Revenge of the Knoxville (Coffee) Nerds

Is Knoxville's coffee scene finally growing up? Local roasters and brewers say it's time.

In the interest of full disclosure, here's what you should probably know: I am not a coffee snob.

I am snobby about many other beverages: wine, bourbon, orange juice. I spent most of my teenage years hanging out in coffee shops, drinking cup after cup after cup after cup, but I never developed a serious appreciation of gourmet brew. I am not a coffee snob.

Every morning I grind my Eight O'Clock French Roast beans, which I have been drinking since I got my first coffeemaker, a Krups, in 1997. I still use that, too. I do really loathe flavored coffee, but that's about as snobby as I get.

I mean, I just now drank half a cup of coffee at the office, and I'm guessing the pot was made at least three hours earlier. At least.

And I drank that stale coffee despite my conversation earlier in the day with Brad Moxley, who—I'm just guessing here—would probably shoot himself in the foot before putting swill like that in his mouth.

"I mean, I will go slumming at Waffle House," Moxley, 27, had said over a cappuccino at Old City Java. "I will occasionally drink crap. But it's so alien to me. It's not even drinking the same substance."

Moxley is a man obsessed with coffee, to put it mildly.

When he wakes up, he chooses between nine different methods to make his morning brew, depending on the type of beans he has. Not one of them is an electric coffee maker. While he owns a French press, he says he's "not a real fan" of that, either. He talks about using an AeroPress, which he says is kind of like a giant syringe. "If you follow the instructions, you'll produce terrible coffee, but if you know how to use it, you can produce amazing coffee."

Moxley uses a thermometer to make sure the water is exactly the right temperature (usually 202 degrees Fahrenheit) before he pours exactly the right amount (usually 400 ml) over the freshly ground beans at exactly the right pace to control agitation. He talks about how the perfect cup of coffee should have 20 percent of soluble solids extracted and 12,500 ppm—parts per million—something …

I get kind of lost.

"I'm not offended by being called a coffee snob. I've worked really hard to develop my palate to taste all those things," Moxley says.

His methods might seem a little complicated to someone like me, who can barely stumble to the coffeepot to turn it on in the morning. But Moxley's not the only person in town geeking out on coffee. And while they realize Knoxville might not ever have a scene that rivals Seattle or Brooklyn, the local champions of specialty coffee say there's no reason not to try.


"You can get really nerdy about it," says Meg Parrish, 29. That was kind of an understatement, as I'd just spent the past 45 minutes listening to her and her husband Shaun, 34, talk about coffee—a conversation that continued for almost another hour. (It should come as no surprise that Moxley is a friend.) The Parrishes really like talking about coffee.

Why coffee? Like Moxley, Shaun says he's obsessed with that elusive quest for the perfect cup. He says he likes championing what he sees as an underappreciated beverage. And then there are the coffee shops.

"There's a whole culture that's built around coffee. It's something that people gather around, and there's this interesting ritual aspect to it," Shaun says.

That culture is a large part of the reason the Parrishes bought Old City Java, Knoxville's oldest coffee shop, three years ago, after Meg had worked there the previous five years. The shop will turn 20 this spring, as one of two remaining links to the great coffeehouse boom of the 1990s. (The Golden Roast Espresso Café just off the Strip near the University of Tennessee library, which opened in 1995, is the other.) Shaun says Java is where he had his first shot of espresso as a teenager living in Oak Ridge, back in those heady days of grunge, back when Central Perk became the new Cheers.

But coffee culture dates to well before the 1990s and slam poetry. Before the 1950s and beat poetry. Back even before James Franklin Goodson began selling his freshly roasted beans in Morristown in the 1880s.

All you Sept. 11-conspiracy folks might want to stop reading here: Coffee first became a popular beverage in Yemen. In the 1400s, coffee shops spread throughout the Arab world as an alternative to taverns (since Islam prohibits alcohol consumption). According to Tom Standage's book, A History of the World in Six Glasses, the beverage was mostly viewed with suspicion in Europe until Pope Clement VIII tasted it in 1605.

"Coffee's religious opponents argued that coffee was evil: They contended that since Muslims were unable to drink wine, the holy drink of Christians, the devil had punished them with coffee," Standage writes. "Clement decided to taste the new drink before making his decision. … He was so enchanted by its taste and aroma that he approved its consumption by Christians."

It wasn't long before Catholics and Protestants alike were drinking coffee across the continent. The drink's stimulant effects were a perfect mesh with the rise of the Age of Reason—and the age of capitalism. (Business success required sobriety.) As European countries began to colonize the globe, they took coffee plants from Arabia with them, creating the means of production that now make coffee the second most valuable commodity exported by developing countries, behind petroleum.

(I should note here that the frequently quoted statistic that coffee is the second most valuable commodity period, behind oil, is not actually true. Several mineral and agricultural commodities are worth more than coffee's $22 billion share of the market.)

Knoxville has a surprisingly large piece of that market. When the Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters opened its Knox County manufacturing facility in 2008, it surpassed JFG as the area's largest employer in the coffee industry. The two may not be locally owned, but together with the Goodson Bros. Coffee Company (owned by the family that once owned JFG), there are millions—possibly billions—of cups of coffee produced here every year.

At least, that's what Matthew McReynolds of Goodson Bros. tells me. He declined to provide any specific numbers for his own business, other than saying Goodson Bros. is dwarfed by GMRC and JFG but is much, much larger than any other roaster in town. He says Knoxville may be under the radar, but it's just behind the East Coast coffee-roasting centers of Houston, Jacksonville, New York, New Orleans, and Miami in terms of volume. Knoxville! With no port!

But that volume? That culture of commodity? That's exactly what Meg and Shaun Parrish want to escape.

"It's hard to get people to take the time to look at it differently," Shaun says. But it's their hope that more people would think about coffee like they've started thinking about food. Call it "farm-to-cup," instead of "farm-to-table."

"Going back to basics, coffee is a fruit—the bean you see grows in a cherry. Its taste depends on how it's processed as a fruit," Meg explains.

"The coffee most of us have been exposed to has been warehoused," Shaun says. "Like any agricultural product, it has a limited shelf life."

Meg jumps in. "You wouldn't want to eaten a rotten banana."

The Parrishes say this is why they are now bypassing local roasters and buying their coffee from Durham-based Counter Culture Coffee. (The coffee served at Java is roasted in Counter Culture's Asheville facility). The company claims to take fair trade a bit further, with something they call "direct trade," which promises "100 percent transparency." (For more on what all this means, see sidebar on p. 24.)

"We're friends with our farmers on Facebook! We follow them on Twitter," Meg says.

Another friend of the Parrishes, Jeff Scheafnocker, has taken the concept to heart.

"I may only buy one bag, but I know where it came from," the 33-year-old Maryville native says. "I grew up on a farm. Paying attention to where your food comes from is an important thing. I'm a nerd that way."

Standing next to his new, shiny, forest green coffee roaster in a space on the top floor of his house, occasionally stroking his long bushy beard, Scheafnocker holds forth in such a rapid-fire manner that I have a hard time getting a word in edgewise. He answers all my questions before I can even ask them.

"I don't want to seem hoity-toity about it, you know," he says. "But coffee's different, because you can't grow coffee in your garden."

At the time of our interview, Scheafnocker is still waiting on certification from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture to sell his Three Bears Coffee Company beans commercially. But he's been roasting microlots for a few years now, buying one bag of green beans at a time and selling the roasted beans in mason jars to a small group of friends and select customers. Most of the coffee he's bought has come from small farms in the state of Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico, farms he's visited, where he's seen the working conditions and sustainability practices firsthand—because, he says, if not him, then who?

"You're not going to be paying attention to the futures market, you're not going to be paying attention to which co-op is worth a shit," Scheafnocker says. His "you" isn't directed at me specifically, but I'm exactly the type of person he is describing, the kind of person who buys $6 bags of blended coffee at Kroger.

"You go to the jewelry story and worry about diamonds and the fighting and the conditions in the mines—coffee's no different," he says. "There are a lot of people exploited on coffee farms. I mean, people won't buy clothes made in sweatshops, you know? And this, this—"

Scheafnocker pauses, catching his breath, searching for exactly the right words.

"I think now, with these hard financial times, a lot of people are like, ‘F--k it.' And I'm not saying even that shouldn't be the case. And it starts sounding really snobby, and I don't mean it to sound that way. But at $12 a pound, [my coffee] is on average $2 more than you'd spend on really good coffee at the grocery store, and you can buy it with a clear conscience."

Business Ethics

You'd be hard pressed these days to find a coffee roaster who doesn't at least pretend to care about the environmental or ethical aspects of the coffee business. The problem, they say, is the "business" part of it all.

Take John Clark, the owner of Vienna Coffee Company in Maryville. (He prefers the title "roastmaster.") He's actually Scheafnocker's cousin, though he just mentions it in passing. (He also had no idea Scheafnocker was even roasting coffee until I mentioned it.) And Clark likes what he calls "relationship coffees," too.

Clark sells one coffee from a Guatemalan co-op—his daughter travels there yearly to help with the roasting—and one coffee from the El Puente ministry, which helps Guatemalan immigrants in East Tennessee. But Vienna roasts three tons of coffee a month for area coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores. Clark says it just can't all be relationship-driven.

"It's all about educating customers," he says. "The more people know, then the more they're willing to pay for microlots. But we are also at the mercy of the market. If Knoxville doesn't understand it and won't pay for it—we're trying to make a difference, but we also have to sell coffee."

Clark's been roasting and selling coffee for the past nine years, after he moved to Maryville from California and couldn't find any coffee here that he liked. Alan Zeigel opened the Golden Roast 15 years ago for similar reasons, after moving here from Boulder. Zeigel started roasting his own beans 10 years ago, at first just for his shop, and then for other local businesses. Between the two, they have the local restaurant market pretty much cornered.

Zeigel's operation is much smaller than Clark's, averaging half a ton of beans a month. He uses an antique Royal No. 5 roaster built in 1918 and roasts the beans in a small shed behind his North Knoxville house. He buys his beans from an importer in New York and says most of what he purchases is organic and fair trade. But he points out that it's next to impossible to get fair trade coffee from many African countries, or even Costa Rica. When it comes down to it, Zeigel says, good coffee is more important than anything else.

Other local roasters are taking a more charitable approach—literally.

Like jAVERDE, a roaster with a coffee shop by the same name in West Knoxville, which says it donates 5 percent of its sales revenue to support reforestation via the National Arbor Day Foundation. And a roaster slightly farther away in the Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Smoke, claims to donate the same amount to environmental and humanitarian causes.

Then there's Remedy, a coffee shop in the Old City run by the Knoxville Life Church. It also serves direct-trade coffee, from Chicago-based Intelligentsia, and the shop donates 100 percent of its after-tax proceeds to Knoxville organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Beardsley Farm.

Even GMCR says it donates "at least five percent of its pre-tax profits to social and environmental projects." Oh, and they also give their employees paid time off for volunteering.

You've Got to Make the Morning Last

For a lot of people in town, coffee in Knoxville will always be synonymous with JFG, no matter how many employees GMCR has or how much volunteering they do. (A GMCR spokesperson declined to provide the specific number of employees at the facility other than saying it "is a few times larger than JFG"; JFG has 150.) As JFG's spokesperson, Mary-Wanda Fandino, puts it, the city isn't "steeped in" GMCR's culture; there are no signs or historic buildings or generations of families who have worked at the plant. But as Keurig K-Cups—those single-use, single-cup packs—keep exploding in popularity, Knoxville's coffee legacy is taking on a new, instant shape.

The coffee nerds of Knoxville hope to counteract that with their own version of the Slow Food movement.

Slow coffee—which is to say, manual drip coffee or immersion coffee—is what Brad Moxley was talking about, and it's what the Parrishes are slowly introducing to Java and have offered at the Market Square Farmers' Market. But it's Clark's new coffee shop in downtown Maryville that's the first place in East Tennessee with a drip filter bar. (The Parrishes do have plans to put their own "slow coffee" bar in their shop in January.)

The Vienna Coffee House, which opened in October, takes up the first floor of a Victorian house. Behind the counter, there's a clear acrylic stand topped with what look like several white ceramic coffee cups. I ask the young barista, Sarah Leslie, about the different types of coffee available and settle on a Jamaican bean called Sulawesi. (Amazingly, this is in the iPhone autocorrect dictionary.)

Leslie measures the beans for my cup and then grinds them. She places the grounds in a paper filter in one of the ceramic cups. She then takes what looks like a flask from a chemistry lab, fills it with hot water, and pours that slowly into the filter. The coffee drips into a carafe below. She pours more water. More coffee drips. And again.

This is a Japanese setup called Hario. The whole process for my single mug of coffee takes six or seven minutes.

I asked Leslie if the slow-drip bar was popular. She said it was slowly but surely gaining traction.

"Most people, once they have it, they don't go back," Leslie says.

Clark says slow is where the market is going, at least for shops like his.

"The fact that McDonald's sells Starbucks-like drinks is a sign fast food is clearly diverging from coffeehouse culture," he says.

But that "coffeehouse culture" still has one major problem, one that could be exacerbated by the slow coffee movement.

In 18th-century London, the slang phrase for withdrawal as a method of birth control was "to make a coffee-house of a woman's privities, to go in and out and spend nothing." (This, according to a contemporary dictionary of vulgar slang.) All these years later, freeloading is still an issue. Zeigel says he sees students come into the Golden Roast with their own food and drinks, just to use the free Internet. Shaun Parrish says there's a reason why Java no longer has free refills—they can't afford to. Because while he doesn't like to think of coffee as a commodity, it is one, and it's one with skyrocketing prices.

So, if you're pushing slow coffee, if you want people to take the time to enjoy what they're consuming, how do you make a living?

That's why Sharif Harb, the owner of Coffee & Chocolate near Market Square, remains a bit skeptical of manual drip bars.

"It hasn't even crossed my mind," Harb says when asked if he had considered anything like Vienna's Hairo station. "A lot of people don't want to jump through hoops, they just want a cup of coffee."

Zeigel concurs when asked about slow coffee: "I'm not really hip to that."

Still, Harb says he'd love it if more coffee drinkers in Knoxville appreciated the quality stuff, even if they're not all buying the $25 per cup Kopi Luwak he sells. (Those are the Indonesian coffee beans that have been digested by civets for a supposedly mind-blowing, amazing brew. I did not try any.)

"People should appreciate a real cappuccino, not one filled with syrup," Harb says. And then he contradicts himself. "But if a coffee filled with chocolate or hazelnut syrup is what makes them happy, then more power to them. People should drink whatever makes them happy."

A Vintage Future?

So what if that palate could change? What if, as Knoxville coffee culture has turned from JFG to Starbucks in less than a generation, what if the city could develop the kind of coffeehouse culture that dominates the Northwest? What if Brad Moxley didn't have to order all his coffee online?

When I ask him, he grimaces.

"Possibly," Moxley says. "I never would have thought Atlanta would have become a center for coffee, but it is."

And to that end, there's wine.

The comparison between coffee and wine comes up a lot, actually. McReynolds of Goodson Bros. says he thinks in the future, you'll have coffee lists at restaurants the way you have wine lists now. Clark, Moxley, and the Parrishes all specifically mention "terroir," the idea in the wine industry that the particular climate and soil in which grapes are grown makes those grapes taste different from the exact same type of grapes grown somewhere else.

"It's not just where it's grown but how it's grown," Meg Parrish says. "And just like wine, it changes from season to season."

When she talks about "cuppings," the coffee world equivalent of wine tastings, Meg mentions bloom and aroma and flavor profiles; Shaun talks about brightness and acidity, honeydew and chocolate.

Those are all terms you'd think more likely to pop up at the liquor store than the coffee shop—which, when you stop to think about it, is in itself pretty amazing. Not that long ago, Americans barely drank wine. And when they did, it was bad. (Lancer's, anyone?) Now, Americans drink a ton of wine. Most of it is still bad. (Yellow Tail, anyone?)

But the market has expanded so much that even crappy liquor stores carry random varietals and tape reviews from Wine Spectator next to the price tags. I've seen Grenache at convenience stores in Georgia. The Olive Garden has an Amarone on its wine list. An Amarone! And none of that would have happened without the Gallo brothers popularizing mediocre wine.

Like the way Starbucks has popularized mediocre coffee.

Almost everyone I talked to said that, in a way, Starbucks has actually helped their business, because it created that consumer awareness of gourmet coffee. Now, say the Parrishes, it's up to people like them to take that awareness to the next level, to help their customers learn how to really appreciate good coffee, the way a wine drinker might have gone from drinking a $5 Gallo blended red to a $10 Woodbridge Cabernet to a $15 Kermit Lynch Côtes du Rhône. Starting with people like me.

"What brew did you have earlier?" Shaun asks, gesturing to my empty cup. I admit I have no idea.

He goes behind the counter and comes back with two small cups to taste. One is an Ethiopian brew, the other a special holiday blend. (He says proceeds from the sale of the blend go to charity, the only reason for offering non-single-origin beans.)

I used to work in a wine bar. I know how to taste wine. So that's how I approach the samples, inhaling the aromas, swishing the coffee around my mouth so the liquid can reach all my taste buds. I sip one. Then the other. I search for any flavor to taste, other than coffee.

I'm too embarrassed to say anything, as I thank the Parrishes for their time and head back out into the cold, but I can't really taste a difference between the two. When I have the Sulawesi a few days later, it tastes kind of similar. Which is kind of similar to the pre-measured packs of Seattle's Best that we drink in the office.

"There's no reason for buying a $100 bottle of wine if you don't have the tongue to tell the difference. You might as well buy the cheap box of wine," McReynolds tells me.

As I said, I'm not a coffee snob. But comparing it to cheap wine, which I absolutely can't drink, might be a good start to pressure me into becoming one. Because there sadly was a time when I thought the $7 bottle of Merlot was a splurge.

And if Knoxville's coffee palate grows up, maybe its wine palate will follow.