Adams Mor­gan gets even buzzier: Spe­cialty cof­fee

The Washington Post - - DINING - BY TIM CAR­MAN

The side­walk sign says “16 steps to bet­ter cof­fee,” which is true enough. But you’ll need to walk a few more paces — past the glass-cov­ered pas­tries, past the cash reg­is­ter, past the espresso ma­chine — to reach the true heart of Sweet Science Cof­fee in Adams Mor­gan.

It’s a sec­tion in the back of the sub­ter­ranean shop. Pro­pri­etor San­dra Wolter calls the space her “slow-brew bar.” It’s a counter where Wolter will use one of her many gad­gets to brew, ar­guably, the finest, most bal­anced cup of cof­fee in the Dis­trict. But the counter is also where Wolter will share, if you’re in­ter­ested, a tiny frac­tion of the cof­fee wis­dom she has ac­cu­mu­lated over four-plus decades.

Now, I know what you’re think­ing: Wolter must be one of those in­suf­fer­able geeks who com­plains about the dark-roast blends at Char­bucks while sip­ping a fruity, $8 cup of spe­cialty cof­fee ex­tracted from nat­u­rally pro­cessed beans pur­chased from some re­mote farm high in the An­des.

Re­lax, she’s not that kind of cof­fee geek.

Wolter, in fact, has de­vel­oped a “pas­sion state­ment,” which con­cludes with an acro­nym, the of­fi­cial code lan­guage of Wash­ing­ton. “It is all about HCOC,” the state­ment reads on the shop’s web­site. “Hu­man Con­tact Over Cof­fee. We are pas­sion­ate about pre­serv­ing this value for the fu­ture.”

This is what sep­a­rates Sweet Science Cof­fee from the rest: It’s a shop firmly com­mit­ted to spe­cialty cof­fee and all the gad­getry that comes with it. But it’s also aligned with the spirit of old cof­fee­houses, where a cup of mud was an ex­cuse to gather and talk, not log on to the free WiFi for the af­ter­noon.

Sweet Science is a part­ner­ship be­tween Wolter and the Popal Group, the fam­ily-run com­pany that op­er­ates Lapis, the Afghan restau­rant above the cof­fee shop. The Popal fam­ily cov­ers the rent and la­bor costs. Wolter sup­plies all the cof­fee and equip­ment, which is ex­ten­sive. She has a La Mar­zocco espresso ma­chine, a Mahlkönig EK43 grinder, Ja­panese cold-brew tow­ers and seem­ingly ev­ery brew­ing de­vice ever cre­ated, in­clud­ing a Karls­bad porce­lain brewer that uses no fil­ter what­so­ever.

For a shop buried in a basement, with lit­tle nat­u­ral light other than the sun that il­lu­mi­nates the stair­well, the space feels open and invit­ing. It’s partly be­cause of the white­wash walls, but the room it­self has a com­fort­able, lived-in am­biance, with mis­matched chairs, fire­place fa­cades, over­size mir­rors, large Afghan rugs and a com­mu­nal ta­ble in back, by the slow-brew bar. The space feels like home, or at least home away from home.

At 46, Wolter has been around long enough to see the evo­lu­tion of the cof­fee busi­ness. She worked at her fam­ily’s cafe and roast­ery for six years in Ger­many, even­tu­ally switch­ing to a TV re­porter job for more than a decade. Even as a jour­nal­ist, she never lost touch with the cof­fee scene.

Af­ter her mother died, in 2013, Wolter wanted a fresh start. She found it two years later when she moved to Wash­ing­ton to launch her Sweet Science Cof­fee pop-up at its first Adams Mor­gan lo­ca­tion. Her shop lasted only a year, the re­sult of a rent dis­pute with her land­lord.

Her cur­rent agree­ment with the Popal fam­ily is only a tem­po­rary, six-month ar­range­ment, which be­gan in Fe­bru­ary, to see how the ex­per­i­ment pans out. “I’d like to stay and make it work,” she says. “I would def­i­nitely like to have my own shop, too.”

A large part of Wolter’s vi­sion for Sweet Science is to pro­vide a space for tightly wound Wash­ing­to­ni­ans to de­com­press. The baris­tas un­der her watch can pull a mean espresso and pre­pare any num­ber of espresso-based drinks. Sweet Science also has its own cus­tom blend, Piv­otal Mo­ment from Brio Cof­fee­works in Ver­mont. The sweet, choco­late-y blend, with a touch of le­mon bright­ness, is avail­able as drip cof­fee. There are even bis­cotti, muffins, bis­cuits and crois­sants made by Ruth Stolz­fus, pas­try chef for the Popal Group. Prices range from $1.50 to $8.

But the place to be is the slow-brew bar, which al­lows you to lit­er­ally stop and smell the cof­fee. Beans from such roast­ers as Com­mon­wealth Cof­fee, Ruby Cof­fee or Cer­e­mony Cof­fee are placed in small jars, which you can open and sniff to see which one ap­peals to you. Wolter di­als in a recipe for ev­ery bean on the bar, re­ly­ing on a dif­fer­ent brew­ing de­vice for each. She, for in­stance, uses a Kalita Wave to brew the honey-pro­cessed beans from Costa Rica and re­lies on a siphon to brew the Rwanda Twumba beans. The wait is part of the deal.

“You can take those 10 min­utes for the pour-over . . . to free your mind and free your thoughts for a mo­ment,” Wolter says. “And get more ideas!”

For your pour-over, Wolter may pull out her note­book in which she has writ­ten pre­cise, step-by-step in­struc­tions for each cof­fee, down to how many grams of wa­ter to pour for ev­ery pass over the grounds. Each time I visit Sweet Science, I learn some­thing about cof­fee and brew­ing. Bet­ter yet, I walk away with a cof­fee of un­usual com­plex­ity, like a re­cent cup of Kenya Gondo AB from Ruby with its brac­ing cit­rus acid­ity that cuts through the sweet­ness.

As a barista ded­i­cated to science, Wolter has been con­duct­ing an ex­per­i­ment at her new lo­ca­tion. She’s keep­ing a log of ev­ery slow-brew cus­tomer. She wants to find out how many treat the shop as an of­fice, squat­ting with their lap­tops for hours, and how many con­sider it a com­mu­nal space or li­brary, where they can pull a book from the shelves in back. The re­sults? Be­tween 80 and 90 per­cent of the slow-brew cus­tomers do not bring a lap­top and surf the Web. Those types are not the se­rial squat­ters at Sweet Science.

“They ei­ther read or meet friends,” Wolter says, “and they tend to share the cof­fee.”

Sweet Science Cof­fee, 1847 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-344-5639. sweetscience­cof­­man@wash­


A La Mar­zocco, a Kalita Wave, a Mahlkönig EK43 grinder: They’re not mil­i­tary-grade weapons, but a sam­pling of the so­phis­ti­cated brew­ing de­vices, left, that San­dra Wolter, above, uses at her Adams Mor­gan cof­fee shop, Sweet Science. But Wolter is as com­mit­ted to the per­son­able ethos of the space as to the gear: The shop’s mantra is “hu­man con­tact over cof­fee.”

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