I’ve done it before and I’m doing it again – this time on the opposite side of the Atlantic, and this time with a Queen City caffeine theme.
Charlotte, North Carolina has been home for over 2 years now. Since the day I arrived, I’ve been pretty bent on finding the best coffee this place has to offer. Come to think of it, that’s one of my top missions anywhere I go. It’s a close jostle with bookstores. But before going any further with this, let’s get something out of the way. Writer, you ask, is Charlotte known for its coffee? Reader, I say, no it is not! This search has been a difficult one but are they a-changing or what, these times?
I’ve been noticing a slow but sure growth of new places to stop for a cup of coffee in the Queen City. I love the idea of a ridiculous crawl and now felt like as good a time as any to launch the next installment. Café Cake Crawl wasn’t going to work here, so I had to scrap visions of a part two. Of the many coffee places I started to peg as potential stops while researching, none too many featured café cake options. If anything, planning for this yielded a clear North Carolinian distinction between coffee shops and bakeries. Down here those two just don’t mix (are you having that??) and Café Gluten-Free Zucchini Bread Crawl didn’t have the same ring to it.
Let’s get going with this quest for the best caffeination station. The rules: No chains (but local multi-locationers accepted). No additives to the coffee (I drink it black anyways and yes, my teeth do hate me). No to-go cups because I’m not that busy of a woman – substitute in some worry over a personal problem where if it’s served in a mug I will try to drink it before it’s cooled enough and therefore will ruin my t-buds and thus and thenceforth this crawl. Smallest size only, for fear of cardiac arrest (remember this one for later). And last but not least, must sit down to absorb the vibes (as the kids say) for at least 30 minutes in each individual location.
Understood? All aboard? Great. Now, prepare your heads for this second-hand rush.
Trade and Lore
I purposefully chose to kick off with Trade and Lore because the name and photos from Google Maps were extremely intimidating to me. It seemed like the type of place that looks at you like you have 14 heads and they’re so bored of seeing people with 14 heads so kindly stop breathing their air and go sit in the corner uncomfortably until your coffee is ready, but not announced, so it’s actually been sitting at the counter for a few minutes and was mistakenly picked up then put back down by two other customers before you apprehensively stood up and went to go get it. You know what I’m talking about? Good, because Trade and Lore is nothing like that type of place.
Trade and Lore is upstairs above a NoDa Brewery, Salud, and the space feels exactly like that. It actually went so far as to remind me of some of my favorite spots in New York City. Except instead of astral ambient electro synth, they were playing some tracks in the stride of ‘All Because of You’ by Rise Against. My new preferred way to kick off 8am. The entrance was a little tricky to find so I ended up walking around the block (a fault entirely of my own, I can confirm that there was in fact signage) before climbing to the top of some cool looking stairs that led into a cool looking second floor which I guess I’d describe as a really, really cool looking den? When I thought the thought that I was glad it felt hidden and protected and wasn’t a more obvious in-your-face glass storefront, I realized that I was becoming too annoying for my own good.
I give this coffee a rage against that espresso machine out of 10.
I’m obsessed with the floors here. Also pretty much everything else about here. Confession: never knew this place existed. Never knew it was even about to exist, but allow me to introduce you to yet another fault entirely and all the way of my own. Basal Coffee opened back in March of this year, further emphasizing my point that the Queen City coffee scene is positively blooming (that… are you having that??). The biggest difference I noticed was that where other spots have waited until 100% to open their doors to the community, Basal opened with the minimalist necessities and so many exciting growth plans to share with their customers. I know this because the owner happened to be behind the counter while I was there and gave me a very passionate summary of what’s to come (Block parties! Coffee block parties! Do you hear the people sing?). It’s really cool that our community is going to get to go through this journey alongside the employees and owners of Basal. Who knows, maybe I’ll learn something about opening a place like this of my own some day (Hopes? Dreams? Is that you? How are the children?).
My Colombia pour over (pourover? pour-over? Pour Over? poor over!) was a presentation and a half. Coffee is taken seriously here. Not pretentious seriously, but you can tell that they love it like one of the family. People were coming in all morning describing the tastes and styles that they were looking for and the guys behind the bar weren’t disappointing. I must find out exactly what type of Colombian coffee this was because it was delicious.
I give this coffee a best pour over I’ve ever had in my quarter century of a life no seriously I’m equal parts floored and amazed and also stunned but mostly thankful out of 10.
Not Just Coffee
Quite a few of my young millennial friends have social-media’d about this place and a new Charlotte city limits location seems to appear every other month so I figured it was time for me to jump on in. The Not Just Coffee spot in Atherton Mill was fine. It wasn’t exactly my scene, if I’m being entirely honest. It is literally situated in the middle open space corridor of a modernized mill. My personal feeling is that a little more greenery could have enhanced the space to feel less pop-up industrial but I think that might actually be what they’re going for here?
Unfortunately my no to-go cups rule was broken at NJC but it didn’t seem like they had any of the capabilities to deal with dishes so I get it. It also didn’t seem like anyone was coming here for that? Of the short time I spent sitting and watching, most of the people cycling through were intentionally picking up something to leave with or they were bringing in their lunches and getting a cup of coffee to go with it, then back out and on with their lives. Given its growth, Not Just Coffee is clearly great for the citizens of Charlotte, but it’s just not the coffee for Cass.
