Talking ‘Insane Coffee’ with Spro’s Jay Caragay

Custom tamper by Reg Barber. Photo courtesy Jay Caragay (http://onocoffee.blogspot.com/)

Custom tamper by Reg Barber. Photo courtesy Jay Caragay (http://onocoffee.blogspot.com/)

Spro Coffee, a new coffee shop, has just opened in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood. The establishment will be serving coffee in an unmatched combination of product and methods. It’s the vision of proprietor, Jay Caragay, who’s a bit of a serial entrepreneur, as well as as a nuanced thinker with interesting views about where coffee is . . . and where it’s going.

Jay Caragay is one interesting guy whose varied experiences span thousands of miles and several industries. His new store, manned by like-minded professionals, is going to incredible lengths to bring to Baltimore the finest culinary experience that specialty coffee can provide. Per Caragay, the blueprint involves:

“Six different roasters, offering up to eight different coffees, all brewed by the cup, to order, in one of seven different brew methods. Quite simply, what we’re going to attempt to do is insane. But really, there is no coffee shop in the world that does what we’re attempting, which is what makes it so attractive. It’s about expressing coffee as far as we can take it. No holds barred. Sink or Swim. And considering the amount we’ve invested in the project, it’s Do or Die.”

(See a sample coffee menu below, at the end of the article)

To the people that have been reading coffee industry coverage in the news during recent years, this effort seems to have the trappings of the so-called “Third Wave” of coffee. The “wave” is explained in a recent East Bay Express article as a movement where a cafe’s staff will take “‘equal role of farmer, roaster, and barista’ in producing a good cup of coffee,” among other things.

But Caragay is a bit nonplussed regarding that “third wave” label, even though Spro seems to fall under its umbrella.

“Why waste time thinking about what ‘wave’ this is when you could be out there defining it?” he told Osmosis Online. “I’m too busy learning, teaching, and refining what we do to be bothered with asking the question: ‘how do we describe ourselves and our generation.'”

Indeed, in not worrying about labels and not merely talking about coffee, but making his vision a reality, Caragay effectively shares his excitement and passion for what coffee can be. Caragay has a history of immersing himself into whatever culture or situation he finds himself in, and from them creating businesses that break the mold.

When I originally approached Caragay about an email interview, much like most of the other ones on OO, we did start with the usual five or so questions, but Caragay — like with his coffee efforts — proved to be a completist when providing interview answers. And he’s a compelling writer, with such interesting experiences, that we’re going to stray from the usual Internet-friendly, “short attention span” interview format on OO and give you Mr. Caragay’s unedited answers. We talk about his new business, his interesting outlook, and what’s come before in his life — the path that brought him to where he’s opened a cafe that will challenge customer palates even as it challenges its proprietor.

I want to sincerely thank Mr. Caragay for his time, because, man, it must have taken forever to type this all out (unless he forgot to mention the time he spent in court stenography). Without further ado, a look into the mind off Jay Caragay.


Osmosis Online: Back on the Portafilter podcast, you often referenced living in Hawaii. Did you grow up there?

Jay Caragay: I actually was born in Akron, Ohio and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1988, I moved to Honolulu to attend Hawai’i Loa College in Kane’ohe. I lived in Hawai’i until the end of 1995. While living in Hawai’i, I also attended Kapi’olani Community College where I studied business management and also lived in New York City for a time attending New York University Tisch School of Arts for my film coursework. I graduated Hawai’i Loa College in 1992 with a degree in Communications, Film & Television.

OO: And where did that take you in a professional sense?

JC: During those years in Hawai’i, I spent much of my time shooting local cable television shows, photojournalism, studying hula and Hawaiian culture, and playing semi-professional paintball. Before moving to Honolulu, I had been a radio and club deejay spinning late 1980s alternative music (what today might be considered “goth”) and the then-burgeoning house sound. Oddly enough, I happened to be the deejay that crossed-over the house sound from Baltimore’s African-American scene into the alternative scene.

But what I really wanted to do was make movies. Specifically, Hollywood-style movies. Unlike some of my classmates and professors who adored experimental film, I wanted to do narrative film: features. The stuff most people see in the theatres, and in 1993 I got my break into the business as a casting assistant to Ferne Cassel on Major League II. While many people entering the film industry spend years working on independent films and commercials, I was lucky and got into studio production straightaway. Another stroke of luck landed me membership in IATSE, the production union and from there I ended up working from television shows like “One West Waikiki” to “Enemy of the State.” If you’re interested, many (but not all) of my production credits are listed on imdb.com.

