Java Enabled: On the Road, Coffee-Style

Jul 15, 2009 at 3:09 pm
There was a time when Alex McCracken was the most quoted man on coffee in St. Louis. When he was Kaldi's trainer, McCracken was regularly interviewed by St. Louis publications whenever they had a caffeine-related question. But you can only field questions about someone else's café so long before you're either sick of it -- or ready to start your own. McCracken is ready for the latter.

In preparation for his hopeful future as a café owner, McCracken decided to take a cross-country trip to see the best -- and worst -- of the West Coast's cafés.

"It started as a survey of all the great coffeehouses on the West Coast before we try to start our own," McCracken said. "We want to ask owners things like, "What was the most expensive mistake you ever made? What are the five stupidest mistakes you made? We're trying to fill our heads with ideas."

click to enlarge Java Enabled: On the Road, Coffee-Style
Since then the idea has evolved into a travel blog called the Café Circuit. The Circuit will trace McCracken, his brother Chad, a cameraman named Jarred Gastreich and, playing Alan Ginsberg to this coffee culture On the Road, the barista-poet Aaron Johnson. (Aaron is getting his Master's in poetry.)

The Circuit starts as they ride from St. Louis to Vancouver down the West Coast and then back to St. Louis again, tracing the southwest. They'll kick off their tour at Kaldi's Crescent location, where Alex, Chad and Aaron all work, this Friday.

Oh, and they're riding motorcycles.

McCracken admitted that Alton Brown's TV special Feasting on Asphalt was a huge inspiration for the whole trip. Watching the TV host ride in search of great road cuisine helped him coalesce the project. But there was still the issue of building up the stamina to ride for such long distances.

"You can't climb Everest without taking a few day hikes here and there," McCracken said. "I started riding last summer. Chad is a serious biker, though. Without him, we probably wouldn't be doing this."

click to enlarge Java Enabled: On the Road, Coffee-Style
User "Dori," Wikimedia Commons
I asked McCracken if there was a connection between the motorcycles and coffee. He didn't think so, but there was something more behind their choice of transportation. "Four guys rolling up on motorcycles is an instant conversation starter: What kind of bike is that? Why are you guys here? What kind of engine is that?

"It's a lot more interesting than a couple guys stepping out of a Honda Civic."

Besides surveying owners on what they've done to succeed in the infamously difficult coffeehouse business, the guys will blog about each café's strong points and share photos (including the "Best Seat in the House," a feature I'm really looking forward to).

When I asked McCracken what made a great café, he said, "Atmosphere, quality and customer service." Good coffee goes without saying.

McCracken said that they already have an idea, especially in coffee capitals like Portland and Seattle, where they want to go. But their itinerary is hardly set: "There are plenty of great places that don't have a national presence at competitions. There are people out there trying to serve something better. We really want to highlight these places and celebrate them -- let the café tell the story."

It sounds like it'll be one worth reading.

Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.