I give this coffee a paper cups for paper people out of 10.
Queen City Grounds
Absolutely without a doubt couldn’t leave Queen City Grounds off the crawl, could I? Again, I judged by Google Maps images. I searched coffee, this place popped up, and I audibly groaned because I wanted to stay out of Uptown and, to be honest, it didn’t look super inviting from the photos. Let me say, completely different impression when I walked through the doors. Energy levels were great for an early afternoon. People were sitting and chatting or working away on laptops. Hanging plants! Off of an open loft area! Now we’re talking, this was a vibe.
On the way here I had to make a stop for french fries as a last-ditch effort to build up a liner because at this point the caffeine on the empty stomach was really starting to buzz directly to the tips of all ten fingers. I know, I’m dumb, I know. We’ll speak about that later. I went for a Guatemalan drip brew by the name of Finca Los Chorros. No idea what that means but it was really good. At this point I was really devolving into preserving the integrity of the crawl and not so much focusing on enjoying what I was drinking. When I ordered, the barista behind the counter was super energetic and friendly which made a lot of sense for someone working in a roastery surrounded by coffee shakes, rattles, and rolls all day. A few short minutes into sipping on this, the foot tapping had begun.
I give this coffee an I imagine this is what lightly smoldered firewood tastes like and I’m super into it apparently? out of 10.
Central Coffee Company
My neighborhood favorite. Had to add Central Coffee Company even though it’s not a new find like the others on this crawl, mostly because I wanted it as a control group. Really didn’t need it, but wanted it. By the time I got here, it began to feel as if all of the coffee in my system had made itself a body-sized reservoir in between the epidermis and hypodermis layers of my skin. A jitter that hadn’t quite taken over my body yet but was definitely enough to make me feel extremely… weird. Ever feel like that? No? Huh.
I love coming to Central in South End first thing in the morning because it’s extremely well-positioned for natural sunlight in the early AM. I bring my tree encyclopedia to veg out for a bit with a to-here, then pick up a to-go for the trek (read: barely half-mile stroll) home to start the rest of my day. Central also has the best weekend hours of any coffee place in Charlotte. Fact. On this trip I tried a Papua New Guinea Kange brew, but there is one particular light roast that I’ve had here a handful of times and it’s the best light roast I’ve ever experienced and it kills me that I don’t know what it is. The flavor profile (if that is its real name) reminds me of crispy birch bark with a hint of toasted marshmallows (don’t ask). I’ll never be able to make it at home though because, fun fact alert, I am terribly horrible at making coffee myself. Seriously. Can’t work out the “mathematics” of it. And people have tried to help. Save yourselves.
I give this coffee a central to my mental and emotional comfort company out of 10.
When I was living in the Plaza Midwood area, I used to drive by this place and anxiously await the day when the “Coming Soon!” signs would be replaced by “Now Open!” signs. Undercurrent Coffee reminds me of exactly what it is: a house that was converted into a coffee shop. It’s refreshing to be in a place that offers multiple brew styles to their customers sans pretension and judgement. I don’t know where it is that hurt me to expect that type of vibe from every coffee place I go into now, but I’m delighted that the Queen City has wrecking-balled that into a very friendly and welcoming dust of nothing.
The ladies and man behind the counter here are phenomenal. They honestly make the place. They make it feel like Undercurrent actually wants you to learn how to appreciate coffee. It doesn’t expect you to walk in the door as a master roaster with a world class palate. They’ll help you figure out what you want (they quite literally offer classes) and “I think I like things that are light and woodsy and kind of taste like caramel” was sufficient for them to make a recommendation and for all of us to move on with our day. Related to vibes, the man and woman sitting next to me were practicing tarot while I worked on writing this – making me feel right at witchy home. The playlist was set to a roll of the “rock and” persuasion but at one point the Kate Bush classic “Wuthering Heights” came on… I just about internally strangled myself to prevent a cry laughing scene. Do yourself all the favors and watch that music video.
I give this coffee a HEATHCLIFF out of 10.
As with the cake crawl… I did not feel great at the end of this! Shocking!
In fact, I sincerely discourage anyone from trying this if you’re not extremely in touch with your caffeine intake limits. Seriously, for health and safety and well-being purposes do not do this. On a normal day I usually drink anywhere from 2 to 4 disturbingly large coffees so I figured I could handle 6 small ones but I was duped, my friends! Firstly because hardly anyone served me in sizes that I would describe as anything other than full. Out went the “small only” rule.
Secondly because it was a lot of caffeine in not a lot of time. This whole crawl took me around seven hours to complete. When I reached the last few stops, I was able to recognize the signs that enough was enough. In fact, I even went so far as to fear caffeine overdose because I’m the Queen of Internet Diagnoses. In all seriousness, the mild chest pain and twitchy shoulders insisted that I not finish the last few sips of some cups. I love coffee, I do, but I love it because I enjoy it. At the end of the day, this started becoming very not enjoyable.
I’m an idiot, I know, but as Eddie Vedder once said, I’m still alive.