There’s a point, usually all too soon, that one reaches their fill of conference coffee. After all, conference coffee is there to sustain and not to enjoy. It doesn’t need to be this way, and the conference coffee I was drinking this time around was reasonably good as these things go – a mass-brewed Starbucks house blend that I could actually consume without cream and sugar. It was certainly better than the dreck I was served at the Denver Double Tree late last year. By mid-afternoon, however, I had reached my fill and wanted a beverage I could actually enjoy.
I exited the highly air-conditioned conference rooms of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel in search of bluehouse, which turned out to be just a short hop from the hotel. This was good for a couple of reasons. I didn’t have a lot of time before I had to get back to the conference. But also, my semi-frozen state could insulate me from the balmy Baltimore summer weather for only so long. If I had walked too much further, my clean and well-pressed look could have turned ugly.
bluehouse, the store, could really be the perfect hobby hybrid for me and my wife if only it were closer. I could sit in the cafe drinking coffee while my wife perused the shelves of items that either already do or clearly could fill our own home, including things like Erbaviva baby products, Heath Ceramics, eco floring, designer furniture, various high-quality organic cotton towels and sheets, Oxo slug lights, and attractive loofa sponges. I guess the only strikes against it would be that we already own many of the items here, and, that as avid bargain hunters, my wife and I probably could find (or already have found) many of these items elsewhere for less.
The store aside, the cafe it houses is a really nice addition to the neighborhood, where the second best coffee is probably the kiosk at the nearby Whole Foods. It’s a full cafe, not just a coffee counter that serves a variety of sandwiches and baked goods, has free wifi and includes a full seating area with modern tables, chairs and couches. Oh, and the bluehouse cafe uses Counter Culture Coffee.
When I visited, they were serving, I believe, 3 brewed coffees (two regular and one decaf) stored in airpots and brewed in a Fetco. They also served the usual array of espresso drinks, but not many of the more Starbuckian ones, pulled on an older looking espresso machine that I had trouble identifying at first glance and forgot to take a closer look at later (I think it had an “espresso-e” plate on it).
On my first day there, I opted for a cup of the shade-grown Cenaproc from Caranavi, Bolivia. Bolivian coffees have only begun to emerge as a real contender in recent years, largely because of transportation issues (wet coffee and high altitudes led to fermentation and freezing). I’ve recently had some good luck with Bolivian coffees (1,2) and thought this one worth a try. The coffee tasted mostly like a cup of unsweetened cocoa, with hints of raspberry and an after taste of toasted pine nuts. It had a slightly oily mouthfeel and a suggestion of saltiness. There was a little hint of a play-dough like aroma and a slightly off-balance acidity that I think had more to do with airpot age than anything inherent in the coffee.
The espresso was CCC’s La Forza blend. It wasn’t bad but also wasn’t a particularly unique espresso either. It was smoky with an aroma of roasted nuts. It was a little sweet and had a slightly syruppy mouthfeel. The crema was a gorgeous redish-golden, but the espresso had a slightly harsh, bitter edge to it. Based on the description, some of this might be characteristic of the beans, but there was also clearly something a little less than perfect about the pull.
My take is that bluehouse still has some room to grow when it comes to at least 2 of the 4 m’s of espresso, macchina and mano. A few things about their skill and possibly their equipment still need some fine tuning (I suppose it could be the grind specifics as well). That said, there’s no doubt that bluehouse has licked the problem of good, fresh coffee in downtown Baltimore while simultaneously providing a great place to relax, get some work done and do some quality shopping (especially for gifts to take home to the family). Based on my limited survey of the immediate area, I’m pretty certain they are head and shoulders above the competition. And they are certainly capable of relieving those conference coffee blues.