OO: Can you tell me about your first entrepreneurial enterprise, and what made you pull the trigger on being a small business owner? Did you know what you were getting into?

JC: While I worked nearly non-stop (or whenever I wanted to) since I entered the [film] business, I never knew the famine times that assuredly come with a career in production. In 1998, while shooting “Liberty Heights” and a discussion with an industry veteran about what she did when production slowed down (a casual “I just go on welfare”) was enough to convince me that a lifetime in production was not for me. It was then I decided that I would start transitioning to something new.

For us to do coffee also meant that we had to offer coffee on par with our shave ice. This also meant I had to learn much more about this business.

A year later, in July 1999, my brother and I started Jays Shave Ice with a little 8′ x 10′ shack in a shopping center parking lot in Timonium, Maryland. It was our intention to bring truly authentic Hawaiian-style shave ice to the people. Luckily for us, Baltimore has a long tradition of snowballs and it wasn’t long before we found a following who enjoyed the snow-like consistency of our ice and handmade flavored syrups.

Things were running smoothly until 2001 and 9/11. By the next summer we were forced to move to a different location 1/2 mile from the original. We found ourselves a charming 1929 era house and set about converting it into the next generation of shave ice. With the new location, we pushed to break from the mold of snowball shacks so common in Baltimore. The interior was decorated in a Hawaiian country style more akin to Waimanalo than Waikiki. For the summer of 2002, we moved the shack to the premises while building the interior and opened the house in November 2002, just in time for the holidays.

The move prompted several changes to the company. First, the larger space and commercial facilities meant that we could expand our menu to include soft serve ice cream, blended drinks and certain toppings that were not possible in our original shack. The year round occupation of the space also meant that we needed to do something to generate revenue during the cold months. That was the reason that prompted our move into coffee.

With our Hawaii-centric focus, it was natural for us to offer coffees from Hawai’i. Back then, I knew nothing about the coffee business, and I certainly did not know how to procure coffees. Without any real understanding, I simply contacted a few growers in the islands and hopped on a plane to Kona to meet them. To me, that’s all I knew. There was coffee in Kona – regarded as some of the best in the world, let me find some growers who are as fanatical about quality as I am and connect.

My first stop was to visit Gus Brocksen of Pele Plantations in Captain Cook. It turned out to be one of my only stops. Gus is absolutely fanatical about the quality of his coffees. What was intended to be an hour visit, turned into an all-day excursion. We toured the fields, the wet mill, the roastery, talked coffee, then the harvest came in and I got to see first-hand what he had been talking about. He said that they only picked the ripest cherries. I was skeptical. When that 300-pound load came in from the field that afternoon and it was poured into the hopped feeding the wet mill, there wasn’t an off-color cherry in the lot. I was sold. The interesting thing about working with Gus was that I had inadvertently done what has become today’s trend of relationship coffee. I went to the producer and got to know him before buying his coffee.

Shave ice had been our focus and we were committed to making absolutely the best shave ice in the world. I wanted to rival the greats: Matsumoto and my personal favorite: Waiola. Because of this, our attention to detail bordered on fanatical. For us to do coffee also meant that we had to offer coffee on par with our shave ice. This also meant I had to learn much more about this business.

Today, our reputation is one of offering some great coffees, back then I’m not so sure. Without knowing the business, I ended up following the industry trend of multiple brewed coffees, including flavored. While all of our coffees came from Hawai’i, we did offer coffees like White Chocolate Macadamia from Honolulu’s Lion Coffee. So little understanding and so much to learn.

In the fall of 2003, I realized that it was time to learn espresso. I had already purchased a small La Valentina espresso machine but didn’t know how to use it, so I flew out to Portland, Oregon to attend an espresso workshop where I ended up meeting John Sanders of Hines Public Market Coffee. A person who would become a close friend and mentor in the coffee business. Through that class and subsequent visits/chats with Sanders, I slowly learned how to make espresso and the coffee business, and by the summer of 2004, I had asked Sanders if they would supply Jays Shave Ice with coffee.

It was also in 2004, during the preparation for the United States Barista Championship that I first met and become friends with Nick Cho of Murky Coffee. Back then, both Nick and I were still very green in the business and shared lots of interests. Both of us being Asian gave us a shared perspective of the world around us, as well as literally being the only people in our respective cities that were actually pursuing quality coffee. We also shared a background connection in our coffee training: me with Sanders and Hines, and Nick with Schomer and Espresso Vivace — all of whom came to define the “Seattle Style” of espresso making.

