The Rise of Specialty Coffee

A new trend is taking over Northern Virginia: local, specialty coffee shops.

Small cafes that serve specialty roasts, such as 29th Parallel Coffee and Tea in Fairfax, are popping up across the region to challenge larger-scale retailers like Starbucks. The new wave of coffee drinking focuses on quality over convenience or price. Amir Khalil, the owner of 29th Parallel, insists that there is a notable difference in taste, quality and process between buying coffee from Starbucks, Folgers or Maxwell House and buying coffee from specialty roasters.

According to an article for Bloomberg Businessweek by Joel Stein, sales in specialty coffee have continued to grow, even while overall commodity coffee sales have remained flat.

Specialty roasted coffee tends to be above the 80 point range in cupping protocol, explained Seth Cook, the director of coffee at Northside Social in Arlington.

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, cupping protocol evaluates the quality of the coffee, giving roasts a numeric value after an assessment of fragrance, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, sweetness, uniformity and defects. The higher the rating, the better the coffee.

These factors are impacted by the type of the coffee bean and the roasting of the coffee itself.

Specialty coffee is roasted by specialty roasters, which may include individual roasters or national companies. Several of the bigger coffee roasters can be found at shops in Northern Virginia. 29th Parallel sells PT Coffee, while Northside Social uses Counter Culture Coffee, Dolcezza brews Stumptown Coffee and Angelika Café serves Intelligentsia Coffee.

Whenever possible, these roasters trade directly with the coffee farmers. They send employees to coffee farms around the world to work with the farmers to come up with ways to improve production and decide on a price.

“The first year the crops that came in from Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo were all fine, not great; not spectacular,” Cook said. “Then we worked with them the next year…it was better and this is our third year working with them, and their coffee is spectacular. That is one of the things I love about Counter Culture… they love to do long term projects… They see the opportunity for growth rather than immediate response.”

These coffee roasters emphasize ethical trading practices in which the farmer receives all of the profits instead of a middleman. The roasting is also a different process that underscores the right amount of roasting and freshness.

“Starbucks roasts to the point of a very dark roast, so the darker the roast you will lose most of the attributes of the flavors that are attached to the bean,” Khalil said.

Khalil explained that specialty roasters roast to a unique point. Roasters will choose to emphasize certain aspects such as flavor or body of the coffee. This is in contrast to commodity coffee chains that may over roast coffee to a point where the coffee is undrinkable.

He also explained that when he asks PT to roast for a certain date, it is roasted the day before and then delivered to him as soon as possible. The coffee brewed at 29th Parallel is almost never more than a week old. The specialty coffee industry also faces unique challenges.

Coffee is best produced in a limited region of the world, between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, over which there is growing competition for limited farming land. As a result, there are not enough coffee yields for a growing market.

Additionally, Coffee grows at high altitudes, where it is hot during the day and cold at night. As temperatures increase with climate change, farmers are forced to move up the mountain where there is less land, creating an issue of space.

The type of plants required to craft specialty coffee are more difficult to grow and harvest. They do not always produce a lot of coffee beans at once and they are often disease-prone.

Cook shared that in Central America alone farmers are losing between 50 to 80 percent of their crops due to diseases like coffee rust.

In Northern Virginia, specialty coffee shops often lack awareness. Locals are often unfamiliar with specialty coffees, causing problems for vendors with respect to maintaining the integrity of their ideal coffee.

“It is a little challenging because [awareness is] not there yet and as I said the whole experience of the specialty coffee has to be there, you know the training, the special coffees, the freshness,” Khalil said. “So all three have to blend together in a perfect formula, which is really difficult unless there is awareness of these great places.”

Despite the difficulties, specialty coffee awareness is growing in the area. An increasing number of people are flocking to coffee shops to enjoy a good cup of coffee, sometimes for the baristas themselves.

“Initial attraction for people and coffee beyond the fact that they like the product is latte art,but when this place opened and I started the process of working with coffee farmers and being in the midst of buying and becoming responsible for the coffee, the people behind it become so much more important to me,” Cook said. “We, as baristas, are the final link in this chain of massive numbers of people. And these farmers especially, if we don’t do our job and represent this coffee well, if we don’t make coffee great, all the work they’ve done is for nothing.”

Photo provided by Northside Social

Photo provided by Northside Social



Northside Social

Address: 3211 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA 22201

Coffee: Counter Culture





Hannah Menchhoff/Fourth Estate

Hannah Menchhoff/Fourth Estate




Address: 2905 District Ave. Fairfax, VA 22031

Coffee: Stumptown





photo 2

Hannah Menchhoff/Fourth Estate



Angelika Film Center and Café

Address: 2911 District Ave, Fairfax, VA 22031

Coffee: Intelligentsia






Hannah Menchhoff/Fourth Estate

Hannah Menchhoff/Fourth Estate



29th Parallel Coffee and Tea

Address: 10160 Fairfax Blvd, Fairfax, VA 22030

Coffee: PT