Caffeine Scene! A look into the coffee culture of the Triangle

Hold the Pie: All eyes on Scratch coffee

By: Kelsey Snell

Esse quam videri. To be rather than to seem.

The North Carolina motto printed on the front of Scratch Bakery’s t-shirts is a pledge of pride to the Old North State. It’s also the food and drink philosophy of Phoebe Lawless, Carolinian to the core and owner of year-and-a-half old Scratch in downtown Durham. Lawless would prefer her pies taste good than seem to, so you won’t find shiny fruit and bland top-crust lattice coming out of her kitchen. Of course, I’ve never seen a sea salt and bittersweet chocolate crostata at Scratch look bad.

Scratch isn’t all pie stands, cider-glazed donuts and savory frittatas. Wafts of brewing coffee and fresh grinds mingle with breakfast-time aromas inside the café’s cozy exposed brick and blue walls. Oversized latte-brimmed bowls look like a meal by themselves and plain ol’ drip pairs perfectly with the persimmon bread pudding that was just called from the kitchen or the poached egg and kale plate coming up next. Locals and people across the country know Scratch’s pies, but Scratch coffee is long overdue for the spotlight. Pie lovers, meet your match—Scratch coffee.

Scratch coffee boss Karen Caffrey used to be a barista at 3CUPS café and trained with Counter Culture’s customer rep Lem Butler to compete in the 2009 Southeastern Barista Competition. Her passion for southern coffee excellence and seeing the Triangle’s coffee culture gain recognition continues to grow with the coffee program she backs at Scratch.

Caffrey says southern coffee culture is “a whole different monster” from caffeinated cities like Seattle or New York City. The southern hospitality standard doesn’t leave much room for the cold-shouldered barista, and different from the busy Manhattan café, customer service anywhere below the Mason Dixon Line is pivotal to a coffee drinker’s café experience. “People here expect the warmth, and you have to embrace it,” says Caffrey. “You don’t throw that away.”

So why would a local-loving and locally-loved southern bakery serve coffee from a coffee roaster in the Midwest? Scratch served hometown-roasted Counter Culture Coffee until Nov. 1 when Lawless and Caffrey decided to make the switch to renowned Chicago roaster Intelligentsia Coffee.

“We wanted to introduce something new and fresh to the area,” says Caffrey. “It was an opportunity to stand out and bring more coffee excellence to the Triangle.”

No matter the roaster, whether neighborhood Counter Culture, Portland’s Stumptown Coffee or Intelligentsia, coffee isn’t grown locally. These “big three” roasters source from some of the same coffee farms abroad, but which plots they bid on and the way they roast the beans is what sets them apart. “Comparing Counter Culture and Intelligentsia is like saying a Cabernet is different from a Riesling,” says Caffrey who chose Intelligentsia’s soft, sweet espresso because she felt its flavor profiles fit Lawless’s ingredients and customers best.

Intelligentsia Coffee has three cafes in Chicago and three in Los Angeles. Although their coffee is new to many in the Triangle, Caffrey says Scratch is able to brew up a little taste of home for some patrons from the Windy City and the West Coast—even one of their own.

Scratch barista Curtis Cushman grew up in Durham but moved to Chicago to study art history and illustration at Columbia College Chicago where he began working at Intelligentsia. Cushman worked for the café for a year and a half before returning to Durham in January 2010 and later applying to work with Caffrey at Scratch. “I feel like a kid in my coffee life. I’m playing with the toys I used to play with,” he says.

Like the seasonal ingredients Lawless combines in her recipes, Caffrey and her baristas concoct signature drinks to pair with the ever-changing menu. This summer, Lawless crafted honeysuckle chess pie and lemonade inspired by the blossoms on her own bush, and the coffee team was up for the challenge to try their hand. Lawless came up with the name, “Sweet Child of Mine,” and Caffrey made a honeysuckle-infused syrup that was the bottom layer under a level of cold milk that was topped with two naturally floral espresso shots to taste like a North Carolina summer.

“I have some fresh bay. Can you make a drink with that?” Lawless asked Caffrey. This was the beginning of the current signature drink, “Sippin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” which is an 8-ounce latte with simple bay leaf syrup and dark chocolate. And up next? Chestnut flour and coffee—hello holidays.

Caffrey says these signature drinks are just a part of getting people excited about coffee— a win for everyone in the Triangle coffee scene. “All boats float in a rising tide,” she says. With Counter Culture’s training center and monthly latte art competitions, Morning Times’ cuppings, 3CUPS tastings and Carrboro Coffee Company’s coffee introduction classes, the local coffee tide is rising. Raise your mugs, and ride it out.

Scratch coffee events are in the works, from barista Olympics to classes on coffee basics, and the pie pairings, which featured a single-origin pour-over coffee with a hand-paired pie, might be making a comeback. Follow Scratch at @scratchbake and Scratch coffee at @ScratchCoffee to find out the latest or make a recommendation.

Kelsey Snell graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill on Sunday with a degree in journalism and will be home in Southern Pines, N.C. for the holidays.

Follow Kelsey on Twitter at @kelseysnell.


2 thoughts on “Caffeine Scene! A look into the coffee culture of the Triangle

  1. “That’s the one that etymologists lean oh oh oh I am so ashamed I’ve been saying this word wrong my entire life how is that possible now is my chance to get it right TWAAAAAAARDS Comes

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