OO: Quick follow on the Asian bond—Cho is Korean, correct? And what’s your background/heritage?

JC: While Nick is indeed Korean, I am Filipino — or as they say in Hawai’i: Filipino, Chinese & Spanish, but mainly Filipino, both in blood and cultural identity.

OO: Have you begun to see more Asians in the Mid-Atlantic area in the coffee biz? How about in the biz in general? Have you made a conscious effort to promote such?

Have I seen more Asians in the coffee scene in the Mid-Atlantic. Maybe yes, maybe no. I really haven’t followed that too closely. Allie Caran (of Korean descent) is the head barista at Woodberry Kitchen, and whom I think is one of the up-and-coming baristas in our industry, Jade Sterle (of Chinese-Irish descent) is also a barista at Woodberry Kitchen. Within our own company, Kimmy Fung (Chinese), Lamarie Manivanh (Laos) and Jenny Nelson (Korean-American) are all of Asian descent, so I guess I would say yes, that the ranks of Asians in the coffee biz here are growing — but it’s purely anecdotal.

I have not made a conscious effort to promote Asians in our industry, although there are many throughout. Of course, Brownwen Serna (Filipina) was the 2004 U.S. Barista Champion, Mike Yung (Chinese) the 2008 Canadian champion, and Phuong Tran (Vietnamese) the 2005 U.S. Champion. Matt Lee (Chinese) owns Toronto’s Manic Coffee, and while I’m sure there are more, I don’t really focus on the ethnicity of the people I know in the business. Whether the person is Asian or not, if they express a desire to pursue, I want to encourage them to pursue it.

OO: So, how did the Ono Grill come about?

In 2005, one of my good friends, Sam Holmes, suggested we partner in a venture and the Ono Grill was born. Utilizing the original Jays Shave Ice shack that was on the premises, we build a little haven for those looking for barbecue and burgers. While Sam was our Pit Master, both of us collaborated on the menu and brought was essentially was a “fusion” of southern and Hawaiian style barbecues. A great example of this was our pulled pork. Prepared in the Hawaiian method of alae’a salt, ti leaf, wrapped in banana leaves and smoked in mesquite (as close to keawe that we could get), we were essentially preparing Kalua Pig then mixing it with Sam’s barbecue sauce.

The Ono Grill offered pulled pork, pork ribs and char-grilled burgers. At the time, I didn’t know barbecue and had no real foundation to understand how our barbecue compared to the rest of the world. Years and much travel later, I now have a firm grasp of how our barbecue stood up against the rest and even I’m surprised at how truly delicious our barbecue was compared to what I’ve tasted both in my travels and as a certified judge for the Kansas City Barbecue Society. That summer, the Baltimore Sun awarded us 3.5 stars for our food — to which I’ve joked that I’m the only barista in the United States with a true star rating.

Sadly, that winter Sam suffered what his doctors termed as a “catastrophic” heart attack, ending our venture with the Ono Grill. Those were great times that I remember fondly but it truly underscored the problems that plagued our company in those days: lack of personnel and infrastructure. The ability for the company to continue if a principal became extremely ill was non-existent. Sam’s illness ended the Ono Grill and it’s something I keep in mind every day as we move forward, constantly striving for us to have the infrastructure to maintain continuity after catastrophic events.

Don’t know if you have read much of what I have written on the Internet in various forums, but one thing I always encourage newcomers into business is to plan thoroughly. There can never be too much planning. In contrast, I’m not very good at planning. I don’t usually know what I’m getting into and end up in situations where it’s simply sink or swim. Our new project in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood is like that. Lots of great ideas that we’re jamming together, but I’m not quite sure how it’s all going to come together.

Six different roasters, offering up to eight different coffees, all brewed by the cup, to order, in one of seven different brew methods. Quite simply, what we’re going to attempt to do is insane. But really, there is no coffee shop in the world that does what we’re attempting, which is what makes it so attractive. It’s about expressing coffee as far as we can take it. No holds barred. Sink or Swim. And considering the amount we’ve invested in the project, it’s Do or Die.

OO: How did your food sensibilities and palate develop? Does it predate or was it developed along with your experience in the food industry?

JC: I think developing my food sensibilities has been an ongoing thing for me. I’ve always been fascinated by foods, flavors and textures — even before I understood how to define them. Food has always been such an integral part of my life. However, it’s also been something I’ve been trying to avoid getting into professionally (of which I’ve failed miserably). I just can’t avoid it. Perhaps it is what I was meant to do.

