We New Englanders love our coffee – especially in winter, when a steaming cup of joe revives our senses and propels us through an overcast day. And although most of us are comfortable bumming around those national chains, we know that the most “pleasing flow of spirits” comes from independent roasters.
The East Bay is studded with such roasteries, and you can visit every one of them and find “the good stuff.” No two coffee places are alike; you will find vibes as diverse as their brews. Nor are they easy to find; you could live in Bristol for years without knowing that Coastal Roasters is just a 15-minute drive away. Each roaster feels like a special enclave, where “green” beans are heated to perfection, and – in many cases – you can watch the process take place. The beans themselves are imported from all over the world, and you can sample the flavors of Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Sumatra without so much as crossing a bridge.
Here, then, are some local favorites. Each of these indie cafes is respected for its roasting techniques, and they’re all worth a mid-winter visit.
Pedaling down the East Bay Bike Path, you can’t help but smile – and probably stop – at Borealis Coffee, the only cafe built into a former train station. But this offbeat venue is more than just a pit-stop for cyclists seeking an energy boost. Using a small Probat roaster that only takes five kilos (about 11 lbs) of beans at a time, Borealis vends global coffees and espressos for discerning customers. With its bright interior and cozy patio, Borealis is the perfect place to savor a velvety cup of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and bump into Riverside residents. Established by Alaska native and film industry veteran Brian Dwiggins, the cafe hints at his far-north origins – including the name “Borealis,” as well as the “Hibernation Roast” decaf, whose packaging shows the silhouetteof a Kodiak bear.
Yes, Coastal Roasters is actually situated on the coast. The cottage-like building is located on a pretty stretch of Tiverton, within stumbling distance of Grinnell’s Beach. From the road, you can see sailboat masts, rocky shoreline, sparkling water, and the landscaped remains of Stone Bridge. In the warmer months, the front patio is a relaxing spot to sit in an Adirondack chair and watch the traffic ease by. Inside, Coastal Roasters is a straightforward cafe, where you can find a range of pastries and smoothies, and the coffee is self-served. The roaster is fully visible, so you can watch the masters at work. Co-founded by New Bedford native Donald Machado, Coastal Roasters specializes in wholesale, retail, and coffee catering for local organizations. It’s also a great stop on a scenic drive down the FarmCoast.
On paper, The Coffee Guy is a quaint little coffee house in Middletown, just down the road from the Newport waterfront. But it’s housed within Harvest Newport, a dynamic marketplace, art gallery, and bohemian lounge. At the Coffee Guy bar, you can order fine coffees from around the world, thanks to an off-site roasting facility, or you can stock up on cold brew, which is available in bonafide growlers. But don’t go anywhere; with its earthy artwork and decorated skateboards, Harvest is a funky place to hang out. You can sink into a sofa with a cup of steaming chai and watch the ebb and flow of groovy locals. Meanwhile, if you’re a farmers market regular, you can usually find a Coffee Guy stall at the Aquidneck Growers Market. To claim your small-batch beans, you can use the website to reserve a bag and pick it up in person.
Before he opened Custom House Coffee, Robert Mastin served in the US Navy, and he has a strong devotion to military veterans. You may not realize this right away; Custom House is a folksy cafe, where the walls are decorated with old coffee cans, antique signage, and photographs of local landmarks. You can also pick up a range of bagged beans, as well as coffee-making equipment, such as the coveted Chemex. Right in the middle of the space, a massive roaster browns the beans in full view, inviting patrons to appreciate the process firsthand. This machine is also the backbone of Robert’s second brand, Veteran Coffee Roasters, which donates a dollar from every pound of coffee to Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, a support network for veterans. Coffees bear martial names like B-52 Blend and DEFCON Decaf. Former personnel also earn discounts on Military Mondays.
The original Empire Tea & Coffee stands on Broadway, in the middle of Newport, and this location is still considered the “heart of Empire.” The 300-year-old storefront looks like the facade of a Colonial tavern, and the interior, with its rustic wood floors and deep common room, dates back a century. Empire roasts a range of coffees, which can be purchased in handsome little bags, and you can also procure high-quality teas, such as the Cherry & Rose Petal Sencha. At the same time, Empire is a very modern business: The menu is presented on a glowing TV screen, and the register is an iPad. You can order through the Empire app and send digital gift cards to friends. Couple your caffeine with an old-school breakfast sandwich or a health-conscious açai berry bowl. True to its name, Empire is everywhere, with three locations on Aquidneck Island and one on the Bristol waterfront.