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The Verve is the Word

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Name: Verve Coffee Roasters
Location: 816 41st Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA

Rating: 4-

Staying in a house with 12 adults and 9 children under the age of 3 was a total blast albeit a little chaotic. Still, it didn’t take a lot of coaxing for me to volunteer to run an errand when the opportunity came up. I knew that the house we were staying in was just a few minutes from Verve. This errand would be my one guaranteed chance to squeeze in a much anticipated visit while recharging my batteries for the happy chaos I’d be returning to.

As I pulled into a parking spot, Chris Baca walked by my car, signaling that I had found the right spot. If not for that clue, it might have otherwise taken me a few minutes to find my way. Verve’s nondescript store front does not adequately convey the coffee mecca that lies within and the shingle above the door denotes nothing but “coffee.” I had to spot the sandwich board to verify that this cafe was indeed Verve. Huh, what’s up with all those balloons?

I didn’t have time to ponder the festive decorations as my attention was drawn to the music, barista and folks seated in a few scattered tables on the sidewalk in front of the building next to the cafe. It turns out that this building houses Verve’s Probat roaster. In true California architectural style, one that assumes the weather is never too bad to go outdoors, the roaster building sits separated from the main cafe by a small walkway.

Something unusual was happening. The barista out front was working on a tiny table, brewing chemex pitchers of Verve’s Ethiopian Yergacheffe Koke cooperative. The coffee was free, but I assumed it was for sampling. I took a small taste and was wowed by some very intensely herbal and floral notes I couldn’t quite place. I intended to come back – even buy some beans – but by the time I did, the Chemex stand had been taken down and wound up purchasing a bag of their Panama Elida Estate.

Inside the cafe, I noticed more balloons and an eye-catching sign parked next to Verve’s three-group La Marzocco GB/5. It read: “Free espresso. Just Ask.” So I did. It turns out that completely by chance, I had stumbled into Verve on their second year anniversary. How about that? Verve and this blog share nearly the same birthday.

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As excited as I was to get to the espresso, it’s better for the palate to start out with a cup of coffee.  The selection that day was the Guatemala San Jose Ocana. It was a surprisingly clean cup for French Pressed coffee, which may be due to the extra pass through a gold cone filter that staff give Verve’s coffee as it gets decanted into thermal carafes. The Ocana was beautifully sweet without being cloying or overpowering. I jotted down cherries, chocolate, and tropical fruit with undercurrents of dried fruit. What struck me most, though, was the sweet, meyer lemon acidity that stayed so wonderfully in balance, dancing in and out, as the coffee cooled.

While drinking my coffee, I had a chance to take in the cafe’s wonderful sense of design, which strikes a subtle balance between stark modern and soothing comfort. The formidable concrete bar and floors are softened by the light beige walls and medium brown wood of the front of the bar, tables and chairs. The silver Cirrus ceiling fans and drum shaped, woven lamps accent the space with this same stark/warm contrast (although the lamps – as my wife noted – are badly in need of cleaning). The friendly staff are also well-dressed. Their outfits are coordinated grays, blacks and whites that look professional and relaxed, yet entirely unpretentious.

For espresso, I had a choice of Verve’s Street Level blend (the house blend), Vancouver Decaf, and a single origin Ethiopia Sidamo Haile (which rotates regularly). I started with a shot of the Street Level, which I’ve recently enjoyed immensely as served by Modern Coffee and in my own home. My well-executed and extremely short shot at Verve was high quality, but didn’t quite hit the right notes for me. I know this espresso is capable of an amazingly creamy mouthfeel with deliciously biting, yet sweet grapefruit notes, but my shot at Verve was lemony with some mild, sweet dried fruit. It packed a lot of punch without that refreshing satisfaction.

It took the staff some time to dial in the Haile, given the lines at the shop and the fact that it was the first shot of it that day, but that care and attention paid off in an intriguing espresso that I’d love to try again. I’m not necessarily one for intensely bright shots – and this probably is not an espresso for everyone – but this one carried this approach off well by making that forward citrus blast, mostly orange and lemon, extremely brief. It yielded quickly to some darker notes that left a solidly pleasing sweet and slightly chocolate aftertaste.

In the end, my actual coffee experience fell a little short of my (admittedly high) expectations for a roaster cafe, given that I found their signature espresso better elsewhere. Still, the rest of the coffee was terrific and so is the space and the staff. If it were closer, Verve is a place in which I could easily see myself spending a lot more time. As it is, I won’t hesitate to make it a return destination.

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