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An introduction to the Triangle's coffee and tea scenes

Beans and leaves

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These days, anyone who's ever perused The New York Times dining section or seen a James Beard Award nomination form has heard that the Triangle is the Southern Part of Foodie Heaven. But some may remain unaware of our thriving bean scene.

When we say beans we mean coffee, and when we say scene we mean the roasters, purveyors and baristas who all help make our lattes and au laits some of the best in the country.

Just recently, two local roasters, Durham's Counter Culture Coffee and the Carrboro Coffee Company, were named finalists in the Good Food Awards coffee category (goodfoodawards.org/coffee), a San Francisco-based competition in its inaugural year. The roasting companies were among 10 winners nationally and the only two in North Carolina.

Last month, Michael Harwood, who works at Carrboro Coffee Company and as a barista for Caffé Driade in Chapel Hill and Open Eye Café in Carrboro, won the 2011 Southeast Regional Barista Competition in Atlanta. He dominated the contest with his knowledge of craft and superior technical skills in foaming, heating, pouring and making art out of froth. Zach Neuman, of Raleigh's Café Helios, won the Southeast Brewer's Cup competition at the same event.

Brett Smith, president and co-founder of Counter Culture Coffee, has witnessed the area's appreciation for, and discernment of, good coffee grow over the last 15 years. He likens this evolution to what's been happening with food: People care about where the coffee comes from, how it was grown and the way it was roasted. Is it organic? Fair trade? From a small farm in Latin America or a mountainous region in East Asia?

At Counter Culture, they've learned along the way, just as the public has. "Now we really bring in coffee at its peak freshness," Smith says, adding that the peak time varies throughout the year depending on where the beans were grown.

Robbie Roberts, owner of Hillsborough-based Joe Van Gogh, says he sometimes wishes he were based somewhere else, where there wasn't such a density of small-batch roasters. He just returned from Honduras on business; it's not at all unusual for local roasters to travel the world in search of the best beans. But the concentration of passionate roasters makes for better coffee all around, he says. And the local palate is becoming increasingly discerning.

All over the Triangle, coffee shops host free "cuppings," where coffee lovers sip and spit just like at a wine tasting. Places like 3CUPS and A Southern Season in Chapel Hill offer demos for making the perfect cup of coffee. Counter Culture also offers "Counter Intelligence" classes, for professional baristas in the making, along with Thursday Night throwdowns—open latte art competitions. If I didn't live around here, I might be surprised that such a thing exists.

All of this is in the name of community, not just coffee quality control, says Smith.

Perhaps it's that spirit that has nurtured our coffee scene along this whole time. Between the university culture of all-nighters and claustrophobic apartments, the medical community equally in need of quality caffeine and a moment to regroup, and the fact that coffee shops have a strong tradition of playing music at a volume that still allows conversation to take place, books to be read and work to get done, it all comes together.

I'm a coffee person. It must be smooth and rich, not acidic and biting. There should be a depth of flavor, with caramelized notes dappling your tongue long after you've swallowed. And it should be hot, but not scalding, and patiently stay that way as you sip it down.

Whether I've had five courses at a five-star restaurant or a light lunch at a neighborhood bistro, coffee signals a moment to relax and savor the experience as a whole. It prevents me from rushing off to the next obligation, and since I put an obnoxious amount of cream and sugar in my joe, it often doubles as dessert.

And then there's tea.

Until I began reporting this piece, I considered tea something people drank when it was too late in the day to have coffee. I've since learned that tea, as much as coffee, can be an experience unto itself. (See high tea and chai stories.)

What follows is a by-no-means-complete list of the Triangle's best coffee and tea spots. Have one to add? Post a comment below and let the world know where you get your beans and leaves.

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