very sweet drink, almost dessert-like, and between the texture of the caramel and the chocolate-flavored froth that covers the steamed whole milk and two shots of espresso, it’s easy to forget just how potent a concoction it can be.

“It’s the favorite drink of people in the area,” Friedman claims. “People who would never come here and have a latte or a mocha have heard about the Milky Way.”

The Atlanta transplant and his wife, Lesley King, started the coffee shop a mere 10 months ago. Many people warned Friedman that a cafe would never work in a town the size of Marshall, and swore their business was doomed to fail.

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