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Nate Robinson

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Finding Quality Coffee in Orlando's Sugar Stronghold

How Lineage Coffee Roasting is upping Orlando's craft coffee scene one cup at a time.

Coffee, a centuries-old commodity, only relatively recently grew out of its role as a mere caffeine vessel. In short, a collection of people saw coffee’s potential and realized it could be better. So, how does a neighborhood undergo a similar transformation and shed the mantle of its city’s global reputation—one made of rollercoasters, cartoon characters, and the gaudy lights of International Drive restaurants, not the least of which being Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill? It starts perhaps with the same inclinations that first brought coffee out of cream-and-sugardom. And thanks in part to Lineage Coffee Roasting, the Audubon Park Garden District—a horticultural gem in Orlando—is slowing defining its unique Florida identity through a new wave of quality-centered craft businesses.

In 2013, Jarrett Johnson relocated to Orlando from the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Justine, a fashion designer, and their newborn, Dash. Johnson has previously worked at a nutritional analysis firm, though after partaking in his brother's espresso catering business as a side project, he quickly became enthralled with the world of coffee. Gambling on a massive career change, Johnson founded Lineage Coffee Roasting, initially setting up a mobile brew bar at Orlando's Audubon Park Farmers Market that year, appearing every Monday to sell pour-overs and cold brew. His intention was to source top quality beans and roast them to unlock the potential held in each single-origin coffee.

A short time after Lineage’s inception, in the fall of 2013, East End Market, a multi-vendor artisan food concept/market akin to Melrose Market in Seattle or Chelsea Market in New York, hit Orlando. Lineage secured a permanent space toward the market's rear.

Perhaps as a result of the rapid epicurean renaissance transforming Audubon Park, some of the main street scenery is not yet on par with the surrounding greenery or the quality of business flourishing in the neighborhood. The walkability and bikeability of Audubon is as far from the Pearl District as Orlando and Portland are geographically.

Photos by Nate Robinson

Nevertheless, Yuri Gama, currently getting his masters in Urban History, often can be seen bike riding against the grain of the Corrine Drive traffic, so as not to be left vulnerable to careless motorists. A frequent visitor to East End Market, shades of the multi-vendor space remind him of the public markets common in his home country of Brazil.

An avid coffee drinker, Gama first gained the taste for simple black brew sans sugar while completing his undergrad in his hometown of Florianopolis. From there an appreciation blossomed. "I was drinking like seven cups a day," says Gama in a jovial, rubbery south Brazilian accent. His first contact with Orlando craft coffee culture was at Lineage’s stand in the Farmers Market. "I was like, 'Daaang, that’s the way they do it in Florianopolis. It was very good, very flavorful.'" Gama became one of Lineage’s earliest customers, watching them progress to a brew bar at East End Market. "From then on I was thirsty to try different origins, because in Brazil we don’t really have access to coffees from around the world."

At East End Market, Lineage often sends olfactory beacons like the floral aromatics of a Kenya down an already pleasant corridor full of fresh local produce, baked breads, artisan cheeses, organic juice, and the deep umami of Kappo, a close-quartered and highly-praised traditional Japanese sushi bar.

"East End Market has helped this area because it’s such a cultural food hub in Orlando that even being a part of it has been huge for us," says Johnson. "I think this neighborhood is really cool, because it kind of embraces the unique, the different and funky. Everybody here is super open-minded about trying new stuff. I’m really proud to tell people, 'Come see us, we’re in the Audubon area and down the street is Redlight Redlight, one of the top fifty beer parlours in the world.'"

Lineage recently collaborated with Redlight Redlight for a beer competition, steeping a lightly-roasted plummy Kenya in a mellow, caramelly altbier brewed by Brent Hernandez. According to the Redlight Redlight founder and head brewer, the goal was to create a subtle profile with a grace note of lightly roasted coffee to complement the smooth ale.

"They’ve taught me a lot, cupping, tasting the coffee and building my palate," says Hernandez. "They’ve definitely raised the bar for coffee in Orlando and Audubon."

Johnson and his staff hold regular cuppings focusing on body, acidity, sweetness and clean finish, spitballing on different roasting curves and brewing parameters that will bring something out of the coffee as delightful as it is unexpected. This could be an orange juice flavor from a Kenya, or perhaps a subtle note of raspberry in an otherwise mellow, earthy Sumatra.

"Going into a coffee you need to have an idea of what you want out of it."

"I’ve studied coffee production more," Johnson says, explaining his learning curve since Lineage’s first days at the mobile brew bar. "What makes a good coffee? Why does a coffee grown at 1800 meters need to be roasted differently than one at 1900 meters? How does the moisture content of the coffee when I drop it in the roaster affect the way we want to produce it? Going into a coffee you need to have an idea of what you want out of it." To get a better idea, Johnson spends countless hours over the sample roaster and in the cupping lab.

Adjacent to a hybrid shop selling reclaimed furniture and small press books, Lineage dresses itself in clean white tile. Lighting is low and the bartop is clean, prepped with a few pour over setups including a scale, server, stand, and V60. There's also a hand written menu listing four single origins and two espresso blends. The largest piece of equipment is a custom-made Synesso espresso machine.

While Lineage keeps a hardline against frills, behind the bar the team remains aware of the more obnoxious barista clichés, like superior music tastes, the default eyeroll, the encyclopedic albeit unsolicited knowledge. "For the most part I’ve found those that are trying to flex their knowledge are the ones that know the least," states Johnson.

That said, taste professionals constantly grapple with the futility of placing under the microscope what the large majority of their clientele only gives a cursory glance. East End chef in residence Jes Tantalo found in Lineage the camaraderie of craftsmanship as well as the refreshing experience of a coffee that didn’t punch her in the gut or "taste like burnt shoes."

"There are things that I do when I cook that take extra time, but result in a better product," Tantalo says. "The majority of the time people don’t notice, and just want to eat something. That world can be lonely and you often wonder if it’s worth the extra time and effort to treat a veggie with such care, or source the perfect product. Just like Kappo, Lineage has reminded people about slow food—that faster isn’t better and less is more."

Edd Siu doubtless felt the same craft culture confinement when he opened Vespr, a specialty coffee shop situated in the boxstore-dense area of East Orlando. To make matters worse, he was driving through Orlando’s theme park corridor every morning to get there. Vespr showcases precision brewing and some of the best roasters nationwide like Miami's Panther, PT’s out of Kansas and Counter Culture in New York.

Siu’s dimly-lit, clean, coffee-colored establishment stands in stark contrast to neighboring Waterford Lakes, a sprawling mall complex rife with name brands from Banana Republic to Best Buy.

Since Johnson and Siu both spent all of 2014 carving out a space for quality coffee in their respective neighborhoods, a collaboration between the two came only recently. Recognizing Lineage as one of the many upstarts in Orlando working on par with the best in the nation, Siu partnered with Johnson to create the Orlando City Espresso Blend currently pulled through all of Vespr’s portafilters.

While craft culture is growing in Orlando, its longterm viability is still very much in the balance. To up the ante, Lineage looks to strengthen its supply chain by building lasting relationships with coffee producers. Johnson, along with Lineage’s director of education and quality control Ryan Wilcox, recently traveled to Colombia on a sourcing trip whereupon the small roaster established a relationship with smallholder producer, Maria Victoria Alvarez Restrepo. Both Johnson and Wilcox found inspiration in Alvarez’s attention to detail and the calibre of coffee growing on her farm high in the Andes of Antioquia. They decided it would be a great fit for their exclusive and heavily-vetted summer menu that will include three 90+ coffees (quality graders assess coffee on a 100-point scale).

"I think there are too many roasters right now that are focusing on what everybody else is doing and not how they can do what they are doing better."

"When we were leaving Colombia," Johnson says, "I remember thinking, 'Man I wish our roastery was in San Francisco.' Then everyone would be like, 'Yeah this is amazing coffee.'" But there’s still a long ways for everyone to just get it. And it’s not true that everyone in San Francisco just gets it either. Just because they’re all a bunch of hipsters doesn’t mean they get the coffee."

Going forward, Johnson and crew hope to pique the interest of Orlando’s collective palate by finding new profiles and working closer with partner farmers, further defining the concept of direct trade—the still somewhat nebulous term in third-wave coffee. "I think there are too many roasters right now that are focusing on what everybody else is doing and not how they can do what they are doing better," Johnson says. "How can we innovate and find something new? That’s what I’m caught up in right now."

"We asked Maria to next year do a dry-processed lot for us," Johnson says. "And she was like, ‘I can’t afford to.’ I told her I promised to buy it no matter what."

In handling fresh coffee beans, most in Colombia undergo what's called "washed process" where the seed is de-pulped from the cherry and then dried, eventually to around 12 percent moisture. In contrast, another way to handle the beans is through "dry" or "natural process," in which the coffee dries with the cherry still intact. If cared for properly, natural process coffee has the potential to yield amazing fruity notes, but these beans are more susceptible to environmental conditions and can quickly turn into over-fermented coffee that is unsalvageable. Simply put, washed process coffee allows for more margin of error.

Despite being discouraged by the Colombia grower’s organization (the natural process impedes efforts to consistently fill massive orders of the lowest common denominator sort for accounts like Nespresso and Dunkin' Donuts), Alvarez will experiment with a few batches of this natural drying method. The results could bring coffee appreciation to a new level in Orlando, maybe converting a few Frappuccino drinkers in the process. It is risky for both parties involved, but as Lineage, Audubon and now a farm owner in Colombia hope to prove, nobody ever made anything more valuable by doing the expected.


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