You can’t talk about Baltimore coffee without discussing ‘Spro or its owner, Jay Caragay, a force of personality in the specialty coffee scene. Jay has competed in nearly all, if not every, barista competition he’s been eligible to compete in since barista competitions have existed. He’s also a prolific and sometimes controversial figure on many internet coffee discussion boards as well as his own blog. Just check out this 27 page thread on CoffeeGeek, for example, that Jay started back in 2003 that tries to keep its finger on the pulse of the (somewhat anemic) Baltimore coffee scene. I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to meet him on my recent visit to ‘Spro.
‘Spro coffee, itself, a spin-off of Jay’s now defunct Shave Ice business, has been a fixture in the Baltimore area since 2003. In contrast to its owner, the cafe commands very little presence. ‘Spro isn’t in the city of Baltimore. It’s way out in Towson (about 20 minutes north of downtown) and just barely inside the I-695 loop. ‘Spro is also quite small. The kiosk and a smattering of chairs is located on the fifth floor bridge that connects the parking garage to the main branch of the Baltimore County Library. I mention these details because ‘Spro is somewhat difficult to find. Unless you regularly enter the library through the 5th floor parking garage entrance or are the type of person who obsessively seeks out coffee shops, you could be in Baltimore a long time without ever knowing ‘Spro existed.
The plus side of being located in a library is bringing quality coffee to people who otherwise may never stumble across it. I’ve heard from coffee folks about a similar effect when cafes set up kiosks in art museums, high end gardening stores and, of course, farmer’s markets. These latter three partnerships are a more natural marriage since the typical customer of these businesses is more likely to spend money on high quality food (of course the demographic of these patrons might also be ripe for making fun of). It’s nice to see ‘Spro venturing into uncharted territory with a more proletariat partnership.
What about the coffee, you ask? The good news is that once you eventually find ‘Spro, you are are in for a treat. The espresso (Jay’s own blend, I believe) produces a delicate, sweet and floral cup, with pronounced notes of honeysuckle, lime and just a tiny hint of burnt caramel sauce (like the kind used in Vietnamese cooking). ‘Spro uses a La Marzocco (the second machine in the picture above is a loaner) and coffee from Origin’s Organic Coffee located in the Hine’s Public Market in Vancouver (see comments below for corrections).
The brewed coffee, the day I was there was also the espresso blend. I tasted and took some home to brew myself. The espresso blend as coffee is sweet and floral with hints of chamomile, apple and cherry and just a touch of dark molasses. Although ‘Spro brews their coffee via French Press, I personally preferred this coffee as a pour-over drip; it really helped bring out the floral notes. For an espresso roast, it was surprisingly good, lacking the roasty quality I often find in espresso blends when brewed.
Unfortunately, ‘Spro had no beans to sell me other than the espresso blend. They had one other type of bean in stock but the barista determined that there was too little left to sell. I suppose I may have caught ‘Spro in between shipments and it’s quite possible that it’s just not good business to stock too many beans at a time – perhaps the library crowd just doesn’t buy beans – but it was frustrating to not be able to purchase more of this good coffee.
My other issue has to do with the aesthetic. The coffee counter is pretty slick looking, but the chairs, tables and view aren’t that inviting. It doesn’t seem like the kind of place you might find a really good cup of coffee, and even though it is, you don’t necessarily want to linger. I don’t need a cafe to be uber-hip to make my coffee taste better or to make me feel important, but I do like to have a nice place to go to enjoy my coffee (and to not feel like I’m in transition between my car or the library).
I think the issue here is something strained on the business side of the equation – the lack of beans, the kiosk-only status after several years of operation, the loaner espresso machine, and the webpage that’s sorely in need of an update – as well as some limits imposed by the space. Rumor has it that Jay and Spike Gjerde of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen are scouting for possible locations for a joint coffee-food venture. Hopefully this new business can be the true showcase for coffee that I wanted ‘Spro to be and which the Baltimore area deserves.