Note: This post marks the launch of Mad Flavor, in which the author describes his occasional forays from the farm in search of exceptional culinary experiences from small artisanal producers.
Three Cups in Chapel Hill, N.C., offers what might be the nation’s finest non-espresso coffee experience.
I can’t say so definitively. Nearly every U.S. city now has at least one café lorded over by a coffee-obsessed madperson; I’ve by no means sampled them all, though I’d love to try. Every time I go to a new town, though, I seek out the best coffee, and I’ve found nothing that matches Three Cups.
The café’s name refers to coffee, tea, and wine. I’ve never had tea there; the list seems to focus on hyper-specific varietals and regions.
As for wine, the places sells it retail and (I think) by the glass. The selection focuses on small, out-of-the-way producers using old techniques and often organic/biodynamic growing practices — the sort of winemakers celebrated in the 2004 documentary Mondovino, which is absolutely a must-see for anyone who loves wine. The bottles sold by Three Cups tend to be under $20, and every one I’ve bought has been wonderful.
What sets the place apart, though, is the coffee.
Counter Culture, a celebrated coffee roaster in nearby Durham, custom-roasts the seven or eight single-origin coffee varieties Three Cups offers. Counter Culture is one of those roasters that prides itself on chasing down beans from specific lots and specific farms. And it’s a pioneer in sustainability and social justice issues — both highly vexed issues within the coffee trade.
Three Cups takes these superlative beans, which it will use only within a week of roasting, and works magic.
To ensure that every cup is fresh-brewed, Three Cups favors the the French press. So you choose a varietal, and the server grinds a precisely weighed amount of beans, adds them to the press with water calibrated at just some exact temperature, and then immediately flips over a three-minute hourglass timer. The server also rinses your cup with hot water.
And that’s not all. Three Cups gets all of its milk products from Maple View Dairy just outside of Chapel Hill — the best and richest commercially available milk around. To make half-and-half, Three Cups itself mixes Maple View milk and heavy cream.
The attention to detail pays off. Yesterday, I ordered a presspot with Ethiopian Yergecheffe, complete with some specific lot number and God knows what other details. When three minutes were up, I pressed and poured, and goosed it with a little half-and-half.
That coffee had a story to tell me. It was whispering all these delicate little taste sensations, luxuriously nestled in that sweet, rich half-and-half. The flavor lingered like that of a good wine, with all of these chocolatey soft coffee notes going on and on.
It was a great story, and I wish I could listen again right now. But now, I’m back in the mountains, back on the farm, and far away from Three Cups.
No coffee fanatic should pass within 50 miles of Chapel Hill and not seek out Three Cups. Note well, though: this church of coffee is unaccountably closed on Sundays — a day I find it particularly important to worship at the altar of God Coffee.