What’s Brewing in South County

Independent coffee shops thrive in the southern part of the state


America may run on Dunkin', but South County residents prefer to grab their cup-of-joe from one of the many specialty coffee houses that thread through the region. “America’s history with coffee goes back to the Boston Tea Party,” explains Johnson and Wales University Professor Katrina Herold. “Drinking coffee was the patriotic thing to do. So, during revolutionary times, all these coffee shops popped up in the Boston area.” With the American Revolution fueled by caffeine, so began Americans' love affair with coffee. But it wasn’t until a century later and the advent of Starbucks that we began to take it seriously.

“Starbucks brought single origin coffee, as well its origin story, direct to the consumer,” explains Herold, who teaches a course on coffee, tea, and non-alcoholic beverages. “Now coffee is treated almost as reverentially as wine. It’s become a gastronomic experience, not just a caffeine hit.”

That sentiment is echoed by Simon Olsen, general manager of Dave’s Coffee in Charlestown. “Coffee culture is starting to parallel the explosion of craft beer. Palates are expanding and consumers are beginning to understand the flavor notes. They want to taste something special.”

Some outposts roast their own beans, like Dave’s Coffee and TLC Coffee Roasters in West Kingston. For the non-roasters, local partnerships rule, with the state’s top roasters creating custom blends for South County’s cafes. With the coffee house as a second career for the majority of the proprietors, they credit their relationships with local roasters for teaching them about the nuances of the beverage. “Bob at Custom House Roasters shared so much knowledge,” explains Keith Frost, owner of Higher Grounds Community Coffeehouse in Wyoming. “We could never have done this without him.”

“From the beginning, I knew I wanted to keep it as close to home as possible,” says Mark LaHoud, owner of Wakefield’s Java Madness. He gets his beans from the 150-year-old Mills Coffee Roasting. “They are just as invested in the business as us.”

Narragansett’s Fuel Coffee Bar owner Lynn Eglington calls Ken, the guru behind the beans at TLC Coffee Roasters, “a genius.” Downeast Coffee Roasters keeps Westerly’s Junk and Java buzzing. Wakefield’s Sweet Althea’s carries coffee from Dave’s. Sophie’s Brewhouse in Exeter gets their custom blends from Mills Coffee. Coffee purveyors are sensitive to the Fair Trade movement, but they are also wary that the designation leaves out planters who are growing their beans ethically but do not have the money to buy the Fair Trade or organic certifications.

“If the coffee grower has an exceptional bean, it means they are doing it right,” explains Java Madness’ LaHoud. The former manager of 1369 Coffee House in Cambridge, LaHoud is a 23-year veteran of the coffee house scene. “A responsible grower maintains their plantations without pesticides because they understand that they have to be part of the ecosystem to thrive. This makes a better product.”

“I stock two Fair Trade coffees because I know that is important to my customers,” says Junk and Java’s Alexis Tattersall. “But many of these farms are operating under Fair Trade guidelines, but they simply can’t afford the designation.” At Dave’s Coffee, it’s all about the relationship between roaster and planter. “Our roaster visits the coffee bean auctions and has direct relationships with many of the growers. He looks for beans that are responsibly grown, humane, and good quality,” explains Dave’s GM Olsen. There’s more than just java brewing at these coffee houses. House-baked treats, health conscious smoothies, and more substantial breakfast and lunch items are also on the menu.

“It’s a misconception that coffee houses are coffee and tea-centric,” says LaHoud. With items like homemade hummus and gluten-free quiche on Java Madness’ menu, patrons craving more than a caffeine jolt have plenty of choices.

Fuel’s Eglington, a self-described health nut, wanted healthier options as a counterpoint to sugar-laden pastries. She offers fresh fruit smoothies as well as an acai bowl that features house made granola. All breakfast sandwiches are made-to-order on the grill and Fuel offers nourishing soups and paninis for lunch.

Fresh is also on the menu at Higher Grounds. Husband-and-wife team Keith and Jenn Frost own and operate the cafe with Jenn whipping up from-scratch “back to basics” baked goods. Their breakfast sandwiches feature fresh cracked eggs and their bagels come par-baked direct from New York, making them authentic NYC bagels.

“First and foremost, we are a drink place,” Junk and Java’s Tattersall points out. So while their treat menu is limited, they feature an array of specialty drinks that range from healthy to downright decadent. Their health conscious “Wonder Water” is a refreshing blend of coconut water, fresh mint, and cayenne pepper. They also feature gelato creations such as sinful shakes and espresso topped ice cream.

Last fall, Dave’s Coffee built on a new kitchen so they could expand their food offerings. Made-to-order hot breakfast sandwiches, along with house baked treats, including scones, muffins, cookies, and sweet breads, are now on the menu.

TLC Coffee Roasters and Sophie’s Brewhouse both have expansive sandwich menus for the lunch crowd. Baked goods reign at Sweet Altheas in Wakefield, which began as a custom cakery and whose scones are legendary.

While there are plenty of to-go cups flying out the door, the coffee scene in South County invites customers to pull up a chair and hang out. Community is at the heart of these eclectic cafes, even if their regulars grab their usual and rush off to work.

“This place is like an extension of our living room,” muses Frost. He understands that someone’s morning interaction with Higher Grounds can set the tone for their entire day. “It’s like having friends over at your house everyday,” echoes Junk and Java’s Tattersall, whose boho chic café is undergoing an expansion to add more seating. That’s more seats for their busy poetry nights and tables for the homework-focused teens. They also host “Pups and Cups,” a doggie social, on their welcoming patio during the warmer months.

Fuel added on to their location last summer, giving more table space to those who want to hang out and soak up the sleek and modern surf-inspired vibe. With its soothing earth tones and comfortable seating, Sweet Althea’s offers the perfect spot for quiet contemplation.

At Java Madness, weekends are given over to the local music scene, where fledgling musicians can cut their teeth. Knitting circles, book clubs, laptop warriors, and homework focused students are all at home in the funky back room. “As long as you want to be here, we’ll make space for you,” says LaHoud. The rustic charm of its historic eighteenth century building makes Dave’s a magnet for the laptop crowd. High school and college students finish papers at their tables while the regulars flow in and out on their way to work. There is also a peaceful garden area where customers go to soak up the sun or try outdoor yoga in the summer months.

“I am a firm believer in the third place concept,” says LaHoud. “Coffee houses, with their egalitarian nature, are uniquely suited to be part of the triad that holds the community together.”  

11 Local Spots for a Hot Cup

1. Allora Coffee & Comedy Club

2. Caf Bar

3. Felicia's Coffee 

4. Fuel Coffee Bar

5. Higher Grounds Community Coffeehouse

6. Java Madness

7. Junk and Java

8. Main Street Coffee

9. Sophie’s Brewhouse

10. Sweet Althea’s

11. TLC Coffee Roasters