Personally speaking, I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to live in different places, be of a different culture and travel the world. Everywhere along the way, I’ve sampled the cuisine and have slowly build a volume of experiences that gives context to what I taste and perceive in food. I think it’s an on-going process. A process that asks you to pay attention while eating and be willing to step outside of your comfort zone to try something new and, hopefully, delicious.

While many of my readers know that I visit and experiment with progressive cuisines and techniques, I still very much enjoy and even prefer the comfort foods. For me, it’s stuff like fried chicken, mac ‘n cheese, french fries, steak, steamed rice and pork adobo. Molecular gastronomy is interesting and even exciting, but I prefer the down home stuff. While I indulge in those progressive cuisines, I relish the old standbys.

OO: Speaking of differing brew methods — are you a fan of many other countries’ alternate coffee preparations, such as the Vietnamese-style condensed milk concoctions, for example?

Alternate brewing methods like Vietnamese or Turkish certainly are interesting, but I know almost nothing about them and have only recently begun to explore methods like those above, as well as Ethiopian or other methods. I have connected with friends recently who have agreed to teach me these practices, but at this point, I know very little about them. I look forward to learning more about them with an eye towards perhaps incorporating those techniques into our service at Spro.

OO: Would you mind sharing your personal coffee drinking habits, including favorite drink(s) or method(s) of prep?

JC: Fact: I do not drink much coffee in my daily life. Truth is that I don’t need to as I’m not addicted to caffeine. For my own pleasure, it’s not unusual to go to the shop, prepare myself an 8z coffee and only drink half of it. Not that I don’t like coffee because I do – I enjoy the flavor tremendously. It’s just that I don’t need a large amount of coffee to satiate my tastes. Just a little bit of high quality coffee exquisitely prepared is enough. Just enough to satiate, not drown.

When drinking for pleasure, I prefer a little sugar and cream in my coffee. When drinking professionally, it’s black all the way.

In spite of the fact that I have an espresso machine and a variety of brew methods at home, I typically choose French Press. It’s my favorite, plus the ease of brewing means that I can whip up my breakfast a la minute and time everything so the coffee and meal finishes plating at the same time and I have an entire breakfast fresh and hot. Lovely.

Favorite drink? French Pressed Coffee, done right. The actual selection of coffees at home changes regularly but I’ve been known to keep a stash of Amaro Gayo from Barefoot, El Injerto Bourbon from Stumptown, Bonko Black Sun from Caffe d’Bolla or La Guatuza from Intelligentsia at home in the freezer.

OO: Without intending to beat a dead horse, which you did address above, can you comment further on the “third wave” movement and where you stand in relation to it?

Project Hampden is simply a vision: my vision of how I see coffee and the ingredients around us. It is no more and is no less. With each step, we want to try new and different things.

JC: Yes, I have commented extensively throughout the Internet expressing my displeasure with “third wave.” I think “third wave” is silly. To my mind, sitting down to figure out a label for a movement such as this one is a waste of time. Why waste time thinking about what “wave” this is when you could be out there defining it? I’m too busy learning, teaching and refining what we do to be bothered with asking the question: “how do we describe ourselves and our generation.” I came from “Generation X” and was heavily part of what evolved to become “goth” in the late 1980s. Like today, back then we were too busy living our lives and forging our way to think about labels. “Gen X” was a dumb label (as is “goth”). I’d rather have the historians figure it out because I’m doing busy doing our own thing.

Many people cherish and flock to the “third wave” label. And while I wish it would go away, I’ve accepted the fact that it’s something we now (unfortunately) have to live with. To my mind, slapping the “third wave” label onto what we do demeans it and cheapens it. The negative side of “3W” (my shorthand) is the rude, mean and unbathed stereotypical hipster barista slinging what is purportedly great coffee in shabby environs with messy hair. It’s unprofessional and demeaning, and when people presume that they’re only doing barista work because they’re still in school, these same 3W baristas whine that people don’t take the craft seriously. No, they don’t — because how can anyone outside this world take what we do seriously if we don’t take it seriously ourselves.

Additionally, “3W” is old news. It’s passe. It was something that happened five years ago. Yes, we were all part of it — I recognize and accept that fact. Just my mere presence in the business pushing quality coffee qualifies me as being part of the “3W” movement. I don’t really like it, but that’s neither here nor there. What I do find sad is that the work we do today is also labeled “3W.” Certainly, what we do today has its roots in “3W” because I was there, but our style and technique today has evolved since those times and I find it a shame that our baristas today will have to live with the same stigma that has been tarnished by the baristas before them in our industry.

OO: Judging by your blog entries about the Hampden project, it sounds like you are putting a lot of yourself into it — like it’s meant to be the living expression of your coffee sensibilities and philosophy. In a weird way, that makes it highly personal. To my thinking, your personal resonance powering the biz will enhance a customer’s experience . . . but is it scary in a way (beyond the balance sheet, I mean), putting yourself out there like that?

JC: I was just reflecting on a similar question the other day. What we are about to do with Project Hampden would not have been possible five years ago. Heck, I doubt I would have been capable of attempting this even three years ago when Spro first opened. To my knowledge, Project Hampden will be the first coffee place of its kind anywhere in the world. As far as I know, no coffee shop has even attempted what we will be doing on Day One.

At its essence, Project Hampden is simply a vision: my vision of how I see coffee and the ingredients around us. It is no more and is no less. With each step, we want to try new and different things. It’s too easy to simply export what’s going on at Spro Towson and drop it in place in Hampden. Too easy, and if we’re not pushing ourselves, then why bother?

Project Hampden will initially source coffee from six primary roasters — all of whom I think offer some of the best coffee available in the United States. Those roasters are: Origins Organic Coffee, Ecco Caffe, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Intelligentsia Coffee, Stumptown Coffee, and Counter Culture Coffee. In the retail coffee business, it’s been a burgeoning trend to utilize alternative roasters for some interesting kicks, but no one is doing it to this level with six (and more) roasters.

To select the coffees for service, our baristas will regularly cup coffee samples from our roasters and determine which coffees we will purchase. Once selected, our baristas will select the brew method most appropriate for that coffee. The brew methods they will select from include: French press, Chemex, Aeropress, pour over, Clever, vac pot and Eva Solo. On the menu, each coffee will be listed with our preferred brewing method. However, at the time of ordering, the customer may have their coffee brewed via any brewing method.

What this means is that the customer will have unprecedented ability to choose how his/her coffee is prepared. Had the Kenya Gitchathaini in a French press yesterday and want it as a vac pot today? No problem. In fact, a customer now has the potential to sample that same coffee across the variety of brew methods.

On top of all that, one of the more exciting aspects of working with these great roasters is the opportunity to order the same coffee from more than one roaster. Let’s say Aida Batlle’s Finca Mauritania is being roasted by Stumptown, Counter Culture and Barefoot. We can now order the same coffee from each of these roasters and offer our customer a “flight” of Mauritania — now the customer has the opportunity to taste the Mauritania interpreted three different ways from three different roasters. Again, unprecedented.

You’re right, Project Hampden is highly personal and perhaps it is a bit scary to put it out there for all to see. However, I have tremendous faith and trust in my staff that they will be able to carry forth our mission and execute to my standards. While coffee excellence is always important, I’m fully aware that the customer’s experience is paramount. We’re attempting to do things in Project Hampden that have never been done before. Six to eight different coffees, brewed by hand, to-order and by the cup, in one of seven different brewing methods? There is no pre-existing model for this level of service and we’re making it up as we go along.

Because of this, I’m highly concerned about speed, efficiency and customer wait times. It’s going to be tough, and I expect the first couple of weeks of service to be extremely brutal. Customers will wait if their expectations are set, but there is a point where the wait time will extend “too long” and I’m concerned about making our customers wait too long.

But it’s going to be fun and very exciting as we move forward. I’ve got a great family of baristas who have been training with me since September learning the craft and their enthusiasm and development has me extremely excited for what we are doing.


. . . again, I can’t thank Jay Caragay for the immense time he put into this interview, especially in the face of trying to get his new store off the ground. After months of delay partially due to this year’s intense snowstorms, the Spro Coffee in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore has opened.

Caragay doesn’t just float his unprecedented coffee offerings in some clinical, non-understandable, or purely hypothetical way. He’s shared the dream, and now he’s making it happen. It seems that now that Baltimore may turn into a “must stop” destination for coffee nerds, or even casual coffee fans looking to experience the depth and breadth that coffee can offer.

Spro Coffee Hampden
851 West 36th Street
Baltimore, MD 21211
410-243-1262

Spro Coffee Towson (Original)
320 York Road
Towson, MD 21204
410-296-0023

The menu at Spro Hampden for ‘Friends and Family Night’. Image courtesy Jay Caragay (http://onocoffee.blogspot.com/)
The menu at Spro Hampden for 'Friends and Family Night'. Photo courtesy Jay Caragay (http://onocoffee.blogspot.com/)

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