The mission sounded simple: Find the very best coffees in the greater downtown area. But in the event, it proved to be just too huge, too massively grand a task, to be contained within the scope of a single article. This was a challenge that could properly become a grail, a life’s work. Or, at minimum, a continuing series involving more than a single sleuth.
First, there was the question of criteria: How does one decide what constitutes the best coffee? Even connoisseurs who’ve made a lifelong study of the stimulating brew produced from those meticulously roasted tropical beans don’t always agree. Clearly, the problem had to be digested, and that meant forsaking our journalistic ivory tower in favor of the more grounded cafe culture for a firsthand gulp of the action. Our guides were the owners of local coffee houses and the baristas who work in them. And from their pronouncements, often delivered over the hiss of steaming espresso machines, we learned much.
Now, dear reader, we invite you to sample the flagship drinks of three of Asheville’s premier cafes. Read slowly, savor the aroma — and you, too, may be raised to empyrean heights by the quintessential coffee experience.
Primoccino — Beanstreets Coffee
3 Broadway / 255-8180
“My Italian grandfather … I drank espresso with him as a child and used to put anisette in it,” explains Beanstreets owner (and Primoccino inventor) Richard Puia when queried about his inspiration for the drink. “I like flavored espresso, and since we don’t have alcohol here, I tried to flavor it with chocolate and milk and whipped cream. I love coffee, and this [contains] all the stuff I like.”
It looks more like some fantasy confection than a beverage, but whatever you call it, the Primoccino is a coffee-lover’s dream. It’s a gargantuan drink, filling an oversized, novelty coffee cup with three shots of espresso, flavored hot chocolate, chocolate syrup, steamed milk and, as Puia puts it, “love.” The Primoccino is crowned by a snowy mound of thick whipped cream, topped with a touch of cinnamon and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.
The incredible sweetness of the initial hit fades only slightly as you work your way down to the bottom of the cup. The espresso, the drink’s most potent component, never becomes more than a pleasant background note in this full-fledged dessert of a drink. It’s the perfect choice for someone who craves the heart-pounding thrill of a potent espresso without the bitter aftertaste.
Mocha latte — Gold Hill Espresso & Fine Teas
64 Haywood St / 254-3800
“You start off with Ghirardelli chocolate — which is, like, the best chocolate. Not too skimpy, either. Add in whole milk … we can make it however you want, but I like whole milk. And our espresso, it’s just the best espresso. If you start off with really bad coffee, no matter what you put in there is just going to be bad-coffee-flavored,” observes Michael “Alvy” Alvarez, describing the secret of making a perfect Gold Hill mocha latte. “Unfortunately, the public has gotten used to gas-station cappuccinos … whatever that passes for.”
Last March, USA Today’s Gene Sloan named Gold Hill as one of the top 10 places in the nation for “caffeine and conversation,” rubbing shoulders with the likes of San Francisco’s Cafe Trieste and Seattle’s Zoka Coffee. No surprise, then, that Gold Hill can whip up a mighty tasty mocha latte. At first glance, it’s a bit deceiving: The full complement of cream and chocolate seems to put it in the same dessert-drink category as the Primachino. Surprisingly, however, it’s not all that sweet, and the dark, rich espresso character really comes through. This is a drink for those who truly love the taste of coffee and want to have it accented, rather than covered up, by the flavors and textures of chocolate and steamed milk.
Milky Way — Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe
55 Haywood St / 254-6734
“We consider coffee to be an art form, really. I think it gives you a good feeling for the type of espresso that we use and the combination of the two flavors [chocolate and caramel syrup],” says cafe manager Suzanne Connelly, explaining why they settled on the Milky Way as their best drink. “Now that it’s kind of chilly outside and there’s a little brisk air going, it’s just a really nice, relaxing drink.”
The Milky Way is very pretty, almost delicate-looking. Indeed, one hesitates to rupture the illusion by stabbing a spoon through the topping just to get at the caffeinated light-brown liquid that sits below. It seems mildly indecent somehow, piercing that full head of sweet foam with the spiral thread of chocolate for the sake of a mere coffee fix.
But in the interest of investigative journalism, it must be done. The resulting sensation is everything you’d expect, considering the trappings. The Milky Way is a very light, milky drink; hints of chocolate, caramel and espresso combine to create a vanilla flavor note. It’s a rapturous blend of mildly sweet tastes and smooth cream, with an almost foamy texture. “It’s very soothing,” says one patron, “yet I can see it making me very hyper.”
If you didn’t see your favorite brew celebrated in this article, don’t despair. There’s still much to explore in the realm of java journalism. Like the best new relationships, we aim to take it sort of slow. Small sips at first — perhaps rolling it around on our tongues a bit — before heading back out for more. But don’t worry: We who “measure out our lives with coffee spoons” are determined to journey up hill and down seeking out new variations on this most generous and enlivening of beans. And eventually, we’re sure to upend one of your favorites. Count on it.