Winter java

It was bitter cold out, and it had been snowing for the better part of two hours. Downtown Asheville was settling in under what turned out to be a 4-inch blanket of heavy white fluff, and it seemed as though the whole city was slowly shutting down. Wiser folks were making preparations to head home — but not me. I was in the thick of it, notebook and tape recorder in hand, heedless of the elements as I pursued my perpetual quest to seek out Asheville’s best coffees.

I, dear reader, am something of an addict.

This mission began last month as an attempt to discover the best drinks for those of us who crave something more than mere brewed-and-filtered grinds. My guides — cafe baristas and coffeehouse owners — live a life of caffeine, and their personal faves determine their coffeehouse’s featured beverage.

So join me in sampling the flagship drinks of several local cafes. With luck, at least one of them will suffice to see you through a cold, snowy day.

Old Europe Coffee House

Short Cappuccino

“It’ll kick you,” warned Old Europe co-founder Zoltan Vetro, talking about his cafe’s premier drink. “It’s very strong. At first, when you feel it on your tongue, it’s kind of mild. But then, five … 10 minutes later, you feel it. Wow! It’s a good kick.”

I sat at one of Old Europe’s glass-topped tables with Zoltan (or “Z,” as the Hungarian expatriate likes to be called), sipping slowly from a small, white cup. Normally, Old Europe would be packed this early in the day, but the snowstorm outside had whittled down the clientele to just a few stalwart regulars and die-hard coffee drinkers like me.

He eyed me expectantly as I sipped. He’d prepared this drink himself, and he was justifiably curious as to what my response would be. As I tasted, rolling the smooth, subtle mix of fresh espresso and steamed milk around on my tongue and palate, he talked about launching this cafe with his wife, Melinda, some eight years before. Finally, as I formed my own secret opinion of his creation in my mind, I noticed Zoltan smiling. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t hide the fact that this tiny drink seemed particularly suited to counteracting my cold-morning mood, or maybe he could simply read past my attempt at a coffee-table poker face. But as I set down the cup, Zoltan was beaming with delight.

The short cappuccino combines the strength and semidark flavor of kauai-blend espresso beans with the smooth, gentle texture of a cappuccino. It isn’t overwhelming in terms of flavor, which makes it very easy to enjoy for those who don’t appreciate the often-bitter taste of pure espresso. This drink is also Zoltan’s personal favorite, and he is something of an authority on the beverage.

“I am drinking always espresso,” Zoltan explained with a smile over the hiss of the cafe’s espresso machine, “but I’m getting old, and it’s no good for my stomach. I’m [only] drinking five, six espresso a day.”

Double Decker Coffee Bus

White and Tan Latte

The Double Decker Coffee Bus sits parked in an iron-gated, snow-covered courtyard overlooking Biltmore Avenue. Few cars passed by this day; the traffic was negligible, and the whole world seemed impossibly crisp, clean and quiet. Space is at a premium inside the narrow bus, so tight that the only words to describe it are either “cramped” or “intimate.” The nimble barista works behind a tiny counter at the bus’s far end, in a minuscule space dominated by a cash register, a sink, several dispensers and an espresso machine. Nonetheless, the Double Decker’s interior is remarkably warm and friendly.

“We use Ghirardelli white and dark chocolate with a splash of hazelnut flavor,” explained Stephanie Motley, the Double Decker’s main operator, as she pulled the two shots of espresso that are the heart of the White and Tan Latte she was making me. “It makes it kind of tan. Then the steamed milk: We use 2 percent, so it’s not too terribly fattening. There’s a layer of unsweetened cocoa powder. It just adds to the chocolatey flavor without making it sweeter